Addressing the clerical sex abuse crisis (Part I)

Addressing the clerical sex abuse crisis  (Part I)

The recent meeting in Rome on clerical sex abuse called by Pope Francis and attended by presidents of bishops’ conferences from all over the world and by representatives of union of superior generals has highlighted the seriousness as well as the global reach of this crisis.

This is not only the problem of the clergy in North America and Europe, this is also a problem that needs to be addressed in Africa, Latin America and Asia – including the Philippines. Thus, each local Church have been asked to address this crisis. This is the responsibility of the bishops’ conferences, every diocese and religious congregation. This will also require the active involvement of the laity.

Before coming out with concrete measures it is important to clarify what the crisis or problem is all about, its extent and causes. Before any prognosis, a diagnosis is necessary. There are questions that need to answered. What is clerical sex abuse all about? How widespread is it? There are many who see it as the sexual abuse of children or minors by the clergy that has been covered up and allowed to continue due to clericalism. Others would argue that this is linked with homosexuality basing their conclusion on the John Jay study commissioned by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops which reported that 81 percent of the victims were male minors and adolescents. Many would deny any connection between homosexuality and child abuse since there are also female victims. Being homosexual does not make one a pedophile.

The problem of clerical sex abuse should not be reduced to pedophilia. It would also be simplistic to identify either clericalism or homosexuality as the main cause. There is a need to look at the crisis from a deeper and broader perspective. There is also a need to gather data and come up with an accurate assessment of its nature and extent rather than just speculate or theorize from one’s ideological bias or agenda.

When looking at clerical sexual abuse we need to consider not just pedophilia—the abuse of children. There is a need to make a distinction between pedophilia (the exclusive sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children age 13 and below) and ephebophilia (the sexual attraction to post-pubescent and adolescent youth). A pedophile can be attracted to both boys and girls. He is fixated on children which is indeed a psychiatric disorder. An ephebophile on the other hand has gender preference.  A homosexual with ephebophilia is attracted to male adolescents. A heterosexual ephebophile is attracted to female adolescents—the “Lolita” syndrome. The reason why some associate homosexuality with clerical sexual abuse is that majority of the victims were usually male adolescents—altar boys, seminarians and members of parish youth groups. In the Philippines, one can add the convent boys (working students living in rectories). Ephebophile priests also have homosexual relationships with young adults. Some of the celebrated cases of clerical sexual abuse follow this pattern. The former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick was defrocked for abusing seminarians—not just minor seminarians but also theology students. Cardinal Keith O’Brien who was forced to resign before the 2013 conclave was accused sexually abusing seminarians and young priests. Marcial Maciel—the founder of the Legion of Christ—was removed from active ministry and ordered to live a life of prayer and penance by Benedict XVI for abusing seminarians and young priests of his order. The Chilean priest, Fernando Karadima, was defrocked by Pope Francis for abusing adolescent males. So, while studies show that there is no link between homosexuality and pedophilia, there are studies that show that most of the cases of ephebophilia were perpetrated by many homosexual priests.

The clerical sexual abuse goes beyond the abuse of minors and adolescents. We should not forget that women – young girls, adolescents, adults – could be victims of sex abuse by the clergy. This also includes some nuns. We should not just focus on young girls because older women can also be victims. Since priests are authority figures, any relationship with women that violates boundaries in the course of their ministry can be regarded as an abuse of power, authority and trust. Those who are working in the parish rectory or office or as pastoral workers or as members of parish committees can be abused sexually. Those who come for spiritual direction or counseling can become victims.

Clerical sex abuse has many causes. It can be a manifestation of psychiatric or pathological disorder – like the exclusive, fixated sexual attraction to children.  It can be caused by a priest’s un-checked homosexual attraction to male adolescents especially those under his authority and care – whether in parish churches, rectories, seminaries, houses of formation, etc.  It is obviously an abuse of power and authority. It is perpetuated by a clerical culture that emphasizes confidentiality and that has a tendency to hide cases of sex abuse for fear of scandal. Thus, every complaint of sex abuse becomes a matter of damage control. It is a culture that lacks transparency and accountability.  Ultimately, it is a manifestation of the dark side that is present in the Church and that tries to dominate the clergy.

There has been no study regarding clerical sex abuse in the Philippines. There are no data or records about sex abuse cases. There are no documentation coming from the dioceses or from the CBCP about sex abuse allegations and how they were handled. If there are, they are not made available. All we have are scattered news reports, anecdotes, gossip and innuendos. One of the limitations here in our country is that unlike the US, we are not a litigious society. There are no laws that make a diocese accountable for sexual abuse committed by priests. Thus, lawyers and victims cannot be assured of monetary gain unless they approach those accused and threaten to make it public and demand some amount for their silence.   Thus, the culture of silence persists.

In recent times, sex abuse allegations have been weaponized against the Church by those in power and their supporters especially when the Church strive to fulfill her prophetic role. When the bishops come up with a statement against EJK, trolls would immediately respond by accusing priests of being child rapists and molesters thereby changing the topic and diverting from the real issue. Thus, raising the clerical sex abuse issue has been used as a threat to ensure the silence the Church vis-à-vis the social evils in society perpetrated by an abusive and murderous regime.  (To be continued next month’s column — Part II: How clerical sex abuse can be addressed)