Sexual Abuse by Catholic Clergy

Dear Ms. Hatmaker,

I admire Patrick O'Neill's "God and Country" (Independent Weekly, April 3-9, 2002). I attended Hauerwas' talk at the Silk Hope Catholic Worker House and would relay one ditty that Patrick didn't include: "If this nation's bishops don't start teaching bedrock gospel values, they're all going to hell." (See "Theologian Stanley Hauerwas" at bottom of this page.)

The Catholic Church is in turmoil. "NC Catholic" - an exceptionally good Diocesan newspaper - declined to publish the letter I've included below. (Subsequently, NC Catholic published an edited version of a letter located at the bottom of this page.)

Although I wrote with Catholics in mind, my letter outlines the scope of debate now taking place in the church. These same issues were broached by the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII to re-vitalize the Church after 150 years of vindictive anti-Modernism. Once again, the inter-related issues of authority, ministry, sexuality and gender-equality are coming to a head.

The Church is home to many good people, among them a wealth of fine ministers. My friend A.C.  - a retired Air Force general and Presbyterian elder - readily acknowledges Catholicism as world leader in social service, disaster relief and hospitalary care.

However, parallel to these deep wells of compassion is a current of "Catholic Manicheeism" whose prissy adherents cling to corporal denial and tight-assed rigidity as certain signs of virtue.

Recently, Archbishop Elden Curtiss of Omaha, Nebraska, rebuked a parishioner for criticizing a decision to re-assign a priest accused of viewing child pornography. The Archbishop's rationale? "The church has enough trouble defending herself against non-Catholic attacks without having to contend with disloyal Catholics." Similarly, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York City said that current scandals might put the Church "out of business" although many Catholics fail to understand why we are "in business" in the first place.

It is urgent that we transcend the arrogance of clerics whose pre-emptive authority and arctic frigidity result in cavalier dismissal of necessary criticism.

Abuse is everywhere. The Vatican continually scandalizes "the faithful" by failing to liberalize Holy Orders - the sacrament that confers priesthood. Although high-ranking clerics mask their intent - even from themselves - their fundamental concern is to exercise power, strictly limiting the corps of ministers authorized to "serve table" while ignoring the Kafkaesque grotesquerie that tens of millions of Catholics have no one to "serve table" and therefore go hungry.

It is time for Rome's "good ol' boy network" to foreswear the infallibility (and quasi-infallibility) ramrodded through the First Vatican Council by Pope Pius IX, who -- stripped of the Papal States -- condemned the foundation of modern Italy, anathematized freedom of speech and railed against freedom of religion.

Not only does infallibility "put God to the test" - something Jesus Himself was loathe to do -  it also focuses such power within the Church that clergy are disproportionately prey to Lord Acton's dictum: "Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Almost always, great men are bad men" (Acton was a devout Catholic who edited the first "Cambridge History of the World" while resisting Pius IX's maniacal drive to establish infallibility as Church doctrine.)

For years, there have been rumblings that Catholic progressives would provoke schism. Ironically, current scandals have arisen in Dioceses whose bishops - uniformly - were appointed by John Paul II.

Coincidence? Maybe...

It is incontrovertible that John Paul's sense of orthodoxy requires clergy --- and clergy-in-training --- to adopt attitudes that value doctrinal purity over open examination of conscience. For example, John Paul's insistence that the prospect of women clergy not even be discussed is monstrous. Tragically, the shadow of infallibility makes Catholics cringe that the Pope may transform such gender limitation into an ex cathedra pronouncement. Sadly, it may require some patently perverse use of papal authority to overturn the divisive arrogance of infallibility as doctrine.

I'm reminded of Lao Tzu's saying: "The profoundest truths are paradoxical."

The same clergy that has long pontificated sexual morality with stiff-necked self-certainty systematically shunted pedophile priests from one parish to another. Why? So they might prey on fresh carousels of choirboys? "Remove first the beam from your own eye, and then you will see to remove the splinter from others'"

If Catholicism wishes to restore wholeness, it must rely on the sensus fidelium - "the general sense of the faithful" - that is the only authoritative foundation of the entire body of believers. (The sensus fidelium must also embrace the protestant members of Christentum, but that's another essay...)

When finally the church treats the faithful as equal children of God, we may save ourselves from the sins of our Fathers.

