The Fog of Scandal

The sexual-abuse crisis in historical perspective

It is now almost a cliché to say that the sexual-abuse scandal of the last year is the worst crisis in the history of the American church. The sustained media coverage, subsequent disillusionment, and passion aroused by the scandal have no parallel. Certainly the crisis and its ripple effects have become the single most important event in U.S. Catholicism since the Second Vatican Council. For Catholics under the age of forty-five, it may be defining: the public event that shapes their adult relationship with Catholicism more than any other.

How did the crisis become so severe? Much of the reaction is the result of the sheer horror of what has been revealed: horror at priests acting as sexual predators toward young people; horror at bishops willing to protect those priests. Still, this is not the whole story. If sexual abuse alone were at issue, the shock of this episode might be receding. After all, relatively few cases of sexual abuse seem to have occurred in the past ten years, and we can imagine that the next ten years, as dioceses and religious orders listen to their lawyers, develop lay review boards, and tighten their procedures, will see far fewer cases than the last decade. Yet the fury of Catholic lay people, and the scorn of non-Catholics, may not dissipate quickly. Most social movements in history, after all, seize upon a small issue (think of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a segregated bus, Martin Luther pounding theses into the church door) and tap into a much larger well of discontent.

Why, then, such discontent? I think three aspects of the crisis deserve emphasis. First, and least important, is a quiet anti-Catholicism in the assumptions of many who work in the culture-forming sectors of our society, including the national media. Bishops and priests-not the Boston Globe, not the New York Times, not Nightline-caused the crisis, but commentary occasionally reinforced anti-Catholic tropes. Assertions that celibacy itself was the problem-one New Yorker editorial called such a judgment "common sense"-made little sense when placed against what we now know of sexual abuse in families. At the same time, such "enlightened" commentary cast an unflattering light on an American culture so saturated in sexual imagery, so quick to equate sexual activity with "health," that any kind of sexual asceticism bordered on the incomprehensible. Worth recalling here is a non-newsworthy story, that the vast majority of priests, innocent of wrongdoing, are suffering along with victims in this crisis, and along with the many bishops who did act responsibly.

Second, and far more important, is the problem of accountability. The term threatens to lose its salience from repetition, but no other will do. Here the story is not a Catholic story but a wider American one. Beginning in the early 1960s, leaders in all sorts of hierarchical American organizations, including police chiefs, army generals, corporate leaders, and university presidents, faced unprecedented challenges to their authority. Cities instituted "lay review boards" to verify accusations of police misconduct; corporate boards and stockholders took a more active role in governance; university presidents began to share control of faculty hiring and the overall direction of their institutions to faculty and boards of trustees. In all of these institutions, reformers used the same vocabulary that we Catholics are now becoming familiar with: accountability, of course, but openness, transparency, and democracy.

We should not romanticize this phenomenon. At times the ethos of the late 1960s and early 1970s lurched toward a veneration of all things democratic, a naive belief that organizations could run absent authority, and toward a paralyzing atmosphere of self-doubt. One thinks of the New York City public schools where "democracy" meant the institution of patronage schemes run by parents and elected cronies; or universities where an obsession with "process" led to the collapse of institutional self-definition. At times, "openness" seemed little more than a full-employment program for lawyers, as institutions ranging from the draft to college admissions became the subject of intense legal scrutiny.

Still, it’s clear that in this new cultural climate successful institutions must practice much more openness and transparency than did their predecessors a generation ago. Legitimate authority is not raw power. Here the sexual-abuse crisis has demonstrated that some Catholic institutions and some Catholic dioceses are shockingly backward. The complete control some bishops evidently had over diocesan finances, the unwillingness of bishops and leaders of religious orders to consult with parish members about the placing of priests with a history of sexual abuse, and the self-pitying defenses of past actions by many bishops paint a sobering portrait.

It is hard to underemphasize the tension between autocratic church structures and the everyday expectations of most parishioners. Well-educated adult Catholics accustomed to robust measures of accountability in almost every professional and civic component of their lives now find themselves utterly unable to affect the conduct of their bishops and priests in the institution that may lie closest to their hearts, the Catholic Church. Parents don’t bring their children to IBM to be baptized; families don’t bury their loved ones with the mayor’s office. Bishops are rightly accountable to Rome, but loyalty to Rome should not come at the expense of the men, women, and children of the Catholic community-powerless to hold their putative leaders to account. A full generation after the end of Vatican II, it is sobering to learn that an archbishop can make financial settlements in the range of $450,000 and then delete the sum from financial records distributed in the archdiocese; or to learn that bishops unable to make appearances in their own dioceses because scandal has made them so unpopular, feel no compunction to resign, and that no fellow bishops seem publicly willing to ask them to do so. Put yourself in the position of alert Catholic college students whose experience with the institutional church is defined by reading the newspaper during the last year. Can they, will they, pledge their loyalty to such an organization?

The third, and related, explanation for the intensity of the crisis revolves around credibility, especially on sexual matters. Another cultural shift that began with force in the 1960s was a new respect for personal experience, a conviction that abstract rules about morality needed evaluation in light of particular people and situations. Here, too, a certain contemporary romanticism is to be resisted. This focus on personal experience, which often became a sense that experience was all that mattered, melded nicely with a contemporary focus on personal autonomy and the self that allowed no check by God, institutions, or family.

And yet the issue of individual moral authenticity is crucial. The still powerful reverberations of the Catholic debate over birth control stem from this tension between inherited authority and personal integrity. Couples ignore church authorities because they find church teaching as reiterated in Humanae vitae (that every act of sexual intercourse be open to procreation) incompatible with family life as lived in the late twentieth century. Perhaps more pointedly, Who doubts that a primary obstacle to Catholic campaigns against legal abortion in the last generation was the absence of women in positions of Catholic leadership? In itself, the fact that Catholic women cannot become bishops did not destroy the plausibility of the Catholic argument on abortion, as prolife women have attested. Yet the effect of an all-male church leadership has been devastating: in a culture where personal experience seems crucial to the assessment of moral problems, prochoice women speak of the terrors of unwanted pregnancy and the danger of illegal abortion while priests and bishops outline in abstract terminology their opposition to the taking of innocent human life.

This is not a plea for women priests. I am simply highlighting the inability of the last generation of Catholic leaders to separate authority within the church from gender, and the devastating consequences for Catholic credibility. The two most powerful social changes in the American twentieth century have been, first, the move from the farms (where 60 percent of Americans lived in 1900) to the city (where 97 percent of us live now), and, second, the changing role of women. It is worth pondering that this second change has occurred within our own lifetimes. That we habitually encourage women to seek advanced degrees, that most women with children work outside the home, that these women struggle to balance career and family in ways unfamiliar to women reaching adulthood in 1950, is now the very cultural air that we breathe. To regain credibility on any topic related to sexuality and gender, Catholic leaders must acknowledge this fact and integrate women into decision-making processes within the church at the highest levels. Families, not bishops, carry and transmit Catholicism, in our culture as any culture. If the deepening alienation of Catholic women from a church hierarchy seen as distant and unsympathetic is not creatively addressed, the consequences for an American Catholic Church that still remains more vibrant than its counterparts in France, Italy, or other industrial societies will be immense.

A similar, if more complicated, dynamic is evident in discussion of homosexuality and the priesthood. Clearly the gay awakening that began in the late 1960s has created an entirely different climate for discussion of gay and lesbian issues. One component of this new, more open climate was that many priests and seminarians in the 1970s and 1980s began to understand their own identity in the sexual vernacular of the larger society, and not simply (to use the term of the Catechism) as a "disordered" orientation. Again the question is credibility: sexual abuse is a crime of power, not passion, but the large number of cases involving priests and teenage boys, probably 80 percent of the total, indicates a yawning gap between private behavior and public rhetoric. This secrecy and the tension surrounding the issue of homosexuality within the priesthood surely helps explain why some bishops seemed attentive to the struggles of priests, and blind to the sufferings of Catholic young people.

In closing, I’d like to take a stab at answering the question, What next? We now have well-meaning Catholics telling us that the answer is fidelity, that a reassertion of Catholic teaching on sexuality and authority will resolve this crisis. This is a simple answer to a complex problem, and like most simple answers to complex problems, it is wrong. Of course our problem is fidelity, as it has always been. The problem is also an inability to speak clearly, to make our voice heard in the absence of structures of accountability that unite lay people and bishops, and in the absence of structures that take the experience of women and gays seriously. The most fruitful moments in modern Catholic history-I think of Ignatius beginning to evangelize sixteenth-century Spain, of John Henry Newman asserting the authority of the church against the state in nineteenth-century England, of the extraordinary cast of theologians including John Courtney Murray of the United States who set the stage for the Second Vatican Council, of John Paul II’s concern for global human rights-drew from fidelity to the church’s tradition, but did not stop there. Murray famously urged Catholics to distinguish between what is principle and what is contingent application of principle. If we are to salvage the credibility of hierarchical religious organizations-and I think this is crucial in a society casually accepting of the belief that morality is merely a matter of majority rule-authority must be distinguished from raw power. If we are to sustain a Catholic voice on sexual ethics-and I think this is crucial in a society where many intellectuals instinctively equate new reproductive technologies with liberation-Catholic leaders cannot ignore women’s experience.

After all, much is at stake. The Catholic Church enrolls more active members than any other organization in the United States. Our fellow communicants include prominent leaders in government, the professions, the universities, the trade unions, and all branches of American industry. This church is important to the Latino community, now taking center stage in American public life. It offers more social services than any other organization besides the federal government. In fact, the great, truly remarkable achievement of the American Catholic Church in its short history has been its ability not only to pass on the faith, but to educate, clothe, and heal both Catholics and strangers. Let us hope that in the next generation a more creditable and accountable church can build new associations and ties within the church and with our society, for our own sake, and for the suffering strangers in our midst. end

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About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.