Last week the Vatican brought together priests from around the world to address the pervasive child sexual abuse scandals perpetrated by members of the Catholic clergy and even non-Catholics eagerly followed the proceedings. With more princes of the Church being named and indicted as abusers the evidence that abuse is pervasive is incontrovertible.
The Pope should be commended for taking the radical first step in acknowledging how prevalent the scourge of abuse is and convening this conclave. Despite that, and rightfully so, he is coming under criticism for not doing more to address and help prevent this reprehensible and morally repugnant crisis from continuing. Calling priests that abuse children “tools of Satan” as the Pope did, does not help the Church provide a road map for containing them and protecting others from becoming their victims. A road map for change should have been developed but at this point none has – one would have at least expected a policy statement or change in reporting protocols. In reaction several commentators are suggesting changes to the Catholic dogma to protect children in the future. None of these suggestions are new but they are being presented with a new fervor. Most notable among them are that priests should be allowed to marry and that women should be ordained as priests.
As someone who is not Catholic, I cannot comment on the Church’s doctrine from a religious perspective. But I can evaluate recommendations regarding those who are sexual abusers of children in light of the data that has been accumulated. I can look at how abusers tend to operate, how they choose their victims and how they get away with their horrific behaviors.
It is now a well-known fact that most abuse happens at the hands of individuals who are well known to the victims and their families. Abusers are charmers. They groom not just their victims but the family of their victims and even the community they operate in.
To a very real degree people who sexually abuse children can be referred to as psychopaths. Like psychopaths they are so good at captivating people and then putting their own devilish desires ahead of everything and everyone else that few but the victims themselves may see it. The victims of Larry Nassar reported that he abused some of them even while their parents were in the exam room with him. Very much like Catholic priests who abuse, Nassar used the authority of his position and his charm to harm the hundreds of young people he was supposed to protect and aid. And it is not just Nassar who abused hundreds of children. The information we now have suggests that many abusers molest as many as 50 or more children during their active years.
The suggestion that if priests were given license by the Church to marry that would somehow alleviate the possibility of sexual abuse is a hollow argument. Sexual abuse occurs in families. I have personally seen far too many instances of married teachers and clerics who have molested children in their care as well as parents who have sexually abused their own children. In the other major religions that allow and encourage their clerics to marry there are reported instances of sexual abuse perhaps even at the same rates as in the Church.
I support the idea of granting women greater roles in religion. It is true that women are less likely to sexually abuse children than men but implying that giving women the priesthood alongside men might end the abuse of children is also a bit of a pipe dream. As we know, abusers be they male or female, are adept at distracting others so that they can get away with molesting their prey. A female priest, regardless of how sensitive she may be, is just as likely as anyone else to be diverted by an abuser.
The only real policy changes that can aid in tamping down the rates of abuse and restricting molesters are training children better at protecting themselves, an intervention that should not be challenged, and requiring that all reasonable causes to suspect abuse be immediately reported to the police or other secular authorities. These trained professionals are the only ones capable of investigating and following up with charges. Unfortunately, the Church, like most major religious institutions, are reluctant to have that become policy. They see it as giving away their sacred authority to outsiders and are fearful that they may lose control of their doctrine. Until there is a greater willingness to understand the limits of religious power and the importance of properly reporting abuse, I fear that not much will change.