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Mopping Up the Holy Mess in the Catholic Church

March 29, 2010

For a man of his advanced years, Pope Benedict XVI is generating a tidal wave of bad publicity that would make Lindsay Lohan envious. Angry protesters in England are demanding his resignation. Atheist-provocateur Christopher Hitchens is actually calling for his arrest.  Cheerfully caustic columnist Maureen Dowd, tongue only half in cheek,  wrote that we could use a female pope — preferably a no-nonsense nun: “Habemus Mama,” the Church would declare on that fateful day.

By now, everyone this side of New Guinea has heard about the predatory priests and the failure of the Church to take decisive action. Pope Benedict himself is immersed up to his ears in the scandal: people are wondering , Watergate-style, about the extent of the unholy cover-up: “How much did the Pope know, and when did he know it?”

That cloud swirling around the Pope isn't just incense

All that accusatory chatter is fine, even necessary.  The Pope needs to be held accountable. After all, he was put in charge of investigating priestly abuses when he was still Cardinal Ratzinger.  But nobody seems to be asking the most pertinent question of all: “How is the Pope going to prevent further abuses?” Because whether the Pope realizes it or not, the moral authority of his Church has been shaken. Seriously shaken. An institution that promotes itself as the supreme moral authority can’t afford to squander its moral capital.

So what can the Pope do to prevent further abuses? Eliminating the celibacy rule would help pad the seriously dwindling ranks of aspiring Roman Catholic priests, but it wouldn’t eliminate pedophilia. Even married men are capable of preying on young people.

No, the answer seems so simple (at least to this non-Catholic) that I’m almost embarrassed to propose it: Keep the priests away from the kids. More precisely, forbid any and all one-on-one contact between the clergy and the young people in their midst.

The embattled Church might have to swallow hard before implementing this rule (institutional pride has a tendency to stick in the throat on its way down) but we’re looking at a rule that desperately needs to be implemented. Just as male gynecologists typically have a female nurse on hand when they examine their patients, all priests should be accompanied by a nun when consorting individually with young people. Let it be the rule.

Let’s go even further… let’s remove the temptation wherever it can be removed. About a decade ago, in my earlier incarnation as a cynical columnist, I suggested (a little flippantly, but not unseriously) that altar boys be replaced by altar geezers: balding men with trusses, or burly 75-year-old Irish women. Surely the Catholic mass can survive without the presence of vulnerable young males at the altar. The Church should also strive to reduce the number of other venues for direct contact between children and priests. But having a nun on hand at all times might be enough of a deterrent to halt the abuse.

I apologize if I seem to be indicting an entire class of clergymen, most of whom provide their flocks with selfless and blameless leadership.  Only a minuscule minority are predators. But look at it this way: an even smaller minority of airline travelers are terrorists — yet we all have to submit to screening before we can climb aboard. Similarly, all priests should be subjected to limitations on their contact with young people.

The Church has weathered numerous crises and scandals durng its 2000-year history. (Of course, most of us are too young to remember the Inquisition.) The difference today is that the Pope can no longer count on the blind faith of his followers. We live in a skeptical age: European Catholics, with the exception of the Poles and the Irish, have been quietly deserting the Mother Church for the past half century. American Catholics are growing restive. The future of the Church seems to lie in the Third World, where it will undoubtedly continue to ban birth control and unwittingly push impoverished people further into poverty.

The well-publicized priestly perversions are merely a symptom of deeper problems within an ancient and increasingly remote institution. The world-class charisma of the beloved Pope John Paul II helped mask those problems for a quarter of a century. But his heir is no rock star.

The Church today is literally petrified, afraid to examine its beliefs, customs, rules and governance. If it wants to survive as more than a Third World institution, it needs to open some windows. It needs to welcome ideas that will usher it into the 21st century without compromising its core beliefs. It needs reforming now — not by a new Martin Luther who will form a breakaway church, but by enlightened and nuanced minds who want to refurbish it and restore it as a force for good in the world.