Alan Archibald


Dear Editor (NC Catholic),

It has been said that "the first duty of a citizen is to keep his mouth open."

If those of us privy to sexual misconduct in rectories and schools had not been cowed into silence by "authority," we would have averted immeasurable tragedy.

I admire Bishop Gossman. However, his pastoral statement on sexual abuse is curiously oblique despite its apparent candor.

Fifteen years ago I asked a Paulist friend: "How many Catholic priests are sexually active?"

Without hesitation, Michael replied "About half."

Oddly, this statistic didn't surprise me as much as Father's next comment: "To tell you the truth Alan, I'm more worried about the ones who aren't."

Like other high-ranking clerics, (Raleigh's) Bishop Gossman seems to believe the current scandal is confined to pedophilia. In fact, the church is grappling with geometrically expanding revelations of "prohibited behaviors (including) all forms of overt or covert seductive speech or gestures as well as physical contact that sexually abuses, exploits or harasses another person."

Admittedly, priestly pedophilia is a crying sin. Sadly, these outrageous scandals overshadow the broader issue of clergy who vow celibacy, preach single-minded sexual commitment, and then deviate from every commitment they've undertaken.

These sexual issues are momentous. However, their impact on authority and ministry will change the nature of the church.

In 1967, Trappist priest Thomas Merton wrote to W.H. Ferry: "Authority has simply been abused too long in the Catholic church, and for many people it just becomes utterly stupid and intolerable to have to put up with the kind of jackassing around that is imposed in God's name. It is an insult to God himself and in the end it can only discredit all idea of authority and obedience. There comes a point where they simply forfeit the right to be listened to."

Celibacy and gender limitation are pre-requisites for Holy Orders. Coupled with the church's unique status as an "extra-legal" and "infallible" organization --- we have invested our rapidly dwindling, all-male clergy with extraordinary power.

In the 19th century, Lord Acton  a renowned Catholic historian and adamant opponent of papal infallibility  observed: "Power tends to corrupt. And absolute power corrupts absolutely. Almost always great men are bad men."

From now on, let us teach our children that the essence of moral obligation is to keep our mouths open whether in the workplace, politics or parish. It is increasingly critical that we speak truth to power even though power hold us in contempt.

                                                  I tell you naught for your comfort,
                                                  Yea, naught for your desire,
                                                  Save the sky grows darker yet
                                                  And the sea rises higher.

                                                                                          Ballad of the White Horse
                                                                                          G. K. Chesterton, 1911           

                                                                                                                                                                                                        Alan Archibald

                       Theologian Stanley Hauerwas

In February, 2002, I heard Stanley Hauerwas speak at Silk Hope's Catholic Worker House. Hauerwas was professor of theology at Notre Dame for 16 years and currently teaches at Duke Divinity School.

Recently Time Magazine listed Hauerwas as "America's Best Theologian"  for what that's worth.
(See www.faithmaps.org for Hauerwas articles.)

If you're connected to Hillsborough's Holy Family Catholic Church, it's noteworthy that Hauerwas was Father Mike Baxter's doctoral thesis director.

Although Stanley and I disagree on some things, I admire how easily he observes that the world is "on the skids" and that none of our existing institutions intends to reverse the slide. In fact, our institutions have made peace with a System that "does all the sinning for us." Pretty cool. Our individual consciences go scot-free.

Last year, Stanley - a pacifist - gave an address at the Air Force Academy. He reports that older military officials are keenly aware of declining morale motivated by a pervasive sense of "dishonorability" that we are now able to wage wars with  no American casualties while inflicting as many "enemy" casualties as we choose.

I was surprised that the current edition of Newsweek (2/11/02) reprised Stanley's observation. In an article on the growing dissonance between the United States and the European Union ("Fears in the 'Un-America'") Swedish Prime Minister, Carl Bildt says: "The U.S. reserves the right to itself to wage war, and dumps on others the messy, expensive business of nation-building and peacekeeping."

I was horrified by the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Still, to wage war on Afghanistan --- while strategizing new wars on "the axis of evil" --- is a curious pastime for a nation categorized by Mario Cuomo as "the most violent society in the history of the world." (See "When Greed Went Global " in Madre essay "What's so Liberal about Neo-Liberalism?" -
How can there be such discrepancy between those who see this violence and those that don't?

