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Wise Words from the Bishop of Rome Concerning the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal

December 20, 2010


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.