By David Strom, Catholic Defense League spokesman
The past few months have been especially frustrating for many Catholics. On the one hand, it is indisputable that some priests have committed evil deeds and some Church officials have failed in their duty to protect parishioners. On the other hand, many Catholics also believe the Church has been unfairly singled out as a haven for sexual abusers, and that is a terrible distortion of the true nature of the Church.
There is no doubt that there are individuals in the Church who have failed over the years to do the right thing. As a Catholic and a human being, I don’t look for excuses for those failures because there are none. Instead, I struggle for understanding and the strength to forgive and repair what cannot be undone, and work to do my part in helping make the Church better and stronger.
Sexual abuse of minors is a serious problem in all corners of our society, and despite decades of effort the problem remains. The Church bears its share of guilt for not forthrightly addressing the problem, and for that it should be accountable.
But sexual abuse of minors is a much more widespread problem than the focus on the Church would have you believe. In fact, according to academic studies, priests offend at about half the rate of the general population and at about the same rate as pastors of all Christian denominations. The key study on the issue was done by John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and the focus on Catholic priests, as primary offenders, doesn’t reflect reality.
According to Psychology Today, children placed in foster care face a 1-in-4 chance of sexual abuse. Government places these children in these homes. A few bad teachers or employees of school districts abuse some students in public schools. For decades a practice of “passing the trash” enabled schools to exile offenders to other school districts rather than go through the trouble of firing a teacher for cause — essentially an organized practice of sweeping abuse under the rug.
Of course most educators care deeply about the welfare of their students, and most foster parents are people who welcome troubled children into their homes out of love and compassion. Just as, of course, the overwhelming majority of priests carry out their duties with the love and compassion that God and the Church demand of them.
We do not condemn large swaths of people for the evils done by a few, nor do we destroy institutions that form the bedrock of our society because a few within their hierarchy have failed in their duties. A close examination of any human institution — public or private, for-profit or non-profit — will leave one with a deep appreciation of the meaning of “original sin.”
It would be nice to see some appropriate context put into the reporting about the current scandals. The Church, for all its faults, is addressing these issues head on, and has seen sexual abuse cases wane dramatically since 1994. That is why the plaintiff’s lawyers had to lobby for a waiver in the statute of limitations for lawsuits — the number of current cases is too small to mine for gold. That is why we are having heated discussions about cases that are decades old, often committed by offenders long dead.
Schools and in the system of government social services — where, outside of the home, the vast majority of sexual abuse cases take place — have yet to address the issue seriously enough to make a real dent in the number of cases. Plaintiffs’ attorneys will not be leading the charge for reform — there are not tens of millions of dollars to be extracted out of public services — but the children at risk still need our help and we should give it.
What is most frustrating to me as a Catholic is not the apparent double standard — after all, each case of sexual abuse is an individual tragedy that can’t be weighed against another or excused — but rather the brushing aside and denigration of the real work of the Church. The Catholic Church and individual devout Catholics daily devote themselves to helping others and repairing lives.
Catholics don’t do the work of the Church because it is lucrative, or it strokes our egos, or for the approval of society. In fact, we take a lot of heat for the moral teachings of the Church, and many of the loudest critics of the Church’s handling of abuse cases have other axes to grind against the Church having to do with its moral teachings. The teachings of the Church have always been countercultural, and many Catholic saints have ministered to the needs of non-Catholics because that is what God calls on us to do.
That is the true face of the Catholic Church. It is the preaching of the Gospel, the teaching of and acting out of loving one’s neighbors, and doing the hard work of helping others in times of need, whether they are Catholic or not. That is the institution that has drawn converts like me for over two millennia, and the one that I and other Catholics are devoted to.
David Strom of Minneapolis is spokesman for the Catholic Defense League, an organization of lay Catholics not affiliated with the Church.
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