I am frequently asked this question or similar ones. It is a very real and troubling issue. This is not a question that can be answered with a Bible verse or passage, or even building a case using concepts that build through the Bible. This one hits on a very troubling issue that strikes deep within the hearts and minds of millions of Catholic Christians. I've had to do a lot of reflection and I've had to study the issue, to come to a place where I could once again call the Church home. But this isn't a typical question about the faith, and the answer must be a full and open discussion about the issues at hand. It took years for me to come to the point where I am today. In the end, upon examination, I have come to the conclusion that the Church is a good and holy place to be, in spite of certain of the people who make up the Church.
Many years ago, in the early 2000s, news of a great scandal broke involving a number of our priests and their abuse of children. When these priests informed their superiors, generally their bishops, they would be removed from their current duties and relocated. Many were given duties away from children and others went through treatment programs. Sadly, however, many others were reassigned to separate them from their current situations but placed in other situations in which they were able to offend again. By no stretch of the imagination, were any of them punished in a way that would even begin to be compatible with our modern sensibilities. The actions of the superiors appear to be, quite simply, a cover-up.
When the scandal was discovered by investigative reporters at a northeastern newspaper, they investigated the actions of the church hierarchy in the region and discovered a widespread pattern of abuse and cover-up.
When the story broke to the public, I was devastated. It caused me to question almost everything I believed and held dear in my faith, my religion and my church. Unfortunately, at this time I experienced some other personal challenges in my life and it was too much for me to handle. I associated so much of this with church that I completely stopped attending church for several years. When I did this, I also lost contact with many of my friends that I knew from church.
However, my friends obviously weren't part of the scandal; it was just that I knew them through church. After several years, I reached out to some of my old friends to see how they were doing. In a conversation with one of my friends, we discussed how the scandal was too much to bear, and I just didn't feel I could go back to church. He empathized with me and acknowledged how he had had some of the same feelings, doubts and anger. He also shared with me that he realized that while there were misguided or even evil men among us, that wasn't the church itself. These were men hiding within the church, but the church itself was built on goodness and love. There would always be people that take advantage of us, but we can't let them take away what is most important to us; otherwise evil wins. And he also told me that I needed to come back for me.
He quickly followed up with me via email, and sent me an attachment to read. It was entitled: An open letter to Catholics. It was attributed to a Jewish businessman, Sam Miller. I've attached a copy here and also at the end of bottom of this page, but you can also easily find it with an Internet search.
What Mr. Miller wrote in this letter really opened my eyes and got me thinking about what my friend had said. He was absolutely right; I was limiting my view of the Catholic Church to the damage done by this collection of bad men. The Church is so very much more. The good outweighed the bad by 10 or even 100 times or more. Mr. Miller talks about so much good that the Catholic Church does in our society, and how it makes our communities better places. And he supports this with example after example.
He continues, comparing Catholic abuse numbers to abuse numbers in other areas of our culture. He points out how the media make this look like a specifically Catholic priest problem, when in reality it is a problem across all walks of life. That doesn't excuse what happened, but he continues by showing how the media are engaging in an attack on the Catholic Church because it is a large and easy target.
I absolutely cannot defend what was done by these priests. Any abuse of children, and most especially sexual abuse, is a terrible crime against the most vulnerable of us, who need our protection the most. When the people you should be able to trust the most let you down in the worst way, the extremes tear us apart.
Even one case of abuse is too many and cannot be dismissed as a minor crime. I would also like to point out that statistics are meaningless to those directly affected. Whether the numbers are large or small is irrelevant to the children that are abused. But when you look at the scandal and attempt to hold it against the Church as a whole, you have to look at the true nature of the problem.
Let's start with the Bishops. So much has been made of how they handled the problem, how they covered it up, how they shuffled priests around, and allowed the problem to continue unabated. What people don't discuss, however, is how our understanding and knowledge of "modern" psychology has changed over the years. Many of these cases took place decades ago, in the 1940's, 50's, 60's and 70's. This was a time when psychologists were developing theories and an understanding of how to treat people with this kind of problem. In many cases, the Bishops did exactly what the experts told them to do: Separate the men from the problem and get them into treatment. This behavior was believed to be the result of a treatable illness, and it seemed that no purpose would be served by punishing an offender for an illness. Now, 50 or more years later, we look back and blame the Bishops for doing the wrong things. Of course not all of these cases occurred 50 years ago; some were more recent, but it does take time for knowledge to grow and patterns of action to adjust. Compare this to what the Church is doing today, and you will see a 180-degree difference.
This is another area of challenge for the Bishops throughout time that has been hard to deal with. We are talking about the leaders of the Church. The Church is the most forgiving organization on earth. If Christianity teaches anything, it's forgiveness. And there is adaptation. We have learned that an offender is not likely to overcome and change their ways, but we have also learned to remember that we have to be able to forgive a penitent soul. Still, we must be able to protect our vulnerable ones from the harm that might be done to them. The actions of the Bishops today are very different than those a generation ago.
