Letter to Apologists: A Catholic (Reader) Response

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


  1. Andrew
    Feb 11, 2012 @ 15:37:36

    First of all, Emily, I would like to truly thank you for your response. This is the type of dialogue the LUChameleon is meant for.

    My point about relinquishing my support for the Democratic party has been raised before to priests, professors, and even a panel here at Loyola on Faith and Sexuality. But I have yet to hear an answer that can hold water outside of the Catholic community. It is easy to turn to other Catholics and say, “We are higher than these political parties,” but that is to grossly deny your responsibility to the outside, rational world.

    I would also like to posit that it doesn’t really matter if the majority of Catholics are “abuse apologists” as you have questionably labeled them. Democracy in the Catholic church is something that is rare — most Catholics support birth control and the rights of gays to marry (quite a large majority in the latter), yet the Church does not.

    When analyzing my response to a religion, I respond based on my experience with the texts of that particular faith and the actions of their leaders, say, those hopped up in a 500 billion dollar palace in Rome. Joseph Ratzinger, your current holiness, was one of the ones implicated in the cover up of these child rapes — and now he is infallible.

    In the memory of Christopher Hitchens, I will close with a statement which I got from him. I don’t look forward to any human being’s death — I wasn’t even rejoicing when Bin Laden was killed and Americans thought it humane to parade in the streets a death of a man with a family. But when a pope dies, there is a “luscious” (as Hitchens would have put it) period of time when no one on earth claims to be infallible. I know the Church isn’t going anywhere, but I really can’t wait for the day that the person they prop up on that million dollar throne and praise isn’t also responsible for covering up child rapes by their very ordained.

    • Emily Sammon
      Feb 11, 2012 @ 21:47:07

      Andrew, it’s been my pleasure to discuss this with you.

      1. I am not denying that the Church has worldly responsibilities– in fact, I made a clear point that it wasn’t always good at keeping them. I realize that such explanations are dissatisfying to atheists, but I am not attempting to convince people of the validity of the faith with this statement. Rather, I am just explaining why I still have faith in the Catholic Church. I do not particularly feel like getting into a discussion of the existence of God and the validity of the Catholic faith on this forum, for it isn’t exactly relevant to the issue of abuse (and I also have to write a paper now… eep). However, if you ever feel like contacting me about this problem, I can attempt to discuss it with you or refer you to a friend of mine that would also probably be willing to answer your questions.
      2. I did not state that the majority of Catholics are “abuse apologists”, but rather that the majority are NOT abuse apologists. I used the term “abuse apologists” as an alteration of your term for those not sorry for cases of abuse, which was “Catholic apologists.” I did this because I wanted to draw a clear distinction between their defense of reprehensible crimes and the traditional defense of Catholic theology, which is similarly named (“Catholic apologetics”).
      3. It is true, the Church is not a democracy. This is because truth is God-given, not determined by a vote.
      4. I am aware that Ratzinger was involved in the mishandling of abuse allegations during his time as a cardinal. I obviously don’t approve of this, and despite my affection for the man, I will always be reminded of the poor, sinful decisions he has made in his time. As I mentioned previously, we’re all sinners. This includes the pope. It is a common misconception that infallibility means that the pope can do no wrong, or that absolutely everything the pope says is true. This isn’t the case. It is in matters of declaration of doctrine that he has the special gift of infallibility (See Vatican II, which states that the pope “enjoys in virtue of his office, when, as the supreme shepherd and teacher of all the faithful, who confirms his brethren in their faith (Luke 22:32), he proclaims by a definitive act some doctrine of faith or morals. Therefore his definitions, of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, are justly held irreformable, for they are pronounced with the assistance of the Holy Spirit, an assistance promised to him in blessed Peter.”)
      5. Your noting of the “500 billion dollar palace” of the pope could be rephrased as the classic question, “Why not sell the Vatican and feed the world’s poor?” There are a few ways of addressing this question. The first is just in terms of numbers. A comedian once described the Vatican as being worth 500 billion, but it is in reality probably worth less than one billion. Getting rid of it would therefore not even remotely begin to solve the world’s problems, and would only result in stripping the Church of its ability to accomplish things in the name of temporarily providing a solution to some problems. This is completely illogical. The second answer concerns the matter of reverence. I am reminded of passages in the Gospels of Matthew and John where Judas criticizes Mary of Bethany’s decision to anoint Jesus’ feet with perfume the was worth a year of wages. This story has broader implications in the gospel story than I will discuss here. For our purposes, let us consider only the fact that Jesus rebukes Judas for asking whether that money would be better spent on the poor. The point is that it is wholly good and appropriate to honor God through material reverence. When Catholics perform Eucharistic adoration, they don’t put the Body of Christ on display by taping him to an index card. Rather, we place the Eucharist in a monstrance made of precious metals. Humans have traditionally interpreted wealth in material terms, so why not honor God with our material wealth as well as by our thoughts and deeds? In the same way we honor the earthly position instituted by God through Peter. We are not parading the pope as an idol, but rather honoring the authority of God invested in him by means of his position.
      6. Hitchens’ quote is interesting– the dude (R.I.P.) always had a way with words, that’s for certain. However, I am fairly certain that, while there is no infallibility like the pope’s invested in one person at the time of a pope’s death, the bishops as a group have a certain infallibility: (“Although the individual bishops do not enjoy the prerogative of infallibility, they can nevertheless proclaim Christ’s doctrine infallibly. This is so, even when they are dispersed around the world, provided that while maintaining the bond of unity among themselves and with Peter’s successor, and while teaching authentically on a matter of faith or morals, they concur in a single viewpoint as the one which must be held conclusively. This authority is even more clearly verified when, gathered together in an ecumenical council, they are teachers and judges of faith and morals for the universal Church. Their definitions must then be adhered to with the submission of faith”– Lumen Gentium)

