In 2002, when the scandal found its epicenter in the Archdiocese of Boston, Americans became fully aware of the extent to which a small minority of Catholic priests had been sexually abusing minors and, for far too long, getting away with it. The American bishops and, as we have learned, the bishops of Ireland and many other countries, usually shielded their clerical buddies from criminal prosecution and even, in many cases, minimal ecclesiastical discipline. Such failure to protect innocents has led to massive payouts for civil damages. Naturally, the bishops and the Vatican itself have been doing much since then to address the problem--even though many American bishops, such as Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, have failed to take as much personal responsibility as they should, and few have acknowledged the rather clear implications of the fact that most victims are, or were, pubescent boys. But now we face a new wave of reports about Joseph Ratzinger's role in old cases. With whatever degree of justice, the scandal has now reached Pope Benedict XVI himself.
The complaint is not that he abused anyone himself during his long career, but that he was criminally negligent in failing to take due action, as an archbishop and then as the Curia's most powerful official, against many of the priestly perps who came to his attention. Some of the better-known enemies of the Church, such as Richard Dawkins, now propose to arrest the Pope for that and put him in the dock, presumably at the International Court of Justice. The interest of such a ludicrous proposal does not lie in its legal plausibility, which I am unqualified to judge and is probably academic in any case. Its interest lies in the challenge it poses to explaining its irrationality.
I believe myself qualified to discuss that, not only as a lifelong Catholic who has spent much of his professional life serving the Church, but also as a victim of molestation myself, in my early teens, at the hands of a priest-teacher of mine. My abuser died years ago; I have not seen fit to sue the Church; indeed my experience was one of the factors that led me to reject progressive Catholicism and ascribe to what is generally understood as orthodox Catholicism. I understand, of course, why many victims have rejected the Church, even religious belief generally, and have lived very troubled lives. How could anybody not understand that? But the generalized furor, among people who are neither victims nor loved ones of victims, strikes me as positively irrational. My way of explaining that can only issue in a statement of faith. But I believe that's just what's called for, if only at the end.
What's irrational about the furor? Well, for one thing, the sexual abuse of minors, both "pedophilia" and what is gently called "ephebophilia," is much more common in, say, public schools than in Catholic institutions or, indeed, in most churches. That of course does not excuse even a single rape of a child by anyone in the Church; such acts are serious crimes deserving proportionate punishment, which the bishops have only too slowly recognized. But notice that nobody is calling for the prosecution of public-school officials who, in many cases, have done too little to address just the same problem among adults under their authority. One might reply, of course, that representatives of the Church should be held to a higher standard. And in one sense, that is true: given what they profess, we do have a right to expect better behavior from them than from most other people. But it doesn't follow that civil authority should punish them more severely on that account. People who believe it should all the same are engaged in a form of religious discrimination. For such people, "religion" in general, or perhaps this particular form of religion, merits special opprobrium simply because some of its representatives are greater-than-average hypocrites. That may well be true, but such a notion has hitherto had no place in civil or canon law. It is the product of a rage that cannot be explained simply by the nature of the crimes in question, which do not provoke the same degree of outrage when others commit them, and which are matched in hypocrisy by many other sorts of sin committed every day by others.
The rage stems, in my long experience, from a free-floating bitterness about prior issues people have with the Church. Those issues are themselves mostly about sex and power among adults, such as celibacy, women's ordination, and the authority the Church claims for her teaching generally. Maureen Dowd is one prominent purveyor of that attitude, but her distinctive style of thought—if it can be called thought—is not worth a digression here.
One might get the impression, just from the sheer force of its repetition, that the Roman Catholic norm that priests be celibate is a central problem. Yet objectively speaking, it is not; the problem is just that many people think it's a problem. There is no scientific evidence that celibacy is an explanatory factor in sexual abuse at all. Has anybody produced a replicable study showing that the incidence of sexual abuse of minors among never-married people is greater, in a statistically significant way, than among those who have been married? If there were such a study, the Church's enemies would be shouting it from the housetops. But the notion persists anyhow that people, especially men, are more likely to seek sexual contact with minors if they aren't "getting enough" from adults. It persists, I think, because many people—including not a few nominal Catholics—simply hate the idea, proclaimed by the very existence of people faithful to vows of celibacy for the Kingdom's sake, that sex is not a "need" but a choice—and a choice to be made only under certain well-known conditions. If sex is a choice not a need, then the liberal nostrum that we can solve problems such as teenage pregnancy and sexually-transmitted disease by passing out condoms would be exposed for the folly it is, and we might have to reconsider the belief, entrenched since the sexual revolution of the 1960s, that fornication is often a positive good. I know by personal experience, as well as by following the media, that many people hate the Church for steadfastly standing almost alone against such notions. And that hatred carries over into the condemnations of the Church's handling of the sex-abuse problem.
Women's ordination, or rather the absence thereof in the Catholic Church, is not an issue either. If it were, we would expect to find clear evidence that churches and other organizations where women exert the same or similar kind of authority over young people that Catholic priests do harbor measurably less sexual abuse than the Catholic Church. In fact, there is no such evidence. The evidence there is rather suggests that women are just as capable of this sort of thing as men. More specifically, there is no evidence that churches containing married and female clergy are much safer places for young people than the Catholic Church. What is clear is that the amount of media and popular attention given to such abuse in the Catholic Church is far greater than that given elsewhere. I think we all knew that already, but nothing much follows, other than that not a few people hate the Catholic Church and want to see her taken down. That is why the Pope is now being crucified.
