Sex Abuse by Priests Is a Matter for the Courts

Although I’m not Catholic, I’ve followed the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church with a fair amount of interest. Reading Maureen Dowd’s column, “A Nope for Pope,” in yesterday’s New York Times, I was struck by the gap between the way of thinking within the hierarchy of the Catholic Church and the way of thinking in the modern world.

To the Church, the sex-abuse scandals that have emerged over the past couple of decades are a temporary blight—a bad thing, to be sure, but one that’s been blown way out of proportion by the media. To Dowd, a modern woman brought up as a Catholic, the sex scandals add up to something rotten in the state of the Vatican itself. In a column that is both poignant and futile, Dowd offers a pie-in-the-sky solution for Catholics: Elect a “Nope” (a darling neologism meaning a “a nun who becomes a pope”).

If the Catholic Church consisted of monks living in faraway retreats, and was not the hugely rich and worldly organization that it is, I suppose I wouldn’t care all that much if they were sexually abusing only one another. But priests, bishops, and cardinals are deeply involved in the secular world. They frequently lend public support or opposition to particular pieces of legislation. Some even go so far as to endorse political candidates.

To a non-Catholic like me, this behavior is vastly different from any internal discussions Catholics might have over whether Nancy Pelosi or John Kerry ought to be excommunicated. Although I don’t quarrel with the right of the Church to take official stands on issues such as birth control, gay rights, abortion rights, and American health legislation (the Church has as much freedom of speech as the rest of us), I do quarrel with its claim to being considered a non-political entity. When members of any religious organization take direct stands on political candidates or pieces of legislation, under the guise of taking stands on “moral principles,” they function as much like a political party as the Republicans and Democratics do.

In the modern world, when a priest, rabbi, minister, or mullah commits a major felony such as molesting a child, it is not solely a matter for religious authorities. It is a matter for civil authorities. What’s said between a priest and a confessor is one thing—it’s a privileged and protected form of communication much like that between a lawyer and a client. But in instances where Church authorities have repeatedly handled credible accusations of child abuse by deliberately covering them up and protecting the abuser from prosecution in the public courts, it’s time for criminal investigations.

Let me put it this way: If a bishop had credible evidence that one of his priests was the perp in a series of bank robberies, shouldn’t he inform the police? Isn’t the sexual molestation of a child a felony, too? (It might be worse; convicted bank robbers who serve their time don’t have to register as bank-robbery offenders, nor are they prohibited from living within a certain distance from banks.)

Pope Benedict has made clear his repugnance for the modern world’s moral relativism and freewheeling individualism. Any religious organization’s attempt to carve a viable moral pathway through the 21st century requires more than ceaseless top-down asseverations made by men. Women who push for freedom and equality are not going away, and organizations trying to survive into the future are on a fool’s errand if they try to exclude them from real power.

Even though the Catholic Church has retreated from its most extreme Pauline teachings about women, it still offers them nothing but essentially submissive roles. For its own good, as well as the good of the rest of us, it would be nice if the sex scandal in the Catholic Church were to prompt the Church to repudiate its medieval idea that all questions begin and end with a priori, made-by-men reasoning. But this probably has about as much chance of happening as Ms. Dowd’s wistfully wished-for appointment of a Nope.

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