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Written Word > Articles & Commentaries > December 2010 > Wise Words from the Bishop of Rome Concerning the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal
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Wise Words from the Bishop of Rome Concerning the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal

By Rev. Robert Barron

It is the custom of the Pope to offer Christmas greetings to his official family, the bishops and Cardinals who direct the various departments of the Roman Curia. But his words at this occasion are typically much more than mere pleasantries. They constitute, usually, a kind of review of the previous year from the perspective of the Bishop of Rome. The Christmas statement that Benedict XVI made just this morning to his official entourage was of particular gravity, precisely because it represents one of his most thorough and insightful assessments of the clerical sex abuse scandal. 

The Pope drew attention to an arresting vision experienced by the 12th century German mystic, Hildegard of Bingen. Hildegard saw an incomparably beautiful woman, stretching from earth to heaven, and clothed in luminous vestments. But the woman’s radiant face was covered in dust, her vesture was ripped on one side, and her shoes were blackened. Then the mystic heard a voice from heaven announcing that this was an image of the church, beautiful but compromised. The Pope appropriated this image and interpreted it in light of our present stuggles, commenting, “the face of the Church is stained with dust, and this is how we have seen it. Her gament is torn—by the sins of priests. The way she (Hildegard) saw and expressed it is the way we have experienced it this year.” Pretty blunt language that. The Pope specified that the Church must pose some serious questions about its own life if it is to understand the conditions that made the sex abuse crisis possible. Strikingly, he observed, “We must ask ourselves what was wrong in our proclamation, in our whole way of living the Christian life, to allow such a thing to happen.”

These are not the words of someone who is exculpating the church or trying to brush the problem under the carpet. The Pope is implying here that there was something seriously awry in regard to the church’s entire manner of self-presentation, the way in which church representatives taught Christ, and more importantly, showed him forth. Mind you, this has nothing to do with inadequacies in the teachings themselves (does anyone think that the church has ever been anything but clear in regard to the immorality of sexually abusing children?); but I think the Holy Father is indeed critiquing a lack of focus, a loss of energy and purpose, a certain drift and uncertainty on the part of those charged with presenting the demands of the Christian life in their full integrity. The Pope concluded that the church must be willing to do penance. No excuses here, no attempts at self-justification, no passing of the buck. Just a clear and simple call for penitence and reform.

But then the Pope introduced a wider horizon, a further context for analysis and interpretation. The Church, he reminded us, does not exist in isolation from trends and tendencies in the general society, and therefore, this terrible ecclesiastical problem of clerical sexual abuse should be understood in relation to certain dysfunctions within the environing culture. The Pope pointed out, for example, that child pornography, a curse throughout the world, is being considered “more and more normal by society” and that “the psychological destruction of children, in which human persons are reduced to articles of merchandise, is a terrifying sign of the times.” More to it, he related that numerous bishops who come to see him in Rome inform him of the horror of “sexual tourism,” the exploiting of children, often in the undeveloped world, by predators from the wealthier nations. Though it inevitably exposes him to the charge of not taking the issue of ecclesiastical corruption with requisite seriousness, the Pope was correctly situating the clerical sex abuse crisis in the context of a far more pervasive moral crisis in the society. The sexual abuse of children takes place, to state it bluntly, everywhere in our culture: in families, in schools, in hospitals, in locker rooms and on playgrounds. The difficulty is by no means unique to the Catholic Church or to the celibate priesthood; it is, sadly enough, a human problem.

The deepest problem—and this brings Pope Benedict back to one of his favorite themes—is an ethical relativism that would dictate that no act can ever be described as intrinsically evil, that is to say, wrong no matter what the context or motivation or consequences. The Pope’s own characterization of the attitude is pithy and clear: “anything can be good or also bad, depending upon purposes and circumstances.” It is this faulty philosophy, born of our profound reluctance to have any limits set to our self-determination and freedom, which has produced the moral atmosphere in which the sexual abuse of children became such a pervasive reality.

I believe that this extraordinary statement of the Pope effectively holds off two approaches that are simply non-starters, namely, an ecclesiastical defensiveness that refuses to own up to the deep and wicked dysfunction within the church itself and an anti-Catholicism that refuses to own up to the disturbing presence of this problem throughout our morally confused culture. If we are truly interested in solving the problem of the sexual abuse of children by the clergy, we should attend to these wise words from the Bishop of Rome.

