The Enduring Problem of Abusive Priests?

It was with no small amount of disappointment that I read this morning's story, run in the New York Times, reporting on the newly established papal commission on sex abuse. It's not that I'm disappointed that a commission has been created, of course, but rather the story's superficial reporting. 

Up front, I want to say: the sexual abuse of minors is an unconscionable crime and anyone who perpetrate such a heinous act, whether clergy or not, must be held accountable. What interests me this morning is how the story is being told and why it is disingenuous for them to report in such a way. 

Let me pick a few key lines that will help to illustrate this:
  • "...Pope Francis will establish a commission to advise him on protecting children from pedophile priests..."
  • "The announcement was a forthright acknowledgment by the Vatican of the enduring problem of abusive priests..."
  • Citing David Clohessy, from SNAP: "A new church panel is the last thing that kids need." 
  • From Anne Barrett Doyle, from BishopAccountability.org: "But we are concerned that the commission will be toothless and off-target."
  • "An aloof theologian, Benedict resigned in February..."
  • "Even as Cardinal O'Malley announced the commission, parts of the church were bracing for new disclosures. The Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis told its priests that a new report would illuminate the prevalence of abuse in its parishes."
First issue: what time is this story taking place? The way the story is written, you would think that new reports of clergy abuse of minors come to light each day. Here and now, in 2013, the "enduring problem of abusive priests" continues unabated. And yet, as I wrote about in April, this is not quite true. We do know that, as of 2011, over 80% of reported cases took place before 1985. Since 2002, reports of new acts have become increasingly less common. This does not deny that clergy abuse continues to occur - we are, all of us, aware how endemic sexual abuse throughout the world - but it does question whether the present situation is as dire as it would be made to seem. 

What of the new disclosures in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis? How new were those disclosures? Again, consistent with the John Jay Study, the majority of reported cases took place between 1950 and 1985. If almost a 30-year old story is considered new, then I guess the fall of the Berlin Wall is breaking news.  

Second issue: the rhetoric of abuse. With statistically only 5% of priests with allegations against them exhibited behavior consistent with a diagnosis of pedophilia, it is a misnomer to label this an issue of "pedophile priests." 

David Clohessy is correct in his statement, but not in the way he might expect. This commission is the last things kids need: anyone in religious formation over the last decade, at least in the USA, has been saturated with learning to recognize sexual abuse and with becoming sensitive to the importance of boundaries. Although it may be the last thing "kids need," it may be just what the Church needs: an advisory panel able to give a realistic view of the failure of of many within the Church to grasp the scope of the problem.

There are bishops in place, here in the USA, who have failed in their duties as shepherds. It is scandalous to me that they are still in leadership roles: off the top of my head, I can name three who should resign due to sins of ommission, the sin of not acting decisively even when it was obvious action was demanded. 

One final issue. I think it wholly uncharitable to describe Pope Benedict as "an aloof theologian." Under Benedict's papacy, the Church took enormous steps in the direction of addressing the sexual abuse of minors. The progress made within the Church should be seen as a model for other organizations: Boy Scouts, Big Brothers and Big Sisters, after-school programs, and schools could all benefit from the energy and programming initiated thanks to Benedict. He was certainly not uninformed and hardly aloof. He may seem as such in comparison to the gregarious Francis but in his own way, Benedict was very much engaged with the life of the Church. 

I think it easy to succumb to the sensational - and clergy sex abuse is sensational - within reporting. Sensation sells. Yet this story not only perpetuates fatuous stereotypes, but it misses an opportunity to draw attention to what is a pressing issue for our entire society: the protection of our young. 
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