The Pope, a PA Diocese, and a Legacy of Trauma

Pope Francis just issued his long-awaited statement, Amori Laetitia, calling for less judgment and more tolerance of gays, non-traditional families, and people who are divorced. I applaud his more compassionate approach. But his statement would have had a more profound impact if he had also written the reverse and called for more judgment, less tolerance of Catholic priests who rape children and the bishops who protect them. When is this popular pontiff going to take a stronger stand on sexual abuse?

There's a line in the movie Spotlight that I haven't been able to get out of my head:

"If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse one."

The sentiment is attributed to attorney Mitch Garabedian (played by Stanley Tucci), who has represented many victims of pedophile priests and was one of the Boston Globe's primary sources for the groundbreaking story that is the basis for the Oscar-winning film. It took a village - a city - to protect Boston priests and cover up atrocities against children, and it took a village in Pennsylvania as well - the Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown - to permit and cover up the abuse of hundreds of children by fifty Catholic priests. A recently released grand jury report details that abuse and its aftermath, and it is a dark reminder that this has happened all over the country, and indeed, the world. And so it will take a world leader - Pope Francis - to make meaningful change that will begin to fix this horrific problem.

The grand jury report says church officials, including two bishops, "placed their desire to avoid public scandal over the well-being of innocent children." For over forty years they continued to allow pedophile priests to work with children, did little or nothing to help victims, and kept the law out of their business. In a number of cases, as in Spotlight, those charged with carrying out the law protected the priests and the Catholic Church itself.

Most of the pedophile priests are either dead or retired. And because of the statute of limitations, those still living won't be tried for their crimes. Some officials are trying to change that - to break the cycle of district attorneys, judges and cops aiding and abetting the church's effort to protect deviant priests, rather than their young victims. Those victims are now middle-aged or senior citizens, many of them coming forward for the first time. State Representative Mark Rozzi is taking the lead on that effort, according to the New York Times. In middle school, Rozzi was raped by a priest who later abused some of his friends. Three of those friends have committed suicide.

I read about some of the crimes recounted in the 145-page grand jury report. I had to stop several times because of the graphic nature of the accounts.

Many of the children were in elementary school - some as old as seventeen. Most were boys, some were girls. The abuse included anal sex, oral sex, groping, and kissing, and psychological manipulation. In some cases, children were abused for years.

Father Joseph Bender was a serial molester of boys eight to thirteen. He died in 2000. Some of his victims said he would get angry and violent if the boys didn't submit to his will, and he'd ask, "don't you love me anymore?" There are pages and pages of these tragic stories, which describe how many of the victims have suffered from alcohol and drug abuse, and severe depression. They are haunted by guilt and shame.

The report also details the elaborate cover-up by church leaders, including Bishop Hogan, who was in power from 1966 to 1986 and died in 2005. Over and over again he persuaded police and prosecutors to drop criminal cases against priests. He frequently failed to discipline the abusers or respond to complaints by victims' families.

Pope Francis has called for the Vatican to create a tribunal on bishops accused of negligence. But that hasn't happened yet. The Pope recently said that bishops who allow abusive priests to continue to minister should resign. How about firing them?

In the movie Spotlight, a psychologist who has been studying the phenomenon of priest pedophilia explains to the Globe's reporters that approximately six percent of all Catholic priests are likely to be guilty of this crime - that could mean as many as 25,000 priests around the world. The Globe reporters discovered that it was approximately six percent, or 87 of the Catholic priests in the Boston archdiocese alone who had been caught molesting children.

I asked a therapist friend why there are so many pedophile priests. She says that these men are sexual deviants - it's not just that they don't have access to sex. A healthy priest, who can't control his sexual urges, might seek out an adult who is unlikely to reveal his secret. He's not going to have sex with children. The priests who sexually abuse children are turned on by them.

My friend says people plagued by deviant obsessions, and they are obsessions, may be drawn to live and work in environments that promise an external control of their deviance. If the church says no sex for priests, part of the fantasy is that the church will control their sexual desires.

Is there at least one solution in that diagnosis? I think so.

Whatever their obsessions, whatever their psychological profiles, the grand jury report describes these priests as "wolves disguised as the shepherds themselves." The system completely broke down as virtually nobody came to the aid of the children.

Viewing Spotlight, understanding the magnitude of the Boston story and being reminded of how shocking it was when first revealed in 2002, is to be furious at the scores of people - priests, cardinals, politicians, police officers, judges, attorneys and in some cases parents - who let the criminal depravity go unchecked for so many years. Even worse is the deliberate and systemic cover-up by the very powerful Catholic Church itself.

In his 250-page Amori Laetitia, Pope Francis said, "No one can be condemned forever, because that is not the logic of the Gospel!"

Well, the victims of abuse are often condemned forever to a hellish life on earth, if they don't take their own lives. The men who ruined those lives should be condemned to a life behind bars. Penance is simply not enough.