      Hope this helps.

      • Andrew
        Feb 12, 2012 @ 13:36:00

        I will reply to a few valid points you have made.

        2. I see that not most Catholics are “abuse apologists” (although I doubt any Catholics are this). By Catholic apologists, I mean to condemn anyone who did not actively speak out against the Church (not quit the Church, just raise opposition) in their silence when the sex scandal broke out. This is particularly why I was so impressed by your article — you actively rebuke the Church and hold it accountable. Not many Catholics do that. Like Ralph Braseth said in his comment on my article, not a single word is said in sermons about the abuse scandal, and no Catholics demand an explanation. This is probably because they know that an explanation would have the delve into the idea that holding priests accountable to a lifetime of chastity probably contributed to the sexual depravity that is pedophilia. Suppression, in the mere Freudian sense, is a very dangerous thing.

        4. “Irreformable” — just lost you the battle. Countless papal doctrines have been reformed. I would reference you to the papal declaration that natural laws of the universe are heresy, mainly because it pointed humanity in the direction of a system of epistemology that does not require a divine creator. Ratzinger came out and “apologized” for the countless crimes against humanity the Church has committed and mistakes it has made (through its papacy), including but not limited to the Crusades, the Inquisition, silence during Hitler’s Final Solution, the admittance that Galileo was right. This is all fine and dandy — but the list of apologies that need to be had from the Church grows larger every day. I would cite the harm that was done to parents who were told that their unbaptized children were in limbo, only to be told years later that that place did not exist. I would also cite the pope’s declaration that yes, AIDS is bad, but condoms are much worse. He not only preached against the use of condoms, but spread the heinous lie that condoms help spread HIV/AIDS. For this, the Catholic Church afflicts themselves with the blood of millions in Africa and around the world who died trying to be good to their faith because of the pseudo-science that permeates the Vatican.

        5. The idea that the Vatican is worth less than one billion is, frankly, ludicrous. Not only is it a huge amount of land, with huge amounts of structural facilities, security technologies, but its historical worth make it worth hundreds of billions. The problem with assessing exactly how much it is worth is the fact that the Church officials would never let someone appraise it, mainly because once we find the exact value they would be under enormous pressure to sell the Vatican and give the money to the poor, as their holy book requires of them. Your idea of using your wealth to “revere” the Eucharist reminds me of the vulture capitalism of Mitt Romney which the Church has already repudiated.

        6. This is something me and Christians must agree to disagree on — putting any level of infallibility on anyone, or any group of people, is quite foreign to me and strikes me as unreasonable and quite dangerous.

        Very good discussion. I look forward to discussing more. And once again, I am grateful that you took the time to come up with a thoughtful, critical, well-written response.