In other words, the future of the Roman Catholic Church rests in the hands of committed moderates. Let them show their faces and prevail over the reactionaries while the Church can still be saved.

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21 Comments leave one →
  1. March 29, 2010 3:54 pm

    I for one, am for the disbanding of the Catholic Church, but I’m the “militant” atheist in the room, so I understand I can’t exactly be relied upon as moderate…
    But in all seriousness, why not arrest the person most responsible for harboring and protecting pedophiles? To say nothing of the other problems with the Church. And the Pope is the most responsible, he was in charge of “dealing” (hiding priests and paying off families) with scandals, so the utter failure is his fault. The priests should have to go through the same anti-abuse protocols as school teachers, no one on one contact, etc. But what chance is there of outside governments successfully regulating the Church, which is already outside the normal laws of the land? The reform should be in the government’s treatment of religions in general, ending tax exempt status, arresting of priests that molest their flock or aid criminals by not turning them in if they confess. Forget ACORN, if you want to get an institution aiding criminals, take down the Catholic Church.

    • March 29, 2010 9:59 pm

      TK: You raise an intriguing possibility (though I don’t think it will ever happen): making the Church (all churches, for that matter) accountable to governments. If push comes to shove, governments have armies and the Church doesn’t, so the Church would have to yield in a show of force. Have any of these pedophile priests been tried in a court of law? I honestly don’t know, but they sure don’t deserve special exemption based on their status as clergy. A crime is a crime.

      • Collin permalink
        April 2, 2010 2:18 pm

        Well, we do have seperation of church and state, so that might infringe upon that. If we don’t like the religious right donating money to politicians who is the government to impose authrouty on religion?

        Keeping priests away from boys might be a bit of an extreme measure. Like you said, not every roiest is a pedohphile. Maaybe make it like any other profession and do background checks, periodic psychological exams, thorough investigating, etc. Kind of like how the government has checks and balances on itself or how police bureaus have internal affairs departments(not that those are perfect but that’s another rant). Basically just be mindful of what’s going down now and how to further prevent it. Upkeep is what makes any system work, after all.

  2. valdobiade permalink
    March 29, 2010 4:53 pm

    Hey TK, you may not be the only “militant” atheist in the room, for I’ve been converted from agnostic to happy atheism by Judith at http://www.thehappyheretic.com 🙂
    And by the way Rick, she’s writing nice columns too.

    Rick, you choose a subject upon “moderation” cannot be discussed. Protestants may be “moderate” unless they become Evangelical fundamentalists. Only Muslims are equal in intolerance with Catholics. However, from the extremism of Catholics the Protestants were “born”.
    I am just curious, for the evolution of humankind, what kind of “Protestants” will be “born” from the Muslim religion?
    For me, the Muslims now are Middle Ages Catholics, and I’d be happy to know what work is done to get “Protestants” out of Muslims. There were times when nobody could predict Protestantism out of Catholicism.
    Talking about the Catholic problems is like acknowledging that they represent an interest in today world.
    The only way to “fix” Catholic is to ignore them completely. I know it is hard, there are too many uneducated people in the third wold who believe that being Catholic means something. The rich and educated Catholics are so addicted to this religion-spectacle so much that it is very hard to overcome.

    • March 29, 2010 5:23 pm

      Yeah, Catholics fail at moderation, that’s why the Pope lives in his own city, and Bishops have Cathedral palaces. Catholic reformation usually just leads to the Church fragmenting into more liberal types (Protestants) and the more conservative/evangelist types. (Inquisitors and Jesuits) I really don’t want to see another counter-reformation.

    • March 29, 2010 10:08 pm

      Valdo: I know plenty of “moderate” Catholics, though the Church would probably view them as borderline heretics. You’re right that the Church itself tends to be as reactionary as today’s Muslims — even the blessed John Paul II was a reactionary in terms of church doctrine. And yes, we desperately need a Muslim reformation, though preferably one that moderates the entire religion instead of simply breaking away to form a “Protestant” Muslim faith. Fanatical Islam can’t be left alone; it has to be yanked out by the roots.

