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Catholic Church needs transparency in molestation scandal, says UI assistant professor


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The sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has provoked a considerable amount of well-deserved condemnation. The actions of Catholic priests who molested children are rightly regarded as atrocious. The church officials who ignored or concealed these vicious acts are rightly removed from office. And the Vatican’s perverse mismanagement of the whole affair will do lasting damage to its moral authority in the social controversies of our time. The scandal shocks the consciences not only of members of the church but of all people of goodwill.

As terrible as this scandal is, however, many people have responded to it in disproportionate and self-serving ways. The scandal has become an occasion for many Americans to engage in what Philip Roth described