Do Catholics have one -- singular -- sexual-abuse crisis? No, the reality is worse than that

We have now — at the Vatican’s clergy sexual abuse meeting — reached a stage in the proceedings that will be familiar to reporters who frequent ecclesiastical meetings of this kind.

After a few headline-friendly opening remarks, there will usually be a long parade of semi-academic speakers who offer complex, nuanced and ultimately unquotable remarks about the topic of the day. As a rule, these papers are written in deep-church code that can only be understood — maybe — by insiders.

Long ago, I covered a U.S. Catholic bishops meeting that included pronouncements on the moral status of nuclear weapons. During one address, the speaker veered into Latin when stating his thesis. At a press conference, I asked the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin if that passage in Latin had been (in my words) a “preemptive strike on American headline writers.” The cardinal smiled and said one word — “yes.”

Try to quote that in a hard-news story.

At the end of things, reporters can expect a formal statement prepared by the powers that be that organized the event. We can also expect some kind of television-friendly rite of repentance.

At this point, it’s probably easier to focus on what is not being said, rather than what the Vatican’s chosen speakers are carefully saying. Also, we can look back into the history of this crisis, in order to anticipate what will end up happening. We did a little of both during this week’s “Crossroads” podcast (click here to tune that in).

Pope Francis stated that the goal of this event was to take concrete steps to stop the abuse of “children,” the “little ones.” The church has been rocked by a “pedophilia” crisis, he said.

That’s what was said. Journalist Sandro Magister offered this commentary on what was not said:

… The big no-show was the word “homosexuality.” And this in spite of the fact that the great bulk of the abuse tabulated so far has taken place with young or very young males, past the threshold of puberty.

The word “homosexuality” did not appear in the pope’s inaugural discourse, nor in the 21 “points of reflection” that he had distributed in the hall, nor in the introductory talks by Cardinal Luis Antonio G. Tagle, Archbishop Charles J. Scicluna, and, in the afternoon, Cardinal Rubén Salazar Gómez

Scicluna on the contrary, when questioned in this regard at the midday press conference, said that “generalizing on a category of persons is never legitimate,” because homosexuality “is not something that predisposes one to sin,” because if anything what causes this inclination is “concupiscence.”

This is consistent with one viewpoint that’s common in the Catholic establishment: This crisis is about pedophilia. Period.

This can be seen in a must-read feature at the Atlantic about the work of Cardinal Sean Patrick O’Malley, a crucial figure in efforts to boost reform efforts during this long, long crisis. For example, Pope Francis put O’Malley in charge of the new Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors back in 2014.

However, O’Malley has gone further than that — even calling for an investigation into who promoted former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and who protected him during decades of rumors about his private affairs.

One of the buzz topics in Rome, these days, is why O’Malley is not playing a major role in the current conference. Has he been too blunt, too candid, for the circle around Pope Francis?

However, here is the short quote that I want to note in the Atlantic piece. During the interview, O’Malley kept “bringing up a document called the Dallas Charter. This document, written in 2002, established reporting practices, disciplinary standards, and safeguards” for handling abuse accusations against priests (as opposed to bishops). There is solid evidence that the Dallas Charter has been effective. Thus, there was this:

The problem, O’Malley repeatedly suggested, is mostly fixed in the U.S. It just requires tinkering around the edges.

Wait, what is “the problem” — singular — that has been fixed? Is it accurate to say that this crisis, which started making headlines in the mid-1980s, is about “one” problem or “one” issue"?

Stop and think about this: Are we talking about “one” kind of abuse? At the very least, there are five different kinds of sexual scandals linked to Catholic clergy.

* Sexual acts with pre-pubescent children, both male and female (pedophilia).

* Sex with teen-agers (ephebophilia), almost always with young males. Reports have indicated this is about 80 percent of the crisis.

* The abuse of laity — male and female.

* The abuse of seminarians under the direct control of church leaders. See also, the abuse of nuns.

* Consensual sex between clergy and adults — male and female — that violate celibacy vows.

So is there “one” problem? Note that this list doesn’t even address the crucial issue of church leaders covering up accusations and even proof of these various sins and, in most cases, crimes.

Some conservatives want to say that the whole crisis — singular — is about homosexuality. Many other Catholics want to say that homosexuality has nothing to do with the crisis. Both approaches fail to explain crucial details and patterns in this tragic drama.

The bottom line: The abuse of children and teens is at the heart of this crisis. But that’s just part of the story. Note this passage in the Atlantic piece, which looks to the future:

Problem solving in the early years was all about crisis management: Acknowledge the wrongdoing. Remove the offenders and those who covered up their actions. Settle the lawsuits. Put local policies in place to keep children safe in the future.

The problems that have lingered since then are much more structural in nature, and arguably more intractable. This is the era that O’Malley and his generation of senior clergy will be remembered for: the years after the initial crisis, when even the sincerest reformers were often stymied by bureaucracy, reticence, and delay.

Enjoy the podcast. And keep reading the news and commentary out of Rome. Let us know what you see and hear, in our comments pages.

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