As a nation we waited to hear the final communique from the Vatican as U.S. cardinals and bishops deliberated in Rome on what to do with its pedophilic priests.
When Pope John Paul II said pedophilia is “rightly considered a crime,” I was aghast that the Vatican and cardinals did not embrace a zero-tolerance policy, but instead deflected attention from the issue by deciding to raise questions about a plausible causality between pedophilia and homosexuality. In the face of overwhelming evidence by behavioral scientists to refute such a harmful, hateful and homophobic claim, the Catholic Church, nonetheless, believes that a homosocial atmosphere of gay men produces a preponderance of pedophilic priests.
The fallout from such a claim by an ecclesiastical body cannot only bring attacks on lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender people within the church, but can also bring attacks on us within society. And while many LGBT people can stay away from the church, none of us can stay away from society.
Clearly the issue facing the Catholic Church is not about whether LGBT people or celibacy cause pedophilia. It is, however, about the church’s egregious neglect to address the issue of sexual violence by priests against children for decades.
Pontificating from on high with homophobic pronouncements — that a cure for pedophilia is now in sight by banishing future gay men from the priesthood — neither exonerates the Catholic Church from its past actions nor its future plans to resolve the issue. If anything, such pronouncements invite gay bashing of LGBT people, now done not as a hate crime, but, instead, as a righteous act in order to protect children and to avenge the hallowed image of the church. In a desperate effort to save itself at anyone’s expense, the Catholic Church will focus on LGBT people or the issue of celibacy, and not on itself.
In not adopting a zero-tolerance policy for abusive priests, the Catholic Church closes its eyes toward justice. However, when it is forced, like now, to open its eyes in the face of its own institutional crimes and sins, the Catholic Church still will not take full responsibility or accountability for its evasive policies and wayward clerics.
In an interview with The Boston Globe, Chicago Cardinal Francis George differentiates between serial child abusers and first-time offenders. “Zero tolerance in the sense that one strike if you like, one any possible kind of offense of this nature, means that therefore you are ejected from the priesthood, there has to be some discussion. . . It’s always wrong. It’s a terrible crime, it’s an awful sin against God. . . But then once you say that if there is some possibility of reform of one’s life . . . what do you do with that person?”
I believe that one of the reasons why Catholic officials avoid implementing a zero-tolerance policy for pedophilic priests is because the church neither sees nor understands pedophilia as a form of sexual violence. Its pervasiveness within the church, from its seminarians to its bishops, has anesthetized church officials to the severity of the crime and its effects, both on the victims and their families.
Pedophilia is a form of sexual violence. And as such, pedophilia is the expression of anger through sexual exploitation. It is the abuse of power and the use of force, such as manipulation, physical violence, emotional coercion and extortion, that is either expressed through sex or its result is in the sphere of one’s sexuality. It is an affront, an assault, and a violation to one’s sense of bodily integrity and it is viciously maintained within ecclesiastical institutions by both clerical patriarchy and heterosexism.
While the commonly held belief these days, given the media frenzy, is that Catholic priests have a patent on this form of sexual violence, pedophilia is not specific to one’s gender, race, class, sexual orientation, vocation, or religion. Viewed as a sin and not a crime by most clerics, pedophilia maintains itself in ecclesiastical institutions like the Catholic Church through a culture of silence, deception, and shame, and it is believed to be overcome by daily offerings of prayers and penance — but not prosecution.
While pedophilia is a sin within a theological view because it is an ongoing act that exercises control in the life of the pedophile to the point that it enslaves the person and relegates him to a fallen state, pedophilia is also a crime within a legal view. After all, these men are sex offenders like any other sex offenders. And, if found guilty, they should be placed on sex offender registries as the law requires.
While the pedophile needs forgiveness both by God and the church for his transgression, he also needs to be held culpable by society and the state for his crime.
With its pedophilic priests, the Catholic Church protects both sinners and criminals by foisting its crime on LGBT people. If the Catholic Church ever goes to itself for penance, may it one day confess its own criminal acts of wrongdoing.