Viewed mythically, the "Anti-Christ" is not a person at all, but the aggregate of impersonal socio-economic forces that erode the value and conscious meaning of free persons. If Christ embodies fully-developed human personhood, then The Machine is the anti-Christ, no matter how efficiently The Machine operates.

Any God whose nature coheres with the parameters of freedom, would eventually "uproot" any System based on automatic well-being, even if that well-being were the envy of the material world.

Thoughtless surrender to "systems" that "do good"  while simultaneously eroding personal responsibility to engage "the good" personally, may, paradoxically, be the method by which "Smiley Face" paves the road to hell.

Which reminds me of the most interesting thing Hauerwas said at Silk Hope: 'If the bishops don't start teaching fundamental Gospel values, they're all going to hell."


(Letter published by NC Catholic, May, 2002)

Dear Editor ,

The church's approach to the current sexual crisis scrutinizes the trees while turning a blind eye to the forest.

Consider the unresolvable conflicts contained in the following set of circumstances.

Bishop Wilton Gregory, head of the Catholic Conference of Bishops, notes the constant struggle to keep the nation's seminaries from homosexual domination. "Newsweek" reports that 35% to 50% of American priests are gay. (Parenthetically, I note that the same secular culture and secular press that Pope John Paul II rightly accuses of participating in "a culture of death" played an indispensable role in obliging the church to acknowledge priestly pedophilia.)

Meanwhile, the Vatican rumbles that homosexuality is 'objectively skewed toward evil' and that we shouldn't admit gays to the priesthood at all.

Perhaps I misunderstand. Does not "original sin" skew us all toward evil?

What will happen when bishops and cardinals are obliged to swear - by God - that "they are not now, nor have they ever been, homosexually inclined."

I've always been proud of the fact that the Catholic Church is the world's largest employer of gays and lesbians.

With some justification, Bishop Gregory claims that seminaries need to be made more inviting for heterosexual men. However, how many NC Catholic readers
believe that straight men will flock to celibacy if seminaries are no longer influenced by homosexual administration?

If Holy Orders were opened to all loving men and women  reserving a special place for the special calling of celibacy  not only would seminary admissions soar, we would simultaneously experience a massive "return" of honorably laicized priests, most of whom are determined not to resume priestly service until ALL people are invited to answer God's call.

I am not recommending a specific remedy for pedophilia because the only remedy is to make the entire church a healthier place. The problem is not the gay/lesbian "content" of the church but an exclusive ecclesiastical "context" that institutionalizes gender and sexual bias. We cannot treat the symptoms of this crisis without reforming the whole Body.

Resolution lies in expanding our scope, not limiting it.

What impulse in Catholicism reflexively seeks to excommunicate rather than expand communion? "Take this, all of you, and eat."

By and large the Protestant Reformation was based on principles that eventually found a home in Catholicism, "the primacy of individual conscience" foremost among them. Recently, the Pope apologized for the Church's treatment of Galileo. Might it be time to apologize for our hardhearted collaboration in the 16th century rupture of Christendom?
We need, for once, to get ahead of the curve, to abandon the medieval myth of monolithic immutability, to renounce the pretense that Catholic doctrine never changes. We need to advocate on behalf of openness and inclusiveness. Even more importantly, we need to provide priests for the tens of millions of Catholics currently "going hungry" while this ungodly power struggle over "who can serve table" slogs on.

Having said that, the larger issue is authority.

Currently, the Church is more eager to support dubious doctrine -- and the consequent need to devise increasingly acrobatic justifications for having painted itself into "quasi-infallible" corners -- than to imitate Jesus' unfailing determination to feed the hungry.

When the Buddha was asked what he was, he answered: "I am awake (bodhi)."

Less dogmatic squabbling and more meditative bodhi would oblige us to recognize what most priests and nuns already hold as self-evident: the current state of priestly orders is dysfunctional and cannot be remedied within the context of prevailing doctrine.

To many Catholics, this call to "change" smacks of treacherous betrayal.

However, I recall the counsel of biblical exegetes who hold that the most accurate translation of the Testamental Greek word "metanoeo" - routinely rendered "repent" - should, in fact, be translated "change."

We have outgrown paternalism. There is no going back. The current crisis tells us - emphatically - that "father doesn't know best."

Every one of us is all we need.


For God's sake.


Alan Archibald