What the Pope Needs to Know

The sympathetic response of Americans to the death of Pope John Paul II might suggest that the sexual abuse crisis in the United States has not harmed the reputation of the church, and that trust in its leadership remains strong. The public’s high regard for Pope John Paul II and the love of Catholics for their faith has not, however, overridden their dissatisfaction with the church’s past response to allegations of sexual abuse. Benedict XVI now has a unique opportunity to heal the wounds of victims and prevent such a tragedy from recurring.

As he assumes responsibility for leading Catholics throughout the world, what does the pope need to know about the nature of the crisis? What does he need to know about the courageous individuals who have come forward to report their abuse and those who have yet to come forward? And what actions might he take to ensure that such acts are not repeated in the years to come?

First, the pontiff must understand that the crisis is not over. More than 1,000 additional allegations of sexual abuse of children and young people by members of the Catholic clergy in the United States were made in 2004. Because most boys and girls wait for many years before reporting their victimization and because outreach efforts are relatively new, it is likely that significant numbers of victims will come forward for the first time in 2005.

Second, the victims and their families are deserving of overdue apologies from the highest levels of the church. The repeated, generic expressions of sorrow made by bishops have been well received, but acts and words of compassion and understanding from the Holy See itself are greatly needed. In addition, recognition and concern must also be conveyed to those members of the clergy and vowed religious who have been abused by their own peers.

Third, the crisis of sexual abuse is universal within the church. More openness is required about the number of allegations of sexual assaults by Catholic clergy that have been made in all countries. And misguided perceptions that sexual activity between an adult and a child is culturally or socially acceptable in some parts of the world must be corrected.

Fourth, the long-term impact on the victims and their families is immeasurable. All church leaders must understand that the abused child has suffered physically, emotionally, psychologically and spiritually. The ravaging of their souls may have altered or destroyed their relationship with God. There are victims and their families who long to be re-invited and reunited with the church and their faith.

Fifth, committed Catholics who have long cared for the poor, disadvantaged and injured have also been deeply affected. They grieve for victims they do not know, wonder why they or their children were spared from this behavior, and speculate that the church’s financial difficulties are the result of bad management decisions about known abusers. The laity also long to help the church in this crisis and to be embraced as true partners in the church’s response.

Similarly, it should be recognized that while priests and deacons have been the focus of the sexual abuse crisis, there are other church representatives as well who have abused minors. Closer attention must be paid to selecting, training and monitoring all adults who work with children.

The crisis is about more than the sexual abuse of minors. It has also pulled back the curtains on a wide range of sexual activity among some priests. Albeit sinful, much of this activity has occurred between consenting adults in a generally discreet manner. Though some of this is brought about by an abuse of power, much of it reflects a deep, normal need for adult intimate relationships.

Notwithstanding what may be a significant decline in the number of cases of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, complacency carries a high risk. Robust preventive efforts must continue. Careful selection of seminarians and appropriate screening of all who represent the church is indispensable. Although most of the incidents reported in 2004 occurred in previous decades, many of the alleged offenders were still in ministry in 2004. A more effective church response than in years past resulted in 453 of those alleged offenders being removed from ministry in the past year.

Because the causes of this crisis have yet to be fully discovered, complacency is unwarranted. Today’s preventive methods may prove to be exactly what is needed to eliminate sexual abuse of minors within the church, but what are the ramifications if they are not sufficient? The bishops’ pledge to commission a study to identify the causes and context of the crisis must be fulfilled. Once the study is completed, careful thought needs to be given to its findings. Abuse-prevention experts should evaluate the causes and identify ways by which the church can enhance its prevention efforts. Because protecting the vulnerable in church settings is imperative, the church must be open to all types of action and change.

The new pontiff needs to understand fully the relationship between the human need for intimacy, and relationships between the clergy and the faithful of all ages. The causes of sexual crimes and indiscretions are psychologically complex and, at times, pathological. The lifestyles of the clergy and vowed religious, with their stringent rules about interpersonal relationships, demand a sacrifice that for many is impossible. Serious thought should therefore be given to optional life modes, i.e., marriage. Psychosexual maturity and self-knowledge are essential.

Sexual abuse is a problem in all cultures and nations. Perhaps it cannot be totally eliminated on a global scale; but within the Catholic Church, the incidence can be significantly reduced. The church has already led the way in the most important major social issues in history: peace, justice, poverty and the sanctity of life. At this moment, the Catholic Church’s efforts to prevent abuse and find effective treatments for those who abuse can become a model. Fully addressing the issue of sexual abuse and restoring trust in church leadership require recognition, compassion and action. None of this is beyond the capability of the new pontiff.

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