Let's also look at the actual crimes of the priests. Very few people want to talk about this, but the crime they are accused of is pedophilia. Pedophilia is a horrible crime. But it is also a term thrown about very generally. It specifically refers to the sexual abuse of small children, pre-puberty. Most of the acts of abuse were actually against older children, post-puberty to the late teens. The correct term for this is ephebophilia, and it applies to victims 15 years old to 19 years old. This does not excuse the actions of the offenders, but there is a serious inconsistency here. Our culture is generally normalizing the LGBTQQ community and putting them front and center. But within that community there is an organization called NAMBLA, the North American Man Boy Love Association. NAMBLA's purpose is to normalize homosexual relationships between men and boys, while promoting the lowering of the age of consent. What we are finding when we look at the data is that in so many of these cases, what we have isn't pedophiliac priests, but homosexual priests. So which is it? The liberal media want to play it both ways. They want to attack the Church for the actions of certain men while promoting organizations that want to normalize basically the same thing in secular society.
Since the news broke in the early 2000s, the Church has taken definite and corrective action. The Church leadership has examined all aspects of what was happening and changed policies and procedures to ensure that proper protection is implemented to protect our youth. Mandatory training and certification programs have been developed that are required of all clergy, and all adults that work in the Church with children in any way. Completion of these training programs is also required of any leaders of Church-related organizations. For example, leaders in the Knights of Columbus and leaders in street evangelization units must all take these training classes, undergo background checks and be certified just in case they might encounter children. Two-person supervision is always required; no adult is ever allowed to be alone with a child. There are other rules for protection as well, which if violated could potentially cause the parish church or organization to lose its certification. The required certification program that the Catholic Church has implemented is so strong that it has become the model for other organizations around the country.
When the Catholic Church abuse scandal first broke, it was uncovered and reported by an investigative journalist team in the Boston area, and the data covered communities in the New England/New York region. Data were researched reaching back as long as 70 years, into the early 20th century. While the research covered this specific region, after the story was released, it was acknowledged that this was a problem that existed in all areas, and any remedy would have to be universal. And as I mention above, the Church did its best to achieve that goal. However, within the last few years, a new story was released reopening the scandal all over again. This time the story concerned abuse that took place in Pennsylvania. The time period was the same, reaching back to the 1930s through present day. But the story was misleading and made it appear that the abuse was current. The actual data showed that in the most recent 10-year period, cases of abuse were almost non-existent, demonstrating that the programs and protections implemented by the Church were working as designed. Unfortunately that doesn't make a ratings-boosting and compelling story. The media ignored this fact. Further, many of the accused priests had long since passed away and were no longer able to defend themselves. There have been cases of false accusations. The new story also ignored this fact. Essentially, the new story was a rehash of the same issue, during the same time period, which had already been acknowledged and addressed by the Church. So I have to ask: Are we going to reopen the same old scandal every 10 years or so to keep reminding people? After a while, we have to come to see through this media tactic.
Here are some statistics that I found to be interesting. There are approximately 7 billion people in the world. Of that, there are approximately 2.4 billion people, or over one quarter of the earth's population, that identify as Christian. Of that, approximately one half, or 1.3 billion people, are Catholic. That is roughly one eighth of the world's population. Of course there are a lot of priests involved. It takes a lot of priests to serve 1/8 of the world, and even a small percentage of that will be a large number.
The mental illness that causes this crime affects an estimated 10% of the world's population to varying degrees. This, by the way, is a very hard statistic to come by. I heard the statistic once and I could not find it supported anywhere for a long time. Eventually I found two different statistics that lead to this conclusion. First, approximately 30% of all children have been sexually abused. (I have not found it defined as to the degree or form of abuse). Second, an adult that will abuse a child, will abuse on average 3 children in their lifetime. Therefore, 30% divided by 3 per adult gives us a 10% figure. This is all the support of this statistic I could find, so believe as you choose. But whether it's 10% or 5% or 3% or even 1% of 1/8 of the world's clergy, it is going to be a very large number. Of course there are a lot of priests involved. But there are a lot of non-Catholic clergy, and a lot of teachers, and a lot of day care workers, and so on. We now know that the dangerous parts of human nature can be found where we don't expect them to be. Dangerous people can and will infiltrate and violate our trust. We have to do a better job of screening the people that are in our children's lives.
My purpose in this essay isn't to "sell" you the Catholic Church, or to make it out to be perfect. Rather, when someone asks me about the scandals that rocked the Church, I have to take a real and objective look at the matter. I have to decide how I want to be faithful and grow from there. For me, either the Church is where Jesus Christ wants me to be, or it isn't. There's a saying, don't leave Jesus because of Judas. I think it applies here.