Saturday, October 17, 2009

Readers Respond: Crafting the Narrative of the Real Sexual Abuse Crisis in the Catholic Church, Beyond Scapegoating of Gays

My posting yesterday juxtaposing Bill Dononhue’s latest rant about the gays as the source of all evil with Laurie Goodstein’s story about Father Henry Willenborg struck a nerve. This had little to do with my posting, I feel sure. Goodstein’s article was at the top of the New York Times’ most-emailed list yesterday, and the thread of comments following the article was enormous.

And a thread started by Mollie Wilson O’Reilly at Commonweal re: the Willenborg story has picked up a large number of responses, far more than most threads at Commonweal usually garner. People—lay Catholics, in particular—are clearly eager to talk about this story. And our desire to do so may have something to do with the way in which church leaders do all they can to keep a lid on such stories in order to protect the childlike innocence of the laity, who would be scandalized, we’re informed, if we learned that priests misbehave.

Since the comments that have appeared in response to my posting yesterday are so valuable, and might be missed by readers who visit the blog but don’t follow threads, I want to lift several of them into one of my “readers respond” postings.

These are arranged in more or less chronological order, with a few editorial changes here and there that are merely corrections of typos and do not alter the original statement of each respondent:

Fran: As a thriving survivor of childhood sexual abuse (inside the family not a priest), one of my healing paths was to learn as much as I could about what makes people do this. It does not take an advanced degree to know that one's sexual orientation and inclination to abuse are unrelated.
In any case, the whole issue around women and abuse in the church - be it girls who were abused or women in relationships with priests, sexism is at the heart and soul of it all.
Ultimately all those who are abused in whatever way end up with the shortest possible end of the stick.
The idiotic responses by the church at large have been an insult and are morally suspect. I think of things such as adding greater philosophy requirements in the seminary (that will weed out those pesky and not philosophical gays!) and the other methods of purging the gay priests out is an insult to the very dignity of the human person. Talk about an overused line in the church - if the dignity of the human person mattered in all of these cases... well you see where I am headed with that.
Abuse of power is the foundation for all of this and it makes me very angry indeed. A double standard of something on already shaky moral ground is a very multifaceted problem and one that requires thoughtful, clear and intentional actions.
Terry: Fran, you’re right that this highlights another side of the story which is too easily hushed up: the appalling treatment of women in the church. Many studies have shown that the number of girls abused by priests is at least equal to the number of boys. (The bishops' own John Jay study disagrees, but I think that is explained by it covering only cases reported to and investigated by the bishops themselves.) As numerous female observers have noted, the disproportionate number of boys highlighted in popular reporting shows how the abuse of boys is seen as somehow more scandalous than that of girls.
You are also right to point out that “abuse” is not only that of minors. It also includes adults in religious institutions, where the low status of seminarians and religious women leaves them especially vulnerable to sexual pressures from superiors, and also to willing adult partners, who have to collude in the secrecy and cover-ups. This affects both women and men - but men are not left with the problems of pregnancy which ensues.
Colleen: The incidents of abuse of girls and women is hugely under-reported precisely because the girls get the blame.
Another point which is rarely made is that if teen age boys indulge in heterosexual sex that's just boys being boys, and this holds if the boy's partner is coerced or emotionally exploited into having a sexual relationship. But when it's gay sex it's a whole different story. The teen age boy is no longer the exploiter he is the exploited. I'm not saying this isn't true, I merely pointing out a huge huge double standard when it comes to male teen age sexuality. Sexual exploitation is sexual exploitation no matter which way one swings.
I think the Church has missed a huge teaching moment about the evils of sexual exploitation by males period. A moment which may have helped women and teen age girls immensely.
Instead we got gay bashing by supposedly celibate males.
I guess what this really says is that exploiting women is AOK, but men should not sexually exploit other men because that's twisted and not natural. Real men are not prey, they are predators. Fr. Willenborg is poster boy numero uno for this unstated principle. When I read this NY Times story I was furious with the Franciscans.
I suspect the real issue guys like Donohue have with gay men is that gay sex undermines the entire notion that real men have all the control in the world of sexual expression, and resent and are repelled by any other notion--especially notions of women's reproductive rights.
Terry: Bill, two sides as you say, each of them shameful but in a different way. I wish we could more easily publicise a third, adult response: those few priests who face their relationships, with men or with women, more or less openly and persist with great courage in their ministry.
I think for example of Fr Geoff Farrow, who has faced great opposition and difficulties, but can at least point to his honesty and integrity. Here in London, Fr Bernard Lynch regularly introduces himself as legally married to his husband, Billy. He too is under constant pressure from Westminster diocese but, (supported or at least tolerated by his order) courageously continues to work as a priest and therapist in private practice.
Or Fr CutiƩ in Florida, who refused to be bullied over his relationship, and joined the Episcopalians instead.
Clerical celibacy is a myth, as is the gay = pederast meme.

Excellent comments, all of them. Some important points I take from them:

1. To understand the crisis of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, we need to understand the phenomenon of sexual abuse of minors in general. We need to learn more, for instance, about what is going on when this happens within families (since families are far and away the primary locus of sexual abuse of children in our society).

2. The attempt to blame gay priests for the abuse crisis is not an attempt to learn more about abuse of minors in general, and abuse of minors by priests in particular. It is an attempt to draw a veil over the problem in the expectation that people will stop asking pesky questions once they realize a despised minority group is responsible for the problem.

3. Any accurate account of the abuse crisis would quickly discover that both males and females have been victimized by priests.

4. As do studies of sexual abuse of children in general, any accurate study of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church would quickly recognize that sexual abuse of minors by adults is first and foremost about abuse of power and authority, not sexual abuse. It is about having power over others who do not have power themselves—a condition built into the very composition of the clerical system in the Catholic church.

5. The sexual orientation of the person abusing minors is not the salient fact to note about abuse of minors. In fact, the vast majority (figures seem to be well over 90% here) of adults abusing minors are heterosexual males abusing female children. And that abuse occurs primarily right in families.

6. Accurate, comprehensive studies of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church would also have to begin talking honestly about the fact that a significant proportion of priests also have either sporadic or ongoing sexual relationships with adults of both sexes.

7. In some of those adult relationships, there is a troubling element of abuse by priests as religious authority figures, insofar as they have power over those they are abusing. As Terry notes, when priests make sexual advances towards seminarians or religious women, the “low status” of members of both of those groups in the hierarchical structure of the church leaves them especially vulnerable to sexual pressures from superiors.

8. Even when the adults involved in these relationships appear to consent to them, there are other troubling factors that have everything to do with the disproportionate allocation of power institutionally within the Catholic church. Priests who have affairs with adult women and father children by them, but who then do not leave the priesthood to care for their child or who do not provide adequate care for the child while they remain in the priesthood, have secure economic lives and lives with a secure social status. Their partner, by contrast, often does not have such security and is subject to stigma if the affair is made public.

9. There can be a troubling element of exploitation in priests’ relationships with adults of either sex, even when those relationships appear consensual. That exploitation often has much to do with the power and privilege the church accords to priests, and the lack of power and privilege it accords to the laity.

10. The secrecy and lying fostered by such relationships is also troubling and morally repugnant. The entire church pays a tremendous price for that secrecy and lying.

The graphic is a chart from the Center for Public Media illustrating how the understanding and engagement of public issues is shifting due to online communication, which permits much wider constituencies to engage in discussion of public issues which shapes policy about them.