Church Reform, Clergy, Hierarchy

Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 7: Summary and Conclusions


This seven-part series of articles began as one shorter article which I originally wrote soon after the report on sex abuse and church cover-up in Pennsylvania was released. After some discussions with a variety of small groups, it was evident that the items mentioned in the shorter piece needed more content and development. That expanded effort ended up close to 5,000 words, which I judged was too long for the format I planned to use for publication.

I then decided to write these seven separate, but interlocking, articles. Each of these topics deserves even more space. The hope is that readers will think about, research, discuss, clarify, dispute and finally internalize their own conclusions about each theme. As the scandal of sex abuse and cover-up unfolds within the Catholic culture, more insights will emerge, greater clarity will appear, and needed change will either be accepted or rejected. Multiple articles by a variety of authors have already been written offering an avalanche of helpful insights. Many more will follow.

In any case, significant consequences for the Catholic church and its mission are emerging. This series was intended to contribute a little something to the ongoing challenge.

The goal was to describe some of the underlying issues that compose a Catholic culture which augments the now-exposed sex abuse and ecclesiastical cover-up within the church. Unless these more substantive issues are addressed, the Catholic church as an institution will lose even more credibility, and its mission to channel the message, comfort and challenge of Jesus will be compromised even further.

Themes like the theology of the episcopacy, victim first response, abolition of forced celibacy and male only ordination, shared decision-making with laity, clear due process procedures, and more specific priest roles are all parts of a serious reform process. Other issues are also involved. The suggestion here is to create a 10-year project to launch this rethinking and restructuring effort. The end result will be a church more closely aligned with the gospel and the teachings of Vatican II.

The suggestions embedded in these articles are fundamental to how Catholics could experience their church in the future. Early centuries in church history offered a much different experience than the current way of being Catholic. What we now have is transitory, and there is no reason this current Catholic experience is necessary for future centuries. We have learned what does not adequately reflect the teachings, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. For at least a millennium we have allowed a male, clerical leadership to control the institutional church, and the result has been dwindling membership, loss of credibility, widespread sex abuse, and cover-up bishops and popes.

We clearly need radical change based on the gospel and an extension of themes outlined in Vatican II but not fully implemented. When we lament the continuing revelations about sex abuse and cover-up bishops, we are forced to consider the issues outlined in these articles, and other related topics, as areas that demand reformation.

Millions of people have already chosen to simply leave the Catholic church, and find their spiritual guidance in other denominations, faiths, teachings or nowhere. Without some transformative renovations, millions more will follow.

We live in pivotal times, and the future will be quite different from today. The choice of how that future will be rests with us and the decisions we make now. A 10-year, fully engaged commitment involving the whole church, with substantive contributions from women and laity, without clerical dominance, will save the church from itself and help it rediscover the spirit of the early church, with an emphasis on the clear message of Jesus of love, forgiveness, compassion, and service.

I am grateful to the Southern Illinois Association of Priests (SIAP), of which I am a founding member, for creating a forum to publish these articles. These columns are not official statements of the organization but this website provides a platform for members to express their opinions. In particular, thanks to member Jon Garinn, who developed and manages this website. Find us at Browse the site for more information about SIAP. For this series of articles, click on Recommended. Please forward this address to your family, friends and interested organizations

Church Reform, Clergy, Hierarchy

Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 6: The Role of the Priest


There is no specific job description for a parish priest. Since Catholicism is so focused on sacraments, there is a general expectation that priests will preside during Catholic sacramental, ritual actions. But beyond that, job duties vary immensely. A priest can be as busy, as involved, as committed as he wants to be. Or he can be as lazy, as isolated, as detached as he wants to be. Unless he has another job attached to his priesthood, a job like teaching for example, he can rather easily schedule his day with a lot of free, unsupervised time.

The point here is that a priest who is also a sexual predator can find the time and space to act out his inclinations, and there is no one who will question where he is or how he spends his time. Other people with “regular” jobs have scheduled tasks to perform and some kind of work-related accountability usually including an on-site supervisor. That is not the norm with parish priests.

Preparation for the priesthood has centered on orthodox doctrine. The underlying message is that you will be a fine priest if you know the correct answers to questions related to faith and morals. The skills needed to celebrate the sacraments are minimal, and most of those skills are written out in detail in ritual books anyway. Unlike doctors, lawyers, plumbers, technicians, or engineers, the parish priest has little or no training except in church doctrine. In effect, his ministry is personality-based rather than skill-based.