Posted: 12/20/2010 12:00:00 AM by Word On Fire Admin | with 7 comments
Filed under: PopeBenedict, sexabuse

John Paul Parks
Fr. Barron: Your reference to "the disturbing presence of this problem throughout our morally confused culture," is merely another way of saying "everyone else is doing it." Parents do not accept that excuse from their misbehaving children, and I do not accept it from the Catholic church. The church claims to possess the sole means of eternal salvation, and states that "outside the church, there is no salvation," so it is not morally permissible for the church to use the failings of those it damns to hell as an excuse for its own shortcomings.
1/6/2011 12:54:06 AM
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My local diocesan paper recently published an editorial by a cleric floating a test baloon statement to the effect that the churches problems with sexual abuse are in the past and that it is time to move forward. I was happy to see this report that the Pope is calling his Cardinals to come to grip with the problem that still exists. Part of that is a larger problem. In my opinion, the Church exhibits a lame or crippled understanding of human sexuality. It is largely negative. "Just don't do it unless you are married; and thanks for the kids if you are." Non-fertile expressions of sexuality are second class while homosexuality is an absolute "no-no."

A while back I sat in the pews for mass with a group of Catholics. Though I was delighted to see many young faces and hear the babbling of newborns and toddlers, I would still guess that half the congregation was 60 or older. Since it was around Christmas Monsignor chose the topic of family life in the church and reviewed our beliefs on the importance of raising children as Catholic. He did not say a thing addressed to the seniors who patiently listened. The purpose of my tale is to point out how limited our perspective is on human love. Though we are disgusted and rail against the sexual excesses we see in our society, our stilted compromised view of love and sex keeps us from formulating a better way. You may call that our challenge for the 21st Century. We had better get to it since there are only 90 years left.
1/6/2011 7:01:47 AM
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Chana Silverman
This is the most disheartening commentary on our Church. I understand what the Holy father is saying, but I wish his comments, as well thought out and wise as they are would pack more of a punch. PUNCH right in the gut the result of these sins - the shame, the disgust, the outrage, the pain. The clergy should declare an annul day for mourning over these heinous sins committed before all of Heaven, by donning sack cloth and ashes, fastings and prayers and special masses of repentance. Does the world and all those who have been abused really belief we are deeply grieved about them and are doing everything we can to prevent them and make amends? I doubt it.
1/9/2011 12:01:39 PM
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Ed Willneff
The Holy Father was absolutely clear about the evil and sin of sexually abusive priests within the Church -- and the need for penance. To any of us with eyes to see and ears to hear how can we disagree with the Holy Father on the relevance of the broader issue of our degraded culture of death, pornography, self gratification and narcissism all around us --beginning with abortion. Thank you, Fr. Barron, and God bless you for another great essay!
1/10/2011 9:07:05 PM
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Andrew Frank
I wish more people would actually read the text before accusing the Pope and the Church of making excuses.

Having taken the time to do that, I find it difficult to interpret the Pope’s message as anything other than a call for renewal, a call to arms against the kind of relativistic thinking that, as he points out, has at times even made headway with members of the Church. The Church is not immune to such things and has always acknowledged that fact. Nothing changes here.

I must add that most of the media, with a typical disregard for opinions actually containing even semi-complex thought, has very much jumped on the chance to reduce Papal observations to misleading sound bites nearly every time he speaks, and apparently without ever reading any of his comments in context. Pope Benedict’s problems interacting with the modern media do not derive from a lack of clarity or ‘punch’ on his part, but from his reliance on analyzing complex issues and subtle points in an intellectual manner, a manner that occurs over the course of paragraphs or essays rather than in one or two vague sentences. I would say this media disconnect has been an issue since the beginning of his pontificate and probably, though I am rather young to remember, has always been an issue surrounding the modern papacy.

I should think this lack of communication is more the fault of trends in media rather than anything the Holy Father has actually said. Modern society seems to suffer from a very unhealthy aversion to extended explanation or argumentation, even in written media.
2/7/2011 5:24:01 PM
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Robert Burford
Interesting correlation between slavery, homosexuality, pedophilia and pornography in the world in general as a reflection of our entire society including clergy. Reminds me of Christ's words in Matthew Chapter Seven. "Unless you follow my commandments I do not know you." This goes for the Pope down to me and reminds me that I have not been to confession in four months and I am due.
2/14/2011 5:29:49 AM
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Sean O'Rahilly
I will begin to take the Pope's words seriously when he removes Bernard Law from his position as archpriest of Santa Maria Maggiore and sends him back to Boston to face criminal prosecution for his part in the sex-abuse cover-up.
3/9/2011 7:54:38 AM
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