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Sexual abuse is society's problem, too

  • PHILIP LAWLER

Catholic bishops were not the only people who covered up evidence of sexual abuse. Public schools, police departments, families, media outlets, non-profit associations not to mention other religious denominations all were guilty of their own cover-ups.

(Note: The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks. I am not suggesting that criticism of the Catholic bishops is unfair. On the contrary, I am anxious to extirpate the corruption that has been exposed. And I shall repeat this paragraph to ensure that no honest reader can possibly draw the wrong conclusion from this essay.)

There's plenty of blame: enough to spread around. While righteously condemning Church officials, the critics should ask themselves whether they are equally demanding in their insistence that other institutions examine their past, apologize, and take steps to guarantee that similar offenses will bring prompt redress in the future.

It's not just the Catholic Church. This problem extends — has extended — all across society.

(Note: The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks. I am not suggesting that criticism of the Catholic bishops is unfair. On the contrary, I am anxious to extirpate the corruption that has been exposed. And I shall repeat this paragraph to ensure that no honest reader can possibly draw the wrong conclusion from this essay.)

It was nearly 40 years ago, back in the 1970s, when I first began hearing whispers about priests who molested children. Those whispers came from police detectives, who said they could not or would not prosecute. They handled the matters quietly — just as the bishops did.

Later, in the 1990s, as the extent of the clerical abuse problem became to emerge, I began to hear how some police departments would routinely escort drunken priests home from gay bars, or make a call to the chancery asking for an official to come bail out an errant cleric. I learned about the bishop (now retired) whose name and face were painfully familiar to the state troopers who repeatedly encountered him as they rousted loiterers out of roadside rest areas. Again these unhappy matters were handled quietly.

Should the police have handled these matters differently? Should they have prosecuted aggressively? I think so. Their primary duty was to uphold the law, not to spare certain favored people from embarrassment. But it's very easy to make that judgment today. In times past, many police officials, with the best of intentions, judged otherwise.

Or take the public schools. When an accusation was lodged against the history teacher, a generation ago, was he prosecuted? Not likely. Far more often he was quietly let go, and eventually found a job teaching in another school — just as priests were allowed to work in another parish.

(Note: The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks. I am not suggesting that criticism of the Catholic bishops is unfair. On the contrary, I am anxious to extirpate the corruption that has been exposed. And I shall repeat this paragraph to ensure that no honest reader can possibly draw the wrong conclusion from this essay.)

It wasn't just the Church. Society as a whole chose to avert its eyes and cover up the evidence of scandalous conduct. Now that the Church has been under fire for a decade or more, it's time to broaden the inquiry.

It wasn't just the Church. Society as a whole chose to avert its eyes and cover up the evidence of scandalous conduct. Now that the Church has been under fire for a decade or more, it's time to broaden the inquiry. What other institutions were guilty, and why? What other institutions need reform?

Among the hundreds of headline stories about the sex-abuse crisis now tearing through the Catholic Church in Europe, one in particular caught my eye, as a vivid example of how the media have focused exclusively on the Church, while ignoring the problem elsewhere in society. The AP story began

A news magazine says the head of the German Bishops Conference admits the Roman Catholic church consciously covered up cases of sexual abuse by priests.

That lead paragraph is not inaccurate. But notice how it contrasts with the paragraph that follows:

Weekly magazine Focus reported on Sunday that Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, who also heads the Bishops Conference, said "sexual abuse was covered up for decades by society."

Did you notice? According to the lede, the archbishop admitted that the Church covered up sexual abuse. What he actually said is that society covered up sexual abuse. I suspect that the journalist who wrote the article honestly missed the distinction. For years now we have been talking about sexual abuse as a problem for the Catholic Church, and that it certainly is. But it's a problem outside the Church as well, and that problem should now be addressed.

To his credit Archbishop Zollitsch did not try to deflect attention from the errors of Church leaders in handling abuse cases. "Every single case darkens the face of the entire church," he said. The fact that other institutions were guilty does not absolve Catholic bishops of their guilt. The Church should be held to a higher standard, and pastors should devote special care to the most vulnerable members of their flocks.

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Acknowledgement

Phil Lawler. "Sexual abuse is society's problem, too." Catholic Culture - In Depth Analysis (March 25, 2010).

Reprinted with permission from Phil Lawler and Catholic Culture.org.

The mission of CatholicCulture.org is to give faithful Catholics the information, encouragement, and perspective they need to become an active force for renewal in the Church and in society, working to shape an authentically Christian culture in a secular world.

The Author

Phil Lawler is Director of the Catholic Culture Project. Born and raised in the Boston area, Phil Lawler attended Harvard College, graduating with honors in Government in 1972. He did graduate work in political philosophy at the University of Chicago before entering a career in journalism. Phil Lawler has been active in politics as well as journalism. He has been Director of Studies for the Heritage Foundation (a conservative think-tank based in Washington), a member of two presidential inaugural committees; and a candidate for the US Senate.

As a journalist, Phil has acted as editor of Crisis magazine. In 1986 he became the first layman to edit The Pilot, the Boston archdiocesan newspaper. From 1993 through 2005, Phil Lawler was the editor of Catholic World Report, an international monthly news magazine. And in 1996, recognizing the power of the internet, he founded Catholic World News: the first online Catholic news service.

Phil Lawler is the author of five books on political and religious topics most recently The Faithful Departed: The Collapse of Boston's Catholic Culture. His essays, book reviews, and editorial columns have appeared in over 100 newspapers around the United States and abroad, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and Boston Globe.

Phil lives in central Massachusetts with his wife Leila and their seven children.

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