We all have our personality flaws and they will occasionally interfere with our lives and relationships. And that’s the best case. A priest may officiate at sacraments perfectly but may be ineffective or even destructive in other aspects of his ministerial life. His ability to relate positively with people is crucial to the success of his ministry.

If a priest has a personality disorder, it will affect his relationships. If that disorder includes his sexual life, that too will impact his relationships. And if that disorder is severe enough, like pedophilia, his behavior will likely include sex abuse.

While a more structured work life will not cure major sex abuse inclinations, more work-related accountability may make it harder to act out in a sexually abusive manner. The built-in freedom that priesthood allows makes it that much easier to indulge these inclinations and the power inherent in the position makes it safer for the abuser to identify and victimize his targets.

There are many other reasons priesthood needs restructuring, but this one about protection of children and adults from sex abuse is a significant factor. Included in that restructuring is the need to create realistic and specific job descriptions for priests. For example, seminaries need to focus more on priestly ministry rather than dogmatic teaching. What is it that parish priests are expected to do every day? Specifically.  Priests who minister in large urban areas have a very different experience than those who serve in a rural setting. A suburban environment varies considerably from both urban or rural. Train seminarians for these different ministerial responsibilities and the variations of the parishioner profiles in each of these situations. What issues affect people in these various environments, and how best can the message of Jesus be delivered in these sometimes-conflicting settings? Draw up corresponding job descriptions and provide seminary education and training to prepare priests to minister accordingly. Include some dogma, of course, but not as the primary, or exclusive, focus as it has been for centuries.

Provide this revised approach for current priests as well.

Along with more precise job descriptions for priests, implement more accountable adherence to these specific ministerial responsibilities. Educate priests in the skills needed to be successful. Since priesthood is also personality-based, develop tools to help monitor the quality of the relationships that the priest experiences in his priestly role.  Bishops would then be chosen who excel in this area.

There are multiple benefits from this revision and re-emphasis. One would likely be a minimization of sex abuse and the need to cover up these crimes. In any case, the current Catholic culture and clerical lifestyle does not work well in the 21st century. The centrality of teaching and preaching correct orthodox doctrine is not the answer. Combined with other comments on Catholic culture from previous articles in this series, this suggested revision of the role of the priest will offer healthier and more genuine leadership that will, at the same time, minimize occurrences of sexual abuse and the need for cover-ups.

Church Reform, Clergy, Hierarchy, Laity

Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 5: Lack of Due Process


When a child or adult is a victim of a priest sexual offender, what recourse does the victim (or the parents of a child) have to seek justice for the alleged crime?

They can report the action to a local law enforcement agency immediately, as they would in other presumed criminal behavior.

But what if the offending act took place years ago and the statute of limitations has expired? Or, what do they do if they want to take the complaint to church authorities in any case?

Many times in recent history, that church appeal didn’t go very far. That’s because the Catholic church does not have a transparent due process procedure, and the Catholic culture does not provide a clear path to resolution of these cases for the laity. This virtual lack of due process is another facet of Catholic life that protects clerical sex abusers and the bishops who cover up their crimes. Diocesan review boards, established about 15 years ago, were an improvement but they needed regular updating with an aggressive “best practices” formula and even greater independence from episcopal interference.

As the Pennsylvania report graphically portrayed, credible allegations of sexual abuse were routinely ignored, minimized, or secretly silenced through monetary payments, threats of public exposure, or shaming parents and critics for damaging the image of the church. For the most part, those people who withstood this barrage of cover-up tactics got nowhere moving up the hierarchical ladder with their complaints. Even the Vatican stonewalled a thorough, in-house investigation of these allegations. When some of the abuse and cover-up trickled out into the public, the response was to express some sorrow and the need for an apology and to seek forgiveness. But little or nothing addressed the systemic, inbred, structural deficiencies that contributed to the prevailing culture that fostered these atrocities. The lack of effective due process procedures within the Catholic church was one of those structural deficiencies.

For most of my life, I worked in the Church in various parish and diocesan positions, but for 10 years I was an employee of American Airlines. The policy and procedures manual at AA was a full three-inch binder of small print. It covered almost every conceivable personnel and administrative situation with clear, and just, directions. Similar manuals, if they existed, in the three dioceses I worked in are not even close to the thoroughness and fairness of the AA manual. The church preached justice to employees, and even promoted unions, but in practice, church employees worked at the whim of the pastor or bishop. There was no due process. It’s no wonder that priest pedophiles and cover-up bishops felt immune from consequences.