Before I get to the central theological issue in all this, I should point out one of the many ironies of the present situation. Dawkins himself has written the following:
Happily I was spared the misfortune of a Roman Catholic upbringing (Anglicanism is a significantly less noxious strain of the virus). Being fondled by the Latin master in the Squash Court was a disagreeable sensation for a nine-year-old, a mixture of embarrassment and skin-crawling revulsion, but it was certainly not in the same league as being led to believe that I, or someone I knew, might go to everlasting fire. As soon as I could wriggle off his knee, I ran to tell my friends and we had a good laugh, our fellowship enhanced by the shared experience of the same sad pedophile. I do not believe that I, or they, suffered lasting, or even temporary damage from this disagreeable physical abuse of power. Given the Latin Master's eventual suicide, maybe the damage was all on his side.
Of course I accept that his misdemeanors, although by today's standards enough to earn imprisonment followed by a life sentence of persecution by vigilantes, were mild compared to those committed by some priests now in the news. I am in no position to make light of the horrific experiences of their altar-boy victims. But reports of child abuse cover a multitude of sins, from mild fondling to violent buggery, and I am sure many of those cases now embarrassing the church fall at the mild end of the spectrum.
My experience, and reaction, was similar to Dawkins'—the differences being that I was 14 when I was "fondled," and it happened more than once. And I suspect that his generalization about the spectrum of abuse is also correct. So why does he, unlike me, now want to see the Pope tried, convicted, and imprisoned?
Because the Pope, before he was pope, failed to see it to it that certain men were turned over to the civil authorities to be tried, convicted, and imprisoned? Granted that more solicitude for the victims should have been shown—even at a time when the psychic and spiritual damage done to minors by sexual abuse were not fully understood—why should no mercy whatsoever be shown to the Pope and others whose only "actionable" error was that they weren't aggressive enough in exposing and pursuing wrongdoers? What's clear to me is that we have a witchhunt here, and that the real motive for the witchhunt is a hatred which, precisely because it is hatred, does not grasp what the Church is really for and about.
In his 1968 Introduction to Christianity, reprinted in translation in 2000, Ratzinger wrote (pp 342-43):
Is the Church not simply the continuation of God's deliberate plunge into human wretchedness? Is she not simply the continuation of Jesus' habit of sitting at table with sinners, of his mingling with the misery of sin to the point where he actually seems to sink under its weight?
I agree that the Church is that. But she is not only that:
Is there not revealed in the unholy holiness of the Church, as opposed to man's expectations of purity, God's true holiness, which is love—love which does not keep its distance in a sort of aristocratic, untouchable purity but mixes with the filth of the world, in order thus to overcome it? Can, therefore, the holiness of the Church be anything else but the bearing with one another that comes, of course, from the fact that all of us are borne up by Christ?
The whole passage, indeed the whole book, are well worth reading and pondering.
Personal and collective growth in holiness are impossible without "bearing with one another," forgiving because we, each of us, have been forgiven and will continue to need forgiveness. I forgave my abuser. I did not know whether he was repentant at the end or not, but that does not matter. What matters is what we need to heal, to achieve salvatio: such wholeness as divine grace offers us, which is incomparably greater than what we can achieve ourselves.
I understand why some people who underwent far worse than I did cannot forgive. Their wounds will never fully heal. That sort of reality is part of what's represented by the fact that the risen Christ still bears his five wounds from his crucifixion. Indeed, the wounds of those who have forgiven their abusers will never fully heal. But that is precisely why earthly justice, even if it were fully visited upon the perps in every case, would never be enough for anybody. It could only be retribution, not healing. But salvation entails forgiveness: the Lord made clear that we will be forgiven, for whatever it is we need forgiving for, only to the extent we forgive others. The Word proclaimed in the Church, and the sacraments celebrated by the Church, which are of her very essence, will do us no good without forgiveness. For without forgiveness, there is no healing. There is only festering and vindictiveness.
That is what the Dawkinses of the world—and the many even among theists who have never bothered to understand the Church as anything more than a human institution—do not understand. To them, the Church is no more than another "human, all too human" form of will-to-power. And in some cases, that's exactly how her leaders have behaved. But to the Catholic mind, those leaders exist only as a means to an end: the end of humanity's eventual union in love with God, of which the Church is merely the proleptic sign and instrument. Real love is eternal, yet in this vale of tears it can only be sustained by forgiveness. If one does not believe that the God who is love will let himself be encompassed by our worst, in order to elevate us by forgiveness to the incomparable destiny of eternal Love, than one can only see the Church herself as a scandal, a stumbling block to belief. That is ultimately what explains the irrationality of the Dawkinses and the many other Catholic-haters of the world.
Yet I believe the Church will come out of this stronger and purer than before. Painful as it is, coming clean about the sexual abuse of minors, and getting abusers out of the priesthood and religious life, can only enhance her witness to Christ. But it must be accompanied by love for the Christ who has been crucified in the victims and will be crucified in those who repent of their actions. That includes even the Pope.