  3. Christina permalink
    March 29, 2010 11:01 pm

    Actually Uncle Rick, I disagree with you on this one. As the head of a school for the arts I place high value on the safety of children, and I have 40+ teachers under my supervision who have one-on one contact with kids, for the good of the kids. Priests have several similar functions depending on their posts; they might teach in a school, or teach catechism class, or run a basketball league that keeps kids off the street. Limiting their ability to be alone with kids would also severely limit the good that the good ones can do. Wonderful programs would be cut or eliminated because there wasn’t a nun on hand to be the priest’s babysitter. There’s a shirtage of nuns anyway. So I don’t think this is a logical solution.

    The issue, I believe, lies in accountability, not contact. In my line of work, responsibile to the children and parents at my organization, is MY job to ensure that every teacher has a criminal record check completed prior to being in allowed, alone, in a room with kids. And if I have any suspicions of strange behavior, it is MY responsibility to investigate and take action. And you can bet that in the meantime there’d be no hesitations. A teacher under suspicion would be out of contact with kids till the matter was cleared up. The problem is that the higher ups are constantly covering up rather than taking action because there’s such a dearth of vocations that they can’t afford to lose a priest. (Which is no excuse, but I assume it to be their internal reasoning.)

    I’m not saying the perpetrators themselves are not wrong, but I AM saying that it’s their higher ups who have a responsibility to protect the public, and when they fail to do so, they should be punishable by law, as I’m sure I would be if I knowingly allowed a pedophile to teach drama class to 8 year olds.

    • March 29, 2010 11:55 pm

      Hi Christina! You make a compelling case for your point of view, but the problem is that the higher-ups in the Church haven’t shown themselves to be as accountable and conscientious as you are. One stumbling block might be that the men in the Church hierarchy believe that pedophilia can be corrected with prayer and moral guidance. Another issue might be, as you mentioned, the increasing scarcity of priests (and the Church’s unwillingness to lose them).

      Abolishing the celibacy rule would have the beneficial effect of increasing the supply of priests, so that the few renegades could be defrocked and even prosecuted for sexual abuse.

      As for the priest-and-nun combo I suggested… I agree that it might present a logistical problem. But I always thought there were far more nuns than priests, so that it wouldn’t be difficult to assign one as a “babysitter.” (I know it sounds humiliating — but hey, if doctors can submit to it, so can priests.) And I’m wondering how many situations actually require a priest to meet one-on-one with a student. A priest can still coach a team or give talks to groups of kids — no problem there. We’d call in the nuns only on those rare occasions when a priest has to confer privately with a student.

  4. Priscilla permalink
    March 30, 2010 9:38 am

    Rick, I’m essentially with you on this one, although I am very sympathetic to Christina’s point of view. I think that your suggestions make sense, some in the long term, others in the short term . I am a lapsed Catholic, myself….stopped practicing years ago, but I even then I thought that the celibacy rule of the priesthood has led to the institution being overrun by men who are hiding out from their sexual/gender/developmental issues. It obviously was not intended to work that way, but, as we know from the unintended consequences of much social legislation (don’t worry, I’m not trying to seque back to healthcare, haha) rules and laws don’t always work out as they were intended, or they have collateral consequences that obliterate their good intentions.

    The priest who performed my wedding ceremony was a great guy, but he ultimately left the priesthood to marry one of his parishioners – and several of his “priest friends” did the same. So, the loneliness and frustration created by celibacy has essentially driven many “normal guys” from the priesthood, and , likewise, has attracted a fair share of – to use a grossly un-PC term – perverts, who may or may not have known they are perverts when they became priests, but found themsleves in a situation custom made for pedophiles.

    The damage done to the Church from this has been so great that it amazes me that it can’t see that the way out is to institute changes similar to your suggestions…I mean, the celibacy rule is not a matter of doctrine. But it illustrates the complex politics and problems of entrenched bureacracies trying to reform, I guess. There are quite a few priests in jail, btw, both here and in Europe.