Another deficiency of this due process fiasco concerned false allegations of clerical sexual misconduct. Contrary to normal, accepted principles, an accused priest is presumed guilty until proven innocent. There must be a better procedure than that. Here’s a suggestion: perhaps a private notification of an accusation with a covert, temporary monitoring until credible guilt is established. If that guilt is not determined, there would be no public announcement of the allegation. Some norm must be created that protects priests and bishops from false allegations. Due process is due to all parties involved.

Within the murky waters of a vague, clerically dominated, and porous due process procedure, a de facto pedophile priest and cover-up bishop can still find refuge and protection from accountability and discovery. The spotlight now shining on this corner of the Catholic culture is revealing centuries of dark secrets, extensive sexual abuse, and hierarchical smokescreens. The time is right to face these issues squarely and honestly.  It is not the time to minimize the public damage, wait it out, make some surface adjustments, pledge to do better, and still maintain the structural, institutional and cultural factors that contributed to the damaging presence of clerical sex abusers and cover-up bishops.

The greatest threat to any religion is not people of a different faith, or of no professed faith. The greatest threat are the people within that religion who use it for their own personal pleasure or needs. This time of exposure is a time for genuine structural reform. Due process restructuring is a crucial piece to that reform.

Church Reform, Clergy

Sex Abuse, Cover-Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 4: Clerical Power Dominates


Every Catholic in every pew, including those who don’t sit in those pews anymore, knows that clerical power dominates within the Catholic system. Pedophile priests and cover-up bishops know it, too. And that concentration of power within the clergy is another element in our current culture that augments the widespread presence of abusing priests and the bishops who have covered up their crimes.

Sanctioned and sanctified by canon law, the priest, bishop, and pope have final authority and decision-making power in all situations. Parish trustees are supposed to oversee financial matters, but they are appointed by the pastor. Pastoral councils are advisory only, and any decisions they make can be vetoed by the pastor. Bishops, and, of course, the pope, have similar and expanded power. While many pastors are wise enough to seek the advice of lay people, we all know that a new pastor can neutralize the pastoral council immediately. The same dynamic thrives at the diocesan level. And there is no practical recourse. This system eliminates accountability and promotes a feeling of immunity for some clerical personalities.

A pedophile priest in such a system can choose his victims without much fear of discovery. No one is watching him, supervising him. He easily learns the profile of a vulnerable victim and uses his status as a weapon. The bishop has even more freedom and the presumption of wisdom and sound judgment because of his position. He was promoted by the institution and so his loyalty is to the institution. His unchecked power reinforces his sometimes-misplaced priorities. His decisions are the right decisions because he made them. Some bishops are able to reject this power-fueled temptation but others, obviously, are not. And there is no one to stop him. A culture of clerical power floods the Catholic experience and feeds pedophile priests and cover-up bishops.

One of the most discouraging aspects of this total clerical domination within the Catholic culture is that there is no relief in sight. Centuries of teaching have reinforced this clerical strangle-hold on Catholic decision making. Popes, cardinals, bishops and pastors are all in total control of their related fiefdoms and can do or not do whatever they wish as long as they celebrate the sacraments validly and are not too blatant about stealing, abusing, lying, or their own public image. All they have to do is preach and teach orthodox Catholic doctrine which is easy to do especially when their underlying primary focus is on devious behavior.

Thankfully, many priests and bishops are genuine in their commitment, compassionate in their ministry, and balanced in their personalities. But there are some, obviously way too many, who are deceptive and self-serving. They misuse their clerical power for their own pleasure and victimize people, even kids, to satisfy their destructive tendencies. That deviation is what numerous surveys, multiple investigations, thousands of testimonies all over the world have made evident. Clerical power dominates the Catholic culture and its pervasive presence causes devastation, broken lives, pharisaic hypocrisy, and excruciating, personal pain worldwide. And it is done in the name of Jesus.

Most reforms that have been implemented to address the problem are mere window-dressing. Popes, bishops and priests have made the requisite statements of outrage and sorrow. Those who are responsible for priestly formation have pledged to screen priest candidates more thoroughly; to implement more enlightened training to ensure better men are ordained. Discussions and debates about some form of accountability have taken place throughout the church. Zero-tolerance policies have been implemented. Any and all of these reforms could help.

