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Commentary

Catholic Lite Won't Heal These Wounds

April 26, 2002|GEORGE WEIGEL | George Weigel is senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and author of "Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II" (HarperCollins, 1999). He returned Monday from Vatican City.

The pope has flatly condemned clerical sexual abuse. The American cardinals have met in Rome to get strict clergy personnel policies on a fast track to Vatican approval. Every senior leader in the Catholic Church is now focused intensely on the crisis.

In this moment of pause between the historic Vatican meetings this week and the U.S. bishops' June meeting in Dallas, could everyone please take a deep breath so that a few essential points can be clarified?

* This is not a pedophilia crisis. It is a crisis of sexual abuse, which takes three forms.

Pedophilia, or sexual predation on prepubescent children, is the most revolting expression of clerical sexual misconduct.

The age-old problem of priestly misbehavior with women is another problem.

Report after report over the past four months has made unmistakably clear, however, that the overwhelming majority of clerical sexual predators in recent decades are homosexual priests abusing teenage boys and young men.

The bishops faced this in Rome, and it is high time that the media face it too.

Headlines and television teasers about the "pedophilia crisis" or "child sexual abuse crisis" are false and misleading.

* It is no accident that the bulk of the abuse cases recently reported took place between the mid-1960s and the late 1980s, a period in which a culture of dissent took root in American seminaries, theology faculties and church bureaucracies and in which clerical discipline broke down.

There can be no question that this culture of dissent contributed massively to a breakdown of discipline, which in turn contributed to a serious outbreak of clerical sexual abuse. Men who adopted habits of intellectual self-deception in the seminary--pretending to accept church teachings that they really didn't believe and had no intention of teaching--are more likely to lead lives of self-deception in their sexual conduct.

By the same token, it is no accident that there have been few cases of clerical sexual abuse reported from the 1990s, when the reform of the seminaries that was demanded by Pope John Paul II began to take hold and when most bishops in the United States adopted stringent policies for dealing with abusers.

* This is not a crisis of celibacy. It is a crisis caused by men failing to live the celibacy that they solemnly promised to God and the church.

A quick glance at the national registry of sex offenders demonstrates that sexual abusers often are married men; indeed, most sexual abuse takes place within families.

This is a crisis of priestly identity. Ill-prepared priests who were not taught to live chastely and who thought of themselves primarily as religious functionaries were not going to weather the storms of our sex-saturated culture.

By contrast, priests who really believe that they are what the Catholic Church teaches they are--living icons of the eternal priesthood of Christ--do not behave as sexual predators.

* It has been widely suggested that the Vatican meetings this week produced another waffle. They did not.

A careful reading of the cardinals' statement makes clear that there will be zero tolerance for true pedophiles (past, present and future) and zero tolerance for serial sexual abusers (past, present and future).

The remaining question is what is to be done in the case of a priest who falls from grace once, repents, truly amends his life and lives his vows of celibate chastity in integrity for years or decades.

If that fall involved genuine pedophilia, my sense is that the bishops still would want to depose him, as indeed they should; some actions disqualify a man from further ministry, period.

But should such a "one strike and you're out" policy extend to a priest who had a brief consensual affair with a woman a quarter-century ago and has led an exemplary life since? Most Catholics would probably say no, and they would be right.

This is, at bottom, a crisis of fidelity. It will not be resolved by the church adopting a "Catholic Lite" strategy--abandoning priestly celibacy, dumbing down Catholic sexual ethics--as progressive joy riders on the crisis are suggesting.

Catholic Lite helped cause the crisis. The path to genuine reform is for the church to become more Catholic, not less.

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