Letter to Apologists: A Catholic (Reader) Response
By Emily Sammon
Two weeks ago, Andrew Kletzien wrote an article outlining his thoughts on the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, and particularly in his local diocese, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee.
As a Catholic, I would like to offer a response to Mr. Kletzien’s opinions with my own views on the matter.
Before I address this issue further, however, I would like to apologize, to the best of my ability, for the scandal apologists. It is true that there are people in the Catholic Church, both among the clergy and the laity, that refuse to address abuse seriously. While I understand the inclination to defend the integrity of our faith community, I nonetheless hold that this is a deplorable attitude to take toward the ruining of thousands of lives over multiple decades.
The fact is that many priests, bishops, and parish communities were complicit in the covering up of the criminal actions of several clergy. Some of the stories of depravity are beyond comprehension (consider, for example, the extraordinary, horrifying case of Milwaukee priest Lawrence Murphy, who molested an estimated 200 children at St. John School for the Deaf in the early 1970s).
Catholics must condemn injustice wherever it is found. In this situation that means admitting that many of our leaders have handled reports of sexual abuse horribly, and in the process damaged the lives of victims and their families, as well as the trust of the laity and the reputation of faithful clergy.
I grew up in the Archdiocese of Chicago, which has been surrounded by allegations for years. I learned that a significant group of priests had failed to live up to their duties as spiritual leaders before I was even old enough to understand the sexual act. In fact, I lived for many years under the assumption that the priesthood was largely synonymous with religious hypocrisy.
This was reinforced through my high-school years, when a former Jesuit head of my school, Loyola Academy, was accused of inappropriate relations with a minor during his presidency. I was convinced that the Church was doing absolutely nothing to remedy these trends of abuse. However, further research on my part has revealed that my conclusion lacked full understanding of policy developments over the past two decades.
Mr. Kletzien’s opening sentence, which states that “Fifty-eight men have been accused of molesting or raping young children in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee since 2003,” is factually correct, but also potentially misleading.
I think it is important to note that this does not mean that fifty-eight new crimes have been committed and exposed in the past decade, but rather that a 2003 report documented fifty-eight cases of abuse committed up until that point in time.
I make note of this not out of an attempt to diminish the severity of these crimes, which will remain disgusting and inexcusable for all time, by the distance of years. Rather, I want to underscore the fact that most of these crimes were committed within a certain period of time.
Research done by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City of New York confirms that there was a spike in abuse between 1950 and 1970 that was not seen before and has not been seen since: during those decades abuse rates increased sixfold. Priests ordained before 1960 began to commit crimes much more frequently during that decade, and those ordained after 1960 began displaying inappropriate behavior much more quickly after ordination.
The Jay report suggests that this rise in abuse cases during the 1960s and 1970s was influenced by cultural factors in American society. As the personal and social ideas of sexuality radically changed during these decades, personal formation practices regarding sexuality in seminaries remained the same—that is, close to nonexistent.
Most seminaries gave little consideration to the idea that many seminarians were not equipped with an in-depth understanding of the value of chastity or how to deal with their potential struggles with their sexuality.
Over time, materials for formation began to more fully address this issue. Seminaries also began to require psychological testing for their candidates and encouraged a less closed-off discussion of any potential sexual issues between seminarians and their personal advisors.
These changes to seminary practices appear to have effectively reversed abuse trends: beginning in the 1990s, abuse declined dramatically and remains much lower today. These changes are encouraging to me.
It shows that many clergy in the Catholic community have begun to treat the abuse issue, and also issues of human sexuality in general, with the respect and seriousness that they deserve. However, there are still many problems that persist, even as actual rates of abuse drop. Traditionally, the Church has maintained a justice system for its clergy that is separate from that of the civil authorities. When misused, this system allows for abuse to be perpetuated.
Bishops have also discouraged extensions on statutes of limitations for victims and, perhaps worst of all, encouraged personal reconciliation between abuser and victim.
This practice especially suggests a lack of understanding about the deep psychological implications of molestation for the victim (thankfully such practice appears to be on the wane). Beyond this, many reports of abuse from past decades undoubtedly remain untold and justice un-served.
These and related problems suggest that the administration of the Catholic Church still has a lot of work to do in its efforts to make amends with its victims and its larger flock.
This brings me to a final question I would like to address, namely: Why stay faithful to an organization that has failed so many in such despicable ways? In his article, Mr. Kletzien acknowledges his identity as a Democrat.
He then asks, “If I found out that over the span of 20 years the Democratic Party has hidden countless sex scandals involving young children (58 from one diocese, remember), I would immediately withdraw my support, without question and without hesitation.”
This is an interesting point. One response I can offer is that, indeed, many have decided to stop attending Mass and supporting the Church. These scandals have been a serious blow to congregations already weakened by distrust of Church authority. In some ways I cannot blame these people.
However—and I would like to make note of the weakness of Mr. Kletzien’s analogy here—the Catholic Church is not merely a social club, or a group I affiliate myself with because of shared political philosophy.
Rather, Catholicism is my religion, and my faith in its authority extends beyond the Church’s social and political realms. As Mr. Kletzein has been so kind to point out in scrupulous detail, the earthly Catholic Church is, most certainly, a load of sinners, some of us (much, much) more detestable than others.
However, we Catholics know that, despite this fact, despite the failings of our institution and the corruption of some of our leaders, we are still guided as a people by God’s Holy Spirit.
The atheists among my readers may be inclined to dismiss this as total bunk, but I am unashamed to declare this as my opinion on the matter as a practicing Catholic (and everyone must admit, regardless of whether Catholics actually maintain divine favor, we sure have a bad habit of surviving absolutely everything).
In conclusion: Do the majority of Catholics stand in opposition to abuse apologists? I believe I can safely answer in the affirmative. Does the Church often fail to live up to Jesus’ example? Absolutely. “The insanity refuses to stop,” Mr. Kletzien concludes.
This is true—barring the end of the world, the Church will continue to exist in this form, and its members will probably participate in occasional acts of evil. However, these instances of cruelty, ignorance, and hatred cannot erase the truth of Christ’s message or the healing it brings to a world fraught by human failure.
Emily Sammon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.