Abuse & Scandal

Editorial for May 2014

We see in Francis’ interactions with children Jesus’ own special affection for God’s littlest and most vulnerable ones.  And it is that same reverence and love which must be the work of every Christian, priests first and foremost…

This month of May opened bittersweetly with Pope Francis’ meeting with his Commission for the Protection of Minors (May 1-3).  To say that the Holy Father “is committed” to eradicating this filth would be platitudinal and insulting.  As with most things which he has handled this past year, Pope Francis refuses to seek a merely natural or legal answer.  He wants instead to conform all things to Christ.  Echoing the Son’s “becoming” sin for sinners (cf. 2 Cor 5:21), he has, therefore, publically promised that he is:

 …compelled to personally take on all the evil which some priestsquite a few in number, obviously not compared to the number of all the prieststo personally ask for forgiveness for the damage they have done for having sexually abused children. The Church is aware of this damage; it is personal, moral damage carried out by men of the Church, and we will not take one step backward with regards to how we will deal with this problem, and the sanctions that must be imposed. On the contrary, we have to be even stronger. Because you cannot interfere with children (Meeting with the International Catholic Child Bureau (ICCB), April 11, 2014).

We see in Francis’ interactions with children Jesus’ own special affection for God’s littlest and most vulnerable ones.  And it is that same reverence and love which must be the work of every Christian, priests first and foremost—“What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” (Lk 11:11).

Just two days after Francis’ address to the ICCB, the United Nations’ Committee Against Torture sought to portray the Vatican as an insouciant organization which advances rogue clerics, and covers up the abuse of minors, for the sake of institutional glory.  The American on the panel, Felice Gaer, blasted the Holy See and scolded the Vatican, telling its representatives to admit that:

…as a party to the convention, you have a system in place to prohibit torture and cruel, inhuman, and degrading punishment when it is acquiesced to by anyone under the effective control of the officials of the Holy See, and the institutions that operate in the Vatican City state.

By reading the papers these days, you would think that Catholicism’s treatment of children is not much different than Boko Haram’s recent kidnappings, or the Taliban’s constant beatings.  So sad.  So incredible.  How did we get here?

The lecherous priest has been the “MacGuffin” of anti-Catholic America since Westerners came to these shores.  When the news of the scandals in Boston first broke, back in 2002, I was in the middle of theology studies at the Jesuit College in Innsbruck, Austria.  The Europeans with whom I lived then simply assumed the stories and the tales of the abuse of minors were one more instance of anti-Catholic America.  As the headlines multiplied, and the details became more lurid, however, we all knew that to apply for ordination during those days meant becoming very public figures of a Church rightly under attack.  What my ordination class believed to be true was confirmed by the 2004 report from John Jay College.  This report showed that sexual deviance was no more prevalent amongst celibates than elsewhere (although we should, of course, expect more from a consecrated and obedient servus Dei), and that where such deviance did occur, it was most often “the result of poor seminary training, and insufficient emotional support for men ordained in the 1940s and 1950s.”  This certainly challenges the nostalgia of anyone who wants to return to the “glory days” of a pre-Vatican II Church.  While some important elements of our Faith may have been stronger and clearer back then, the unquestionable and absolute power of the cleric, and the resultant lack of transparency and accountability by many in charge, created a very fragile foundation in their personal prayer and moral lives.  Now we see, all too clearly, that when a foundation of such importance crumbles, it cannot help but hurt so many innocents entrusted to its care.

St. Ignatius of Loyola contends that one of the first steps in eradicating the holds of the Devil is to expose him to the light—to talk to a close friend, or a trusted confessor, about all the fallen desires of one’s heart.  In that light, the Enemy flees:

The Enemy acts as a licentious lover in wanting to be secret and not revealed. For, as the licentious man who, speaking for an evil purpose, solicits a daughter of a good father or a wife of a good husband, wants his words and persuasions to be secret, and the contrary displeases him much, when the daughter reveals to her father or the wife to her husband his licentious words and depraved intention, because he easily gathers that he will not be able to succeed with the undertaking begun: in the same way, when the enemy of human nature brings his wiles and persuasions to the just soul, he wants and desires that they be received and kept in secret; but when one reveals them to his good Confessor, or to another spiritual person that knows his deceits and evil ends, it is very grievous to him, because he gathers, from his manifest deceits being discovered, that he will not be able to succeed with his wickedness begun (Thirteenth Rule for the Discernment of Spirits).

Perhaps, one of Pope Francis’ lasting legacies will prove to be this sort of transparency and public trust.  This is what gives me hope: as the abuse cases are brought into the light, and as the Church learns to vet seminarians, and all of her representatives with greater psychological and spiritual rigor, the Enemy’s hold on abuse lessens.  Through the wounds of our Church, the whole world has learned this invaluable lesson. Would preventing the sexual abuse of children be the top priority of any organization today if it had not been for that lingering Good Friday in Boston over a decade ago?  This is not at all to justify or rationalize the sins exposed there, but it is to point to a pattern we see in God’s economy.  Through the story of Christ’s Body, every place where children gather is now safer, every adult who interacts with kids is now better screened, their pasts better checked.  The possibility of a child being sexually assaulted is now something we can not only talk about, it is something we can actively and publically seek to eradicate. Perhaps, God allowed us Catholics to become the opprobrium of the nations in order to show the world how best to put into place guidelines and policies that would protect his children.

Dawn Eden is one of these courageous children of God.  She is a fervent student of theology, a public speaker, a Catholic convert, writer, evangelist … and a survivor of childhood sexual abuse.  In her recent book, My Peace I Give You: Healing Sexual Wounds with the Help of the Saints (Ave Maria Press, 2012), Ms. Eden painfully and purgatively recalls her being abused as a young Jewish girl.  At the age of five, she was manipulated by a 70-year-old janitor into lewd acts at the temple where her family worshiped. As terrible and (what used to be) unimaginable as this might be, Dawn reveals a new layer of hurt as she writes about the day she finally told her mother, who responded: “How could you let him do that? … If you knew it was wrong, how could you let it happen?”  It has taken Dawn decades to begin to recover; and in imitation of the resurrected, yet still pierced, Christ, she has allowed these wounds to speak to our world of God’s power to heal and to transform each of us.

These efforts of hers serve as a microcosm of a greater story—the wounds of Christ’s body being healed by the grace of God—enabling a broken creature to stand up and announce that she is the daughter of an incessantly loving and ever-protective Father. 

This ugly chapter of the Church’s life has not been fully chronicled, but there is always the hope of Easter, and Christ’s promises of new life.  Perhaps, we should all pray and work for that next chapter.  Each of us should surely offer some sort of penance and sacrifice for the sins of our fathers.  What special sacrifices could each of us make on, say, Fridays during Ordinary Time?  Leaders like Pope Francis and Ms. Eden give me the verve to do so.  The headlines and stories that anger me as a Catholic, and embarrass me as a priest also—in my more prayerful moments—remind me that Christ’s Church is neither built on, nor sustained by, human means.  Ex opere operato—out of the work already worked—Christ continues to draw all people to his Father, and so feed his people who then become his Body.  This Body may rarely look holy, and it is clearly wounded and fractured.  Yet, in God’s timing, and in God’s ways, he is mending and uniting us.  Let us then pray for each other, and for our leaders, that the world may know the power of Paschal-tide through our charity, and maybe even through our wounds.

Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ About Fr. David Vincent Meconi, SJ

Fr. David Meconi, SJ is professor of patristic theology at St. Louis University and editor of the Homiletic and Pastoral Review (HPR). Fr. Meconi would like you to know that he offers Mass each month for readers of HPR; please be assured of his prayers for you.


  1. Avatar Bill Bannon says:

    The problem though is that this scandal was in the national press in 1985 with offenses in the South with the Fr. Gauthe case and in Rhode Island and one of the big network magazine shows covered it with I remember a female anchor chasing after a priest in a parking lot trying to question him why he had not reported a priest he saw in a lewd act. Court documents showed that the CDF office had an audio tape in 1979 of Fr. Shanley speaking on his weird sexual ideas before those of his thinking. The CDF office wrote Boston and inquired and Boston coyly remarked that they were watching such priests then in the early ’80’s. The CDF didn’t press it further and about four years later Shanley was promoted to pastor despite a Ms. Gaveux saying she twice warned Cardinal Law to his face about Shanley. A year or so later Shanley molested two boys. During the mid 80’s several priests made Vatican Cardinals aware of a growing scandal and one passed on a written report done by a canon lawyer to Pope St. John Paul II. The latter’s weakness in a number of cases was that he didn’t want to see such evil or believe it very much like when he believed the South African government over his own Bishop Hurley who said S.A. was torturing prisoners. Hurley proved correct when the S.A. high court admitted as much. St. John Paul didn’t believe Cardinal Groer nor Macial Maciel Delgollado were abusers and he was wrong again.
    What bothered the UN was the claim by the Vatican rep that the Vatican was only responsible for Vatican City when in fact canon law gives the Pope power that is ” supreme” and ” immediate” over “all the churches” and his decrees cannot be appealed. He could have decreed from the 1980’s that these men should be handed over to the police….Bishop Finn still got in trouble two years ago not doing that very thing.
    No one mentions that the Catholic diocesan press failed to protect anyone in general. During all this they were reporting the prosaic…nun anniversaries etc. This is a part of the problem that has undergone zero examination.

  2. Avatar Tom McGuire says:

    Dawn Eden’s greatest suffering was in not being believed when she finally got the courage to speak about what had happened. The deepest scandal in the Catholic Church was the arrogance of leaders who did not want to face the devil within the clerical class. What each of the children suffered in the sexual abuse by priests can be compared to what is happening to the children of Nigeria. Until we as Catholics deal with the arrogance of clerical power we will not eliminate scandal that leads people way from the joy of the good news of the Gospel.