As a former Catholic priest I am saddened and increasingly ashamed by the ongoing and seemingly endless revelations of sexual abuse and misconduct within the Catholic Church by its clergy on all levels. As ugly and necessary as the headlines are, some factors essential to understanding the root causes of such obscenities need telling. Perhaps my own experience will help.
In 1949 at age 13, I entered a minor seminary to answer what I believed to be “a call from God.” In 1962 I was ordained with 18 others by Francis Cardinal Spellman. During those seminary years, called “years of formation,” my immature idealism was overflowing, ready to be shaped and nurtured. I believed the Church to be God’s voice and challenge to a postwar world. In retrospect I see those years, what I was taught (and what I wasn’t) and how I was trained, as being at least part of the root of today’s scandals. There are at least three reasons why.
First, as seminarians we lived an enclosed and very censored life. In the minor seminary, our incoming and outgoing mail was checked and often read. Secular magazines and newspapers were limited to US News & World Report and the Sporting News. The community TV was in a locked cabinet and Saturday movies had scenes cut before viewing, or were not shown at all. For example, we weren’t allowed to see “Showboat” and after we saw “Anything Goes” we called it “Everything Went!” At a very young age and for many different reasons we naively chose to live in a very narrow and tightly focused system. Things loosened up in the later years of formation but even then we still felt removed and very protected from the world.
Second, academically, though we studied Latin and Greek, philosophy, theology, church history and sacred scripture, we never had a single course in psychology. Naturally, our hormones were a constant pulse beat throughout those years and were the reason for much of the censorship imposed by the system. Our struggles with sexuality were relegated to the confessional, spiritual counseling and our prayer life. though there was an early lecture about personal hygiene. Celibacy was seen as a threshold into holiness; it loomed as an eventual commitment, expected and required that would set us apart. Back then I, for one, saw that as dedication rather than repression.
Third, and a key factor behind today’s tragic headlines, was a mandate in the system instilled practically from day one that said, “Avoid scandal at all costs.” The image of the Church, particularly its clergy ,was sacrosanct. That directive had been pervasive, no doubt, for centuries and explains, at least in my thinking, how so many offenders could be protected over the years, not only for pedophilia, but for sexual missteps, even paternity, as well as alcoholism and financial wrongdoing. An oversimplification? Perhaps, but also a perspective that gets close to the roots of the problem.
A personal note: This is written not in bitterness but with a sadness that a basic failing in our formation has led to this current tragedy. Those seminary years were rich and wonderful in so many ways, creating bonds that still exist for that young post-war idealist. I am most sad, however for the “any cost” the victims have become. Not only those abused but also those truly committed clergy who are condemned to bare the shame of the abusers. And the faithful themselves who are left not knowing what to believe about the workings of their Church.
As for the hierarchy, products as well of the seminary system, there is both sadness and outrage for their myopic protection of themselves, their power and their not-so-Holy-Mother Church. Mere words will not heal the plague of abuse. Radical action must happen now, not whenever.