US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Sex abuse across the pond

Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

The astonishing 2,600 page report documenting decades of child abuse in Catholic workhouses, schools, and reformatories in Ireland is revealing once again that the criminal mistreatment of children in Catholic institutions is a problem that extends beyond our shores. (You can read the LA Times story here.) For me, it highlights a couple of fallacies that some have used to explain away the U.S. sex abuse crisis:

1. It's an "American" problem: Obviously not, though the connection between the Irish church and the American one is interesting. American Catholicism was profoundly influenced by Irish Catholicism, and many of our clergy have been "foreign-born" Irish. I wonder how many of our clergy were formed in the Irish church culture, how many of our abusers were Irish, and of those, how many were abused themselves. These are only questions, however, not conclusions, but worth asking nonetheless.

2. Sex abuse has something to do with "laxity" after Vatican II: The Irish report documents cases that go back to the 1930s and continue into the 1990s. Just as in the U.S., a great many of the abusers were either vowed or ordained well before the reforms of Vatican II affected seminaries, changes that didn't occur until at least the mid-1970s.

3. Sex abuse can be blamed on gay clergy/religious: The fact that abuse was also widespread among religious women--primarily physical abuse in this case--points to the power dimension of the abuse and its systemic quality. In other words, once this kind of disciplinary behavior is tolerated, it becomes part of the system and can escalate. It's true that sexual humiliation was used more often in the boys' schools, but I'd argue this is more an issue of males exerting power over males in a single-sex context (like a prison). We may be talking about same-sex abuse and rape, but that doesn't mean we're talking about homosexuality.

Of course, unpacking the whys and wherefores isn't as important as support of the victims and another community examination of conscience about how such incomprehesibly evil and utterly inexcusable behavior was allowed to flourish among the people of God.