Two excellent articles in the Sunday papers today shed light rather than heat on the sexual abuse crisis. First off, David Gibson has a terrific piece in the Washington Post entitled Five Myths about the Catholic sexual abuse scandal. The myths are: 1.) Pope Benedict is the primary culprit in the coverup of the abuse scandal. 2.) Gay priests are to blame. 3.) Sexual abuse is more pervasive in the Catholic church than in other institutions. 4.) Media outlets are biased against the Catholic church. 5.) The crisis will compel U.S. Catholics to leave the church.
Sexual abuse of minors is not the province of the Catholic Church alone. About 4 percent of priests committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002, according to a study being conducted by John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. That is roughly consistent with data on many similar professions.
An extensive 2007 investigation by the Associated Press showed that sexual abuse of children in U.S. schools was "widespread," and most of it was never reported or punished. And in Portland, Ore., last week, a jury reached a $1.4 million verdict against the Boy Scouts of America in a trial that showed that since the 1920s, Scouts officials kept "perversion files" on suspected abusers but kept them secret.
"We don't see the Catholic Church as a hotbed of this or a place that has a bigger problem than anyone else," Ernie Allen, president of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, told Newsweek. "I can tell you without hesitation that we have seen cases in many religious settings, from traveling evangelists to mainstream ministers to rabbis and others."
Part of the issue is that the Catholic Church is so tightly organized and keeps such meticulous records -- many of which have come to light voluntarily or through court orders -- that it can yield a fairly reliable portrait of its personnel and abuse over the decades. Other institutions, and most other religions, are more decentralized and harder to analyze or prosecute.
Still, it is hardly good news that the church appears to be no different from most other institutions in its incidence of abuse. Shouldn't the Catholic Church and other religious institutions hold to a higher standard?
And in the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof, who reports extensively on sub-Saharan Africa, speaks of a Catholic church that has not been making the news much lately: the one that most Catholics know about, the one that works tirelessly with the poor particularly in the developing world. It's something that only someone who works "outside" the church can say and be heard.
Yet there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it ever gets credit for. This is the church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children an escalator out of poverty.
This is the church of the nuns and priests in Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the church of the Brazilian priest fighting AIDS who told me that if he were pope, he would build a condom factory in the Vatican to save lives.
This is the church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America and the Cabrini Sisters in Africa. There’s a stereotype of nuns as stodgy Victorian traditionalists. I learned otherwise while hanging on for my life in a passenger seat as an American nun with a lead foot drove her jeep over ruts and through a creek in Swaziland to visit AIDS orphans. After a number of encounters like that, I’ve come to believe that the very coolest people in the world today may be nuns.
So when you read about the scandals, remember that the Vatican is not the same as the Catholic Church. Ordinary lepers, prostitutes and slum-dwellers may never see a cardinal, but they daily encounter a truly noble Catholic Church in the form of priests, nuns and lay workers toiling to make a difference.
It’s high time for the Vatican to take inspiration from that sublime — even divine — side of the Catholic Church, from those church workers whose magnificence lies not in their vestments, but in their selflessness.