  5. Priscilla permalink
    March 30, 2010 10:26 am

    Btw, right after I posted this comment, I happened across this link via another blog that I read on a regular basis….interesting, I think.
    http://catholicanchor.org/wordpress/?p=601

  6. valdobiade permalink
    March 30, 2010 12:47 pm

    I think that priests and nuns are no different than ordinary human beings. They have “down to earth” needs as everybody. And if they fail to behave in a civilized manner as a society is asking for, they should be punished according to the society laws, if priests and nuns want to live in that society.

    If somebody has no religious orientation and is pedophile, people put signs in front of his house, ask authorities to control his activities, etc. But if he happens to be priest, he is judged by another standard? For the same illegal activity? I think that’s actually a way to encourage pedophiles to embrace a faith that can defend them.

    If gay marriage is unthinkable, why a man without a wife is thinkable? Men have strong sexual urges, that’s why you hear about women being raped by men, and not men being raped by women. Pedophilia is born in men who hate to have sex with women because women distract them for a “higher” mission, but those men should NOT have children around them!

    • March 30, 2010 4:12 pm

      I liked Christina’s post, Maybe the church needs lay-people like her to do the same job for priests as teachers. Instead of Bishops and Cardinals who are looking out for the Church first. About the celibacy rule, I don’t think it applies to the Anglican/Episcopalian Church, and I’ve never heard of a pedophilia scandal from them.

  7. March 31, 2010 1:25 pm

    TK: Good idea about inviting more laypeople to assume functions in the church.
    Valdo: In a way I feel sorry for pedophiles: there’s no socially acceptable outlet for their urges, so all they can do is either sit on them or commit suicide. But clearly they have to be prevented from interacting one-on-one with kids, and the church HAS to stop coddling them or risk self-destruction. For now, I think my priest/nun (or priest/layperson) combo is the only way to prevent further abuse.
    Priscilla: The Church has become so fossilized that the current bureaucracy will never reform itself unless threatened with serious consequences (like a revolt of American Catholics). At this point I think only Catholics from outside the system can reform the Church.

  8. valdobiade permalink
    April 1, 2010 1:41 pm

    Rick, the pedophiles are in no way different than the sexual deviants who have sex with animals or objects. They actually find it easier to rape children, because children cannot defend themselves. If the priests feel the sexual urge, then give them inflatable toys, and if they don’t want that, then let them kill themselves. Jesus said that it is better for one to kill himself than harm the little children.

  9. April 1, 2010 2:49 pm

    lol @ Valdo, They could just castrate the entire priesthood, imagine how sermons would sound then. 🙂

  10. valdobiade permalink
    April 1, 2010 2:51 pm

    TK wrote: lol @ Valdo, They could just castrate the entire priesthood, imagine how sermons would sound then.

    How? Like little angels…

  11. valdobiade permalink
    April 2, 2010 2:47 pm

    Collin wrote: Keeping priests away from boys might be a bit of an extreme measure.

    Why? Religion is for adults not for children. Let the priests deal with adults not children. Religion or any other imposed ideology to children is the indoctrination of innocents. I was indoctrinated with communism when I was in kindergarten back in my country.
    I was not communist child, I was a “parrot” a “communist parrot”, I was not thinking, I was a child.
    Indoctrinating children with religion is the same thing: they become “catholic parrot”, “baptist parrot”, “buddhist parrot” etc. Or in politics: “republican parrot”, “democrat parrot” etc…

    • April 2, 2010 5:23 pm

      Exactly, why are impressionable children allowed into Church indoctrination programs when they can’t decide for themselves? Can their parents not teach them?

  12. valdobiade permalink
    April 2, 2010 8:12 pm

    If the parents are not F up with politics and religion, they will explain as much as possible to kids how the world works and how much they understand about this world.
    Let the kids work their new minds, don’ t indoctrinate them or let them to be alone with religious, political, or artists who are sexual deviants. At least explain them that it is no good that somebody, even a priest, is allowed to touch them on intimate parts.

    Wake up parents!

  13. April 18, 2010 6:48 pm

    And history repeats itself 😦

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