Priestly sex abuse: Who's to blame?

Sex and the Church: What hath Vatican II wrought?

Nuns' beauty pageant, 2008: Why scapegoat priests?
Nuns' beauty pageant, 2008: Why scapegoat priests?

As a cradle Catholic who left the Church in his teens but then returned to the Church years later with a new understanding of religion, I view the sexual abuse crises in the Church as part of a greater Catholic decline.

During the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council of 1962, every facet of Catholic life suffered a nose dive: Liturgical abuses in the Mass became the norm; seminaries and convents emptied out; Sunday Mass attendance dropped significantly.

The "private" lives of many Catholics changed as well, inspiring the term "cafeteria Catholic"— that is, is one who picks and chooses which Church law to honor or disregard. This concept, although disparaged by bishops, still describes the average Catholic in 2010.

Is this development good or bad, and who deserves the credit or blame?

What's a sin?

Traditionalists in the Church accuse Vatican II of opening the door of "relativism" with ambiguous Council pronouncements that led, over time, to different interpretations of Church laws. No doubt widespread confusion existed during these years, among the laity and even among some priests and bishops, over what constituted a "sin." Even today, if a communicant doesn't like what his/her parish priest advises during Confession, or the Sacrament of Reconciliation, there's always the option to try another priest, who may in fact tell you what you'd rather hear.

Vatican II's imprint on the liturgical life of the Church— the changing of the old Latin Mass far beyond the use of the vernacular— was devastating for many Catholics, including me. Gregorian chant and Mozart were kicked to the curb and replaced with insipid hymns like "On Eagles' Wings" and bad folk music.

Gucci nuns in lipstick

This "Great Dumbing Down," as I call it, also affected Catholic Church architecture: Beautiful churches were stripped of their high altars, statues and mosaics in the name of "ecumenicalism." In the American Church especially, experimentation and excess imploded with clown and jazz masses as well as Gucci nuns in lipstick and puffed-up (or puffed-down) feminist hairdos, some of whom began calling God, "Mother Goddess."

In the wacky 1970s a priest might jump out from the sanctuary and do dance numbers in front of the congregation, tassel with a hula-hoop, or shuffle about as if reliving his youth in New York's Peppermint Lounge. It was the age of the "cool" priest with the lascivious wink, a time when pretty much anything was acceptable if the parish priest said it was OK, even if that meant calling for a board of directors to replace the Papal Office in Rome.

Exacerbating the problem was the fact that many congregations in the pre-Vatican II Church tended to be on the sheepish side. Catholics, after all, had been groomed to obey without question. Give that propensity (an inclination that's very much alive today, despite appearances to the contrary), many Catholics kept quiet, around the time of the Council, about their dislike for the new Liturgy. But in private many were aghast at what Father Anselm did at the 11 o' clock Mass.

Not one Church, but two

The Church in the 1970s seemed on a fast lane to the 21st Century. But instead of unity with Protestants, the fruits of the Council were factionalism and schism. Traditionalist Catholics dubbed the Novus Ordo Church as misguided, while others formed reactionary organizations like the Society of Saint Pius X. When traditionalist seminaries and convents began springing up (most of them filled to capacity, by the way, as opposed to their half-empty New Order counterparts), the Church knew it had a problem.

"The Catholic Church is really two Churches now," as one priest said to me recently.

This obsession with change in the 1960s and '70s distracted the Church from what was lurking beneath the surface: a worldwide sex abuse scandal lying dormant but that would soon emerge like a full-blown virus.

While some sexual abuse cases occurred prior to the Council, most occurred during the 1960s and '70s, when the Church was in the midst of its so-called "springtime."

A telling statistic

According to Thomas Plante, professor and chair of psychology at Santa Clara University, the average age of the priest abuser in 2002 was 53. That means that the vast majority of abuse cases coming to light today occurred 20, 30 and 40 years ago— the post Vatican II years, when liturgical experimentation was at its height.

At that time, not much was understood about sexual abuse. It wasn't until the early 1980s, as Plante suggests in his book, Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned, that serious research began in this area.

Abuser priests identified by Church authorities 20, 30 or 40 years ago were given the usual Bayer aspirin treatment: 30 days of isolated prayer in a faraway retreat— a therapeutic slap on the wrist. After that, they were discreetly recycled and farmed out to a different parish setting. It was all very much like signing off on a traffic ticket, or getting your mouth washed out with soap, sans the obligatory cold shower.

Therapists sleeping with patients

No doubt a few astute souls at that time questioned this cavalier method of treatment, but they weren't many. Most Church authorities accepted the "slap on the wrist," much as society at large accepted the relatively benign penalties imposed on men and women who had sex with minors in the free-wheeling '70s.

As Plante points out, 30 years ago, 23% of male psychotherapists were sexually involved with their clients, a statistic that wouldn't be true today. Today we see sexual abuse not as a one-time transgression but as more of a set piece within a cacophony of chronic behaviors, like addiction. Society has grown up, so we know better now.

As a young altar boy who served the traditional Tridentine Mass in a Chester County church, I was aware of the proclivities of a certain seminarian assigned to work in our parish. This guy's penchant for taking altar boys for rides in his convertible was later revealed to be a cover for sex. Although this seminarian was never ordained, he was a candidate for the priesthood at a time when Catholic seminaries lacked pre-admission psychological tests or training classes in sexuality. This was the time when Catholic boys entered the seminary directly from high school, having no idea who they "were" as sexual beings.

Life before celibacy

Today, by contrast, the average age of the Catholic seminarian is older— somewhere in the late 20s or early 30s— so he has plenty of time to sample the pleasures of life before considering celibacy.

Plante says, and I concur, that we cannot take what we know in 2010 and apply it to problems and decisions made in the 1960s and the 1970s.

The latest abuse cases emerging from Ireland, Germany and South America may represent the last of this great tsunami, although in a deteriorating world economy, who knows how many of these cases are just desperate attempts to extract cash from Vatican coffers?

What's certain is this: The Catholic Church is paying a hefty price for its genius-level marketing skills in pushing the priesthood on Catholic grammar school boys in the 1950s and '60s. In those days, not a month went by when the nuns didn't have representatives from the various male religious orders make presentations before the boys. The idea, of course, was to get us to sign up early.

By the time I was in the sixth grade, I'd collected so much information on the different orders of priests that it was no longer a question of whether I would, but what style of collar I'd choose. For that rush to recruitment, the Church is now paying a stiff price, and so are all those innocent young altar boys who wholeheartedly trusted an institution in chaos.♦


To read a response by Merilyn Jackson, click here.
To read a related commentary by Bob Ingram, click here.
To read a related commentary by Dan Rottenberg, click here.
To read responses, click here.


Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.