Church, Government and Media

The ideal is collaboration, not confrontation. It would be just as wrong for the churches to expect the federal and state governments to solve the problem of sexual abuse of children as it would be for the government to expect the religious denominations to solve the problem.

The problem is not religious. The problem is worldwide, age-old andin the current state of physical and mental medical knowledgeineradicable.


Even if the experts are right and no more than 2 percent of adult males suffer from this abominable malady, we are talking about at least one million sexual abusers of pre-puberty children in the United States alone. Since most of the abusers have contacts with at least several children, we are talking about three to five million childrenevery year.

The numbers of abused adolescent children are even more staggering.

In his Letter to the Ephesians, St. Paul says, Do not even mention such things (5:3). But Paul did not have to face the modern media. Rightly or wrongly or both, they have seized upon the subject and brought it to unavoidable concern and discussion. Some of the episcopal leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States have been under daily fire from the media for the last two months. If the media observe their own ethical norms, the Roman Catholic bishops will soon have lots of company from other organizations, religious and secular or both.

At this time only two points seem absolutely clear. A policy of public silence by any religious denomination is intolerable. And so is a policy of defrocking every clergyperson accused by anybody of sexual abuse of children.

Priests, rabbis, ministers, imams and other clergymen are not immune from the law. In the 1920’s, a Roman Catholic priest was executed at Sing Sing for killing a woman he had made pregnant and who refused to have an abortion. Clergymen of all faiths have gone to prison for embezzling and other crimes. They are just as liable as lay people for torts, tax evasion and breaches of contract.

On the other hand, the clergy and their superiors do not work for the government or the media. In the federal and state governments, we have a separation of powers: legislative, executive and judicial. In the nongovernmental area, we have a separation of commitments: religious, educational, charitable, environmental and profit-making (to mention only a few). The governments and the media have the right to monitor and even prosecute or denounce nongovernmental organizations. The governments and the media do not have the right to treat nongovernmental organizations as their assistants.

The problem of sexual abuse of children, pre- and post-puberty, is horrendous and at least as important as many of the problems that get daily headlines in the media (like suicide bombers, Enron, education, tax reform or the disposal of nuclear waste). The worst thing that could happen would be for most peoplereligious, antireligious, nonreligious, governmental and mediato become bored by the orgy of publicity and demands for cooperation, confession and resignation and recommit the problem to deliberate oblivion.

The people of the United States have faced and survived many crises in the past. It is not at all clear right now what the most effective steps would be to reduce substantially the horror of sexual abuse of children by adults. That difficulty, however, is no excuse for continuing policies that have proven totally ineffective. New methods must be tried, not for the sake of the Roman Catholic Church, but for the health and future of the children.

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12 years ago
Charles M. Whelan, S.J., has long been listed first among the associate editors of America. A professor of law at Fordham University, he brings his expert analyses to bear to clarify legal and related issues in the 5/27 issue, “The Conversation Continues.”

Horrendous charges and reflections on clerical sexual misconduct have, in our season of torment, been expanding daily in directions which are sometimes irrelevant, irrational or irresponsible and sometimes, it seems, all of these.

Also in this issue “The Conversation Continues,” America has lined up for us a phalanx of other experts from other fields. All of these experts offer us much-needed light on this conversation and prepare us to accept the gifts the Comforter would give us in this season of Pentecost. At the end of the day we can only be grateful to our fellow citizens for bearing with us and hope that the Roman Catholic Church—both members and leaders—will be humbled and purified by the trials God sends us.


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