Friday, October 16, 2009

Crisis of Sexual Abuse of Minors in Catholic Church: Two Stories, Radically Different Implications

One church: the Catholic church in the United States. But in that one church, a tremendous difference of opinion about issues ranging from gay rights to reproductive rights to the cause of and solution for the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by priests.

I noted some of these differences in my last posting. Today’s news offers a fascinating diptych of stories illustrating two different facets of the abuse crisis—with radically different implications for how the church ought to address that crisis.

Catholic League president Bill Donohue has just appeared on Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network to rail against gay folks. As a Vatican spokesman did recently, Donohue blames the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of minors on gay priests.

The obvious solution to the abuse crisis? Keep the gays out of the priesthood. Screen out gay candidates and expel those already in seminaries. Donohue is hardly the only right-wing American Catholic who promotes this analysis of and solution to the abuse crisis. This solution goes hand in hand with the homophobia of right-wing Catholics in the U.S., who have chosen to target their gay brothers and sisters in any way possible.

But if that’s the solution to the abuse crisis, what are we to do with the inconvenient facts to which another story breaking in the last two days points? This is Laurie Goodstein’s account in the New York Times yesterday of what has happened to the family of Franciscan Henry Willenborg, a Wisconsin parish priest.

Father Willenborg fathered a child by a parishioner, Pat Bond, in Quincy, Illinois, in the late 1980s. His Franciscan community became aware of his relationship with Ms. Bond and of the child, and offered support that Ms. Bond regards as minimal.

Ms. Bond reports tremendous difficulty over the years in obtaining support for her son from Father Willenborg and his community. Willenborg chose not to leave the priesthood to marry Ms. Bond when the baby was conceived. In fact, according to Ms. Bond, when he learned she was pregnant, he suggested she have an abortion.

Ms. Bond reports that the preoccupation of the Franciscan community seems to have been more with keeping the affair secret than with assisting her and her son. The affair occurred over a series of years. It ended only when a young woman came forward to say that she had also been sexually involved with Willenborg, and that it began when she was in high school. At that point, the Franciscans sent Willenborg off to a treatment center for priests with sexual disorders.

Willenborg notes that the Franciscans never disciplined him for his affair with Ms. Bond:

In a deposition years later, Father Willenborg said that the Franciscans had never disciplined him, and never suggested that he leave religious life. He was assigned to New Orleans to work with AIDS patients, and a few years later to the headquarters of his order’s province in St. Louis to oversee “spiritual formation” for priests, which includes educating them on how to remain celibate.

One church: two sets of stories, leading to two very different conclusions about the nature of the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the U.S. Donohue’s analysis and implied solution to the crisis seem beside the point when one reads the Willenborg story. In fact, the Willenborg story poses a serious problem for those American Catholics who are itching to use the abuse crisis as another hammer to bring down on the heads of the gays.

The Willenborg story points to the accuracy of data I've cited previously on this blog, data which suggest that female victims of sexual abuse by priests are under-reported. As I've noted previously, leaders of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP) maintain that there are many more female victims of clerical sexual abuse than studies to date indicate, and that many of those victims have been reluctant to come forward because females reporting sexual abuse are often not believed, and are even blamed for eliciting the abuse.

If gay priests are the problem and all victims of clerical sexual abuse are male, then screening gay candidates for the priesthood and hounding gays out of the priesthood are not going to solve the abuse crisis. Those steps may provide a sense of satisfaction to those like Donohue who see gay people as disordered, a moral scourge. They may give the hierarchy the satisfaction of believing that, having scapegoated gays as the problem, they can go about their business without inconvenient questions from the laity about why they have kept hiding, protecting, and transferring priests with a history of abusing minors.

Like Father Willenborg, who, after all, not only lured Ms. Bond, an adult, into a sexual relationship, but did so while continuing a relationship with a girl he had lured into bed when she was a minor.

The Willenborg story suggests that the hierarchy may be short-sighted (and possibly more than a little immoral) in seeking to paint a picture of the abuse crisis as a crisis caused by gay priests. If church leaders are sincere about wanting to get to the roots of this crisis (and the continued attempt to scapegoat gay priests does not suggest sincerity), then they’re going to have to take a closer look at a multifaceted problem rooted in abuse of power and authority first and foremost—regardless of the gender of those abused.