But without addressing the clerical power structure that props up the institutional church, there is little chance these changes will sufficiently protect future children and adult victims of sexual assault from power-influenced, forced sex on unwilling and/or unwitting prey of clerical sexual deviants. And the cover-ups will continue in order to maintain that same power structure.

In short, the Catholic church must include laity, men and women, in the decision-making process at all levels, from the parish church to the Vatican. This shared decision making must represent genuine power, not token advice. Other denominations have variations on this collaboration and Catholics can learn from them. A hierarchy can be preserved but it would look much different from the way it now looks.

The only thing that is preventing this new form of governance is the willingness to do it.

If the Catholic church is serious about changing the Catholic culture in order to deal with this sex abuse and cover-up scandal, this core topic must be addressed openly.

Church History, Church Reform, Clergy, Hierarchy, Tradition

Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 3: Sexuality and Forced Celibacy


Many of the priests and bishops who have been identified as pedophiles and sexual predators went through a seminary system that differed from the current approach. Whether the present version of seminary training will also create an environment that produces a similar rate of sex abusers as the former approach remains to be seen. There are fewer seminarians and priests than there were in the past, so the raw number of pedophiles and predators should also decrease. Hopefully.

Looking back on the previous approach to priestly formation, it is no wonder that the emotional and sexual development of seminarians and priests would likely produce some with serious sexual problems. Enticing young, elementary school boys to enter the seminary in high school to begin their long journey to ordination was a prescription for arrested sexual and emotional growth. It was not only the all-male environment, which eliminated normal developmental relationships with girls and women, but also the rules-focused, continually monitored setting that prevented some personalities from maturing, sexually and psychologically.

Since the vast number of priests ordained before 1980 experienced some version of that kind of seminary training and a priestly life that followed a similar pattern, it could have been predicted that some of those priests would be diverted from normal, expected, and accepted sexual behavior.

Forced celibacy highlights and nourishes this anti-sex regimen. Celibacy does not cause pedophilia. But celibacy is a requirement for priesthood and, for centuries, many priests professed it because there was no other way to be an ordained minister in the Catholic Church. (In recent decades, the diaconate became available to married men.) Still, some priests who profess, but do not accept, celibacy have serious psychological conflicts regarding sexuality. Obviously, too many of them acted out these destructive sexual behaviors, including pedophilia. And bishops trained in the same seminaries and living the same priesthood covered up the damaging behavior of their fellow priests. Their similar life experiences created some unhealthy bonding that contributed to protecting the offending priests.

Celibacy is a gift for some people, male and female, who specifically choose a single way of life. It is not a specific gift for ministry, and the reasons the Catholic Church requires the coupling of the gift of ordained ministry with celibacy are murky, suspect, and institutionally damaging. It is stubbornly negligent to continue the practice into the 21st century.

The ultimate goal would be to have a fully integrated, male/female, married/celibate ordained priesthood and episcopacy which would collaborate with the laity in all substantive decisions. While arguments for a married clergy and for women’s ordination differ to some extent, the result of those discussions should lead to an all-inclusive clergy. Those policy decisions would normalize the sexual experience of ordained ministers.

While eliminating forced celibacy would not guarantee a total exclusion of pedophiles from the Catholic clergy, normalizing the ordained clergy sexually would prevent people with pedophile tendencies from seeking public shelter for their destructive behavior and easy access to potential victims. The priesthood would no longer provide a convenient cover for a person who is also a predator pedophile.

It’s also likely that a married episcopacy (most of the apostles were married men, after all) would temper the personalities and decisions of local bishops.

Since the sex abuse and cover-up scandal directly concerns sexual activity, a core fix must also deal directly with sex. Other aspects of Catholic culture are also involved, as this seven-part series insists. But the central factor of human sexuality must play a major role in addressing the scandal and the behavior that caused it.

The history of the Catholic church in terms of sexuality in general has been extremely negative. The constant message has been that sex is bad and all sexual expression must be tightly regulated and repressed. Sex within marriage is acceptable for the sake of procreation but sexual enjoyment, even within marriage, has been suspect and generally misunderstood and underappreciated by a supposedly celibate clergy. Overcoming that overwhelming onslaught will be extremely difficult and will take enlightened leadership and courageous action. But correcting the teachings, policies, and practices of centuries of Church insistence on this fundamentally negative version of sex is necessary to minimize the sexual exploitation of children and vulnerable adults, male and female, in the future.

Anything less than that wholesale reversal will continue to leave some children and adults vulnerable to the proclivities of sexually deviant priests and bishops who provide cover for their crimes.