Media attention this week has been sharply focused on the ongoing legal travails of President Trump and various former members of his campaign and business teams. But for 1.2 billion people in the world, these scandals pale in comparison to one much more nefarious and closer to home: The latest round of sex abuse and cover-up allegations being pointed squarely at the Catholic Church.
Scandals involving sex abuse—and sex abuse of children by clergy, specifically—are something that we Catholics have come to feel is almost an obligatory, must-happen-once-every-few-years moral crisis. Many of us feel that our fellow human beings look more askance at us with each round of horrific allegations, wondering how we can continue to maintain our faith and religious affiliation.
We brace ourselves for the inevitable proposing of “reforms” that would supposedly rid the church of this problem from people outside of it, and for the politicization of every scandal by fellow Catholics with agendas within it. Inevitably, the most conservative Catholics call for a purge of all clergy who consider themselves gay, whether they are celibate or not. Inevitably, those outside the church issue calls for the church to simply allow priests to marry, on the basis that somehow people who are turned on by little children will have their urges and desires satisfied by an adult woman.
It’s frustrating, because we all want this very serious problem that seems to continually afflict the church solved. And yet, the proposed solutions do not address the fundamental problem.
The reality is that sexually active gay men generally are attracted to and want to get off with men, not eleven-year-old boys. Likewise, heterosexual, sexually active men generally are attracted to and want to get off with women, not eleven-year-old girls. Pedophiles, meanwhile, are pedophiles. They sometimes mask their desires by having sexual relationships with adults.
But that does not relieve them of their real problem: being turned on by innocent children. And in many cases, it appears that pedophiles are drawn to professions where they have access to children, are inherently trusted by them and their parents, and exert a great deal of authority and power, making it easy to force children to engage in sex acts.
Priests, and other clergy, are able to maintain and exert this authority and power in a way that few others can. They are, in the minds of their parishioners, touched by God; they tell us how to live our lives in order to get into heaven. Religious people are extremely deferential to clergy and inherently trusting of them.
This, not enforced celibacy or gay priests, is the fundamental reason why the Catholic Church is naturally predisposed to have a pedophilia problem, whatever anti-pedophilia enforcement measures the church has taken or will ever take.
We can tell that this is so because the problem does not merely afflict the Catholic Church, with its enforced celibacy and purported bevy of gay priests. Earlier this year, an Orthodox priest who had served in religious camps in Russia and Greece was sentenced to 14 years in a Russian penal colony for “violent sexual acts with minors.” Here in America, an Orthodox priest was convicted in 2015 of sexually assaulting a boy in Maine. The priest had been accused of sexual misconduct as far back as the 1980’s.
Notably, Orthodox priests, unlike their Catholic counterparts, are not barred from marriage. So these priests’ problem, like that of their Catholic brethren, was not an inability to get their rocks off that led them to target kids. It was that they wanted to diddle children, and used their positions as authority figures and “men of God” to do it.
The Anglican (or Episcopal) Church also allows married priests. Yet it has plenty of child sex abuse scandals, too. In 2016, the Australian Anglican Church was busted for its own pedophilia problem so serious it justified a Royal Commission to get to the bottom of it.
In England, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey was forced out of an honorary church role after details emerged of his alleged cover-up of child sex abuse in the church on his watch. In Texas, a child sex abuse scandal plaguing clergy in the Episcopalian Church came to public attention in 2009.
Again, if the accused individuals were simply horny, they could have married and addressed that problem that way. Their problem is a different one, though: They appear to lust after children, not adults.
The same can be said, unfortunately, of a lot of people that we, as a society, entrust with children’s welfare. There is a reason why it is standard in British public school alumni circles to hear ongoing “jokes” about this or that “kiddie-fiddling” teacher or sports coach. It’s pretty common to hear teacher sex-abuse stories among alumni groups from some American private schools, too—just days ago, a bunch of former students of the Key School in Annapolis came forward to allege rampant sex abuse by teachers.
And thanks to Jerry Sandusky, Dennis Hastert, and a bunch of people involved with competitive gymnastics, most notably, we’ve become painfully aware of the fact that sports coaches and doctors are too often interested in young bodies for reasons other than raw athleticism.
All of this is to say that while the Catholic Church is (again) confronting a grave problem that enrages and petrifies Catholic parents like me, as a society, we do ourselves a disservice if we consign this problem in our minds to “just a Catholic thing.” It is not. Pedophiles come in all shapes and sizes. The thing they have in common is a desire to be around kids, in positions of authority, where abuse is easy. As a culture, we need to be vigilant about that and watch for signs of misbehavior whether it’s from wrestling coaches, teachers, doctors, or—yes—Catholic priests.
And the church needs to lead the way on holding abusers accountable, for its own health and that of society at large. That means that where reports of sex abuse of minors are made, the church needs to conduct real, serious investigations, and promptly, while also informing and fully cooperating with law enforcement so perpetrators can be held accountable.
Where clergy are credibly accused of abuse, they need to be defrocked. Where church elders are plausibly called out for negligence in failing to investigate claims, or cover-ups of abuse scandals and have offered resignations even for unrelated reasons, the pope needs to accept those—and remove from positions of authority those other church elders who have been negligent or sought to cover up crimes who don’t have the good sense or decency to offer their resignations.
If the church can’t get this right, it will suffer steep declines among the faithful—something that should matter greatly to those who genuinely believe that being a practicing Catholic is the surest, or only, pathway to salvation.