Last week more than 300 Catholics gathered together. One by one, they came forward to an open microphone, giving their names and the parish to which they belong. I heard anger, pain, frustration – and yes, anguish.
Their perspectives varied. Some told about incidents of abuse. Others, who work for parishes, spoke about the strict standards to which they adhere in doing background checks on volunteers wishing to work with children. But they are unable to do the same with priests assigned to their parishes. Another area addressed in this debacle is the degree of pain experienced by good and decent priests in this archdiocese. Everyone present related how events relating to this scandal have deeply affected them.
There was one area of agreement. Committing sexual acts involving a child is reprehensible enough. But much of the anger went beyond the molestation of children, and instead was directed at actions of Archbishop John Nienstedt and those who work for him. Questions were raised if he is even capable of bringing about healing and necessary changes — much less whether he is willing to do so.
Unanimous show of hands
At one point the moderator asked those assembled if they believed the archbishop should resign. The show of hands was unanimous. Archbishop Nienstedt’s leadership has been severely impaired. There was little hope expressed by those present that constructive change and healing can occur as long as he remains here in Minnesota.
One person asked if there was any process in the Catholic Church for the removal of a bishop or archbishop. Unfortunately, the principle of subsidiarity in the Church (in which matters are best handled at the local or individual level in order to curb excessive power “from the top”) works against any clear process for removing a dysfunctional bishop.
The issue was raised as to why there have been no arrests made of archdiocesan officials since the cover-up of abusing priests has been much more than immoral. Obstruction of justice, including tampering with evidence, is a punishable crime in Minnesota. One person reminded the group of the request by St. Paul police for anyone abused to come forward as part of the police’s on-going investigation of this massive attempt to cover up wrong-doing.
Understanding the underlying causes and solutions to curb pedophilia (molestation of children by a non-family member) is not an easy matter. Some of those present called for abolishing celibacy for priests as a solution. If celibacy were the cause of pedophilia, then the problem would not exist in Protestant denominations and other religions (or secular organizations that serve children). These traditions deal with the very same issues that the Catholic Church does regarding the sexual abuse of children.
Persons ordained and lay people who commit acts of pedophilia come in every size and shape – single and married men (and women), all ages, and across socioeconomic and educational levels.
Understandings have changed
To be fair, it is necessary to grant the Catholic Church a little slack in its past actions toward offending priests. Understandings about pedophilia have changed. Several decades ago, a number of mental health professionals believed pedophilia was a curable disorder. So removing a priest and sending him to a treatment facility was a feasible response (though similar help usually was not given to those victimized).
Today, most mental-health professionals would agree that pedophilia is not treatable. The only solution involves preventing such individuals from having access to children. And it is why child pornography is so dangerous because it feeds this illegal and illicit attraction to children.
Sexual misconduct with adults by priests and other clergy is another matter. It is possible for an ordained person to gain understanding of the origins of their sexual misconduct and entanglement with parishioners. After a process of self-examination and treatment, many of these ordained individuals are more “safe” in their parish assignments.
Of course, there will always be serial offenders – as reflected in our current public discussion in which we are struggling to find a balance between permanent incarceration and the safety of others. Likewise, the crime of sexual molestation of children in the church will never be completely curtailed. We can diminish it and limit its damage by increasing awareness about inappropriate behavior and provide resources for children and those who work with them.
Sometimes I would despair, along with my clients, when they were misused and abused by a clergy person they trusted. Then I would be privileged to be part of their healing process and I would rejoice.
As a Catholic, I hope the same healing can happen in my spiritual tradition. The Catholic Church is community for so many of us and a source of much good in this city that I call home.
Elizabeth C. Nagel is a Twin Cities writer and photographer. She spent over three decades as a licensed psychologist, including work with individuals harmed by clergy, including Protestant clergy, who crossed the boundaries of appropriate pastor-parishioner relationships.
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