Father Roger J. Landry, a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, is national chaplain for Catholic Voices USA.
After Pope Francis announced Sept. 12 that he was convening a meeting in Rome of the presidents of the bishops’ conferences across the world, together with leaders of Eastern Catholic Churches, religious superiors general, prefects of Vatican dicasteries and other experts, I predicted that Rome 2019 would be a global Dallas 2002.
In Dallas 17 years ago, the U.S. bishops came together in crisis — in response to the ongoing disclosures that more than 4,000 priests had been accused in the U.S. of sexual abuse of minors in the previous half-century — to adopt a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People with its accompanying Essential Norms.
The bishops committed the Church in the United States systemically to protect children, care for survivors and eradicate from the priesthood those who have abused minors. The strict measures they adopted have been widely heralded for dramatically reducing the incidents of sexual abuse of minors since.
In Rome two weeks ago, bishops from around the world came together in crisis — in response to ongoing disclosures of clerical sexual abuse of minors and adults in the United States, Chile, Australia, Honduras, Germany, the Vatican and elsewhere — to catalyze the development, fine-tuning and implementation of national and global wide norms to try to eliminate the sexual abuse of minors anywhere in the Church, hold bishops to the highest standard in terms of responsibility, accountability and transparency, and show survivors and the whole Church that behavior Jesus said was worthy of death by millstone won’t be tolerated.
Much good came from the four-day meeting in Rome. Church leaders were able to hear powerful testimonies from those who have suffered sexual abuse in the Church. There was frank discussion — some featuring apropos jeremiads — of many ways leaders in the Church have failed. Many steps forward were indicated.
The Holy Father twice spoke strongly and seriously. It would be very difficult for those attending — not to mention those in the Church universal following through the media — to think that the scourge of sexual abuse in the Church was isolated to foreign situations or deny that it impacts their own. It was not only a wake-up call but a blaring alarm to force even the most lethargic members of the mystical body to stir from their somnolence.
At the same time — and it hurts to say this, but out of love for the Church and to prevent future victims, it must be said — Rome 2019 repeated some of the most serious mistakes of Dallas 2002.
The U.S. bishops in Dallas didn’t have the courage to address what the data clearly showed was the main part of the crisis: the culture of tolerance for unchastity in the clergy that made it both easier to abuse and harder for Church leaders to eradicate it.
In particular, Dallas didn’t confront the fact that the crisis of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy was principally not pedophilia, or the sexual abuse of pre-pubescent girls and boys, nor the abuse of sexually mature teenage girls; rather, it was the same-sex molestation of post-pubescent boys. This is in sharp contrast to figures for the sexual abuse of minors in Protestant Churches and in public schools, where 70% of victims respectively are female.
While the cancer of sexual abuse should be attacked and eliminated wherever it appears, if 81% of the cancer were found in one organ, serious oncologists would obviously give that malignant tumor special focus. How can the same-sex dimension of the abuse crisis be ignored?
Moreover, the bishops likewise did not address in depth the corrupted culture that permitted such wide-scale abuse and the lack of determination to eradicate it: namely, the practical toleration in many places of priests routinely cheating on their vocations with men or women.
Indulgence of priestly unchastity with adults does not foster an attitude of rigor with regard to policing and extinguishing sexual sins with 17 year olds. And that culture of unchastity, in the states, was predominantly homosexual as well.
When priests cheat on their vocations with women, in general they do so alone, without forming cliques or collared mafias. Moreover, either the wayward priest gets busted for solicitation, or his inamorata gets pregnant or gives him the ultimatum to choose her or the priesthood, with the result being that most priests who persist in infidelity leave the priesthood.
Priests who cheat on their vocation with men or fellow priests, on the other hand, often persist living a double-life as priests. When there’s a high enough incidence, networks can form that can dramatically impact the culture of Church institutions and presbyterates. Various seminaries, religious houses and even dioceses in the 1970s and ’80s featured openly homosexual subcultures, much like French author Frédéric Martel claims in his recent exposé, In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy, now exists the Vatican.
Even if many of Martel’s claims are unsubstantiated and seem outlandish, one of his main conclusions is hard to contest: that a clerical culture that keeps widespread same-sex activity with adults hidden is one prone to covering up other sexual sins as well, like he says has happened with regard to the abuse of minors.
The unaddressed issues of Dallas 2002 — the failure to address the culture of unchastity in general, the problem of same-sex activity among clergy in particular, and the need to hold bishops accountable — detonated as a time bomb last year, personified particularly in the case of the dismissed cleric Theodore McCarrick. And the failure of the 2019 Rome Summit to address at least those first two issues is portentous.
For all the discussion about transparency Feb. 21-24, there was an obstinate refusal by the organizers to mention the homosexual dimension of the vast majority of the sexual abuse crisis.
There was almost a refusal to mention the sexual dimension of the sexual abuse, as if the real cause of the sexual abuse of minors was “clericalism,” or priests worshipping the “god of power, money, pride and arrogance.” Any connection between homosexual unchastity with adults and the sexual abuse of minors, or between homosexual networks and cover-ups, was rejected almost as heresy.
Clericalism, of course, is a partial explanation for why some bishops cared more about defending clergy than protecting victims. But can anyone truly believe that clericalism, rather than lust, is a sounder explanation for the sexual abuse of minors? If clericalism causes the sexual abuse of minors in the Church, then what causes it in homes, schools and sports leagues? Moreover, why does clericalism disproportionately make male victims?
Behind this denial is clearly a desire not to have same-sex attracted priests scapegoated for the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Fair enough: It’s un-Christian to scapegoat anyone for anything. But if we really want to eradicate the sexual abuse of children in the Church, then we must courageously confront the data that describe that four out of five victims are teenage males and follow where it leads.
This does not mean that if a priest has same-sex attractions, he’s necessarily a danger to the young. If he’s chaste in thought and action, he’s obviously not. But let’s be candid: If a priest is engaged in same-sex sexual activity with adults, if a cleric is actively living the lifestyle in clear contradiction to his priestly promises, can we all admit that that such behavior is a serious risk factor?
If a 50-year-old cleric is transgressing his promises to have relations with 20-year-old seminarians, then is it shocking that such a man is a danger those a few years younger?
None of this means that all priests who betray their vocations with adults will engage in the sexual abuse of minors, but can we really be surprised that some do? The lack of moral brakes, the absence of personal integrity, the capitulation to lust and sin, the capacity for spiritual incest, all make it possible for him to transgress further.
So what are we going to do about it? What is the way forward?
It’s to learn from Dallas rather than repeat its mistakes. Even though some prefer to ignore the obvious connections, we cannot let the facts be forgotten or ideologically explained away. The Church did so in 2002 and we eventually got McCarrick, who became the personification of the connection between sexual sins with and against majors and the abuse of minors.
If the Church as a whole repeats that mistake now and evades the deeper issues, the future will be unforgiving.
Those who love the Church, those who really want to protect victims, those who long for a holy clergy to help sanctify the Church, can’t let that happen.