It is extremely difficult to judge the extent and depth of the Catholic Church’s sex-abuse crisis. What started as a stinging newspaper exposé of Cardinal Bernard Law’s handling of the case of one diabolical sexual predator in Boston has snowballed into intense media scrutiny of dioceses from coast to coast and even resulted in the resignation of a bishop in Florida. There doesn’t seem to be a pundit or a public figure, from New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, to television commentator Mike Barnicle, to President George W. Bush and the pope, who hasn’t commented on the scandal. All have condemned the abuse of children, most have called for the church to be more attentive to victims and forthcoming with law enforcement officials, and many have wondered aloud whether the exclusively male and celibate culture of the church’s hierarchy has fostered an environment hospitable to such abuse. Others, especially church conservatives, have raised questions about the relationship between the pattern of abuse and the large number of homosexual Catholic priests. The competing agendas of various Catholic groups, whether liberal or conservative, are very much in evidence in the responses to the scandal. Somewhat surprising, however, is the consensus on the gravity of the problem. Conservative Catholics such as William Bennett seem no less willing to call for Law’s resignation than do the cardinal’s liberal critics.
Perhaps Law, and other bishops responsible for knowingly or at least carelessly placing predatory priests in contact with children, should resign. Certainly the enormity of such errors could warrant such an act. But in the current, almost hysterical climate, where widespread but increasingly problematic accusations are in danger of overwhelming a concern for justice, a rush to judgment is also a real danger. Justice for victims cannot mean that we disregard justice for the accused, whether they are bishops or priests.
Perspective is needed if the situation is not to become even worse for everyone concerned. Admittedly, perspective is hard to come by in the midst of a media barrage that is reminiscent of the day-care sex abuse stories, now largely disproved, of the early nineties, or the lurid details of Bill Clinton’s impeachment. All analogies limp, but it is hard not to be reminded of the din of accusation and conspiracy mongering that characterized the anti-Communist witch hunts of the early 1950s. Yes, there were Communist spies and fellow travelers working in the U.S. government and in Hollywood. But that fact did not justify the way in which Senator Joseph McCarthy and the media ruined the lives of those who had broken no laws. Yet a single unproven accusation is now enough to get a priest’s picture plastered across the pages of the New York Post. A bishop’s settling of a civil suit, where the victim himself may have insisted on confidentiality, is routinely characterized as a "cover-up." Bishops and priests who exercise their legal rights in court proceedings are widely assumed to be guilty.
Have bishops and priests covered up the sexual abuse of children? Yes. Should they be held accountable? Absolutely. Do we know how widespread such cover-ups have been? No, we do not. Are some priests who are now being accused innocent? Almost certainly.
Newspapers, television, and plaintiffs’ attorneys are notoriously unreliable tools for establishing the truth of such accusations. It must be said again that there simply is not much social-scientific evidence about the extent and nature of sexual abuse among the Catholic clergy. What evidence there is suggests that the alleged pervasiveness of sexual abuse will prove to be exaggerated; it also suggests that there is a measure of homophobia at work in the reaction to this scandal. For some, the priesthood as a redoubt of a certain kind of gay culture is becoming the story. Even less remarked upon is the possibility that sexual abuse by Catholic clergy, as Pennsylvania State Professor Philip Jenkins (author of Pedophiles and Priests, 1996) has written, is more likely to be reported than is sexual abuse in other churches. Because of its hierarchical administrative structure, it may be easier both to pursue a case against the Catholic Church and to win a substantial settlement. Can one mention these complicating factors without being accused of defensiveness or insensitivity to victims?
The reservations expressed above are not meant to diminish in any way the plight of victims or the responsibility of their abusers. Certainly it is crucial to get the whole story out in the open—but that means the whole story, not just screaming headlines of accusation and denunciation. Context and perspective are essential, and we are not likely to find them in the superficial and repetitive twenty-four-hour TV-news cycle. Nor will they be found in the writings of those hoping to use the scandal to advance long-held ideological agendas. In these circumstances, it is painfully clear that the American bishops must do more than act as administrators of discrete dioceses. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops should immediately commission a professional study to determine the prevalence of the sexual abuse of minors by priests and how dioceses have handled such cases. Ideally, the study should be conducted by eminent independent scholars, non-Catholics who would bring credibility to the undertaking. There must be no suggestion that the research is shaped to protect or vindicate the church, and the findings of the study must be made available to the public at large. It is crucial that American Catholics and their fellow citizens see a church that is unafraid of the truth and undaunted by the task of setting its own house in order.
Are there bishops willing to take the lead in such a national effort? Sadly, there is more evidence of paralysis than leadership in the hierarchy at the moment. But if the American bishops think that stonewalling or a return to business as usual will make these questions go away, they will find themselves pastors of a scattered and disaffected flock and leaders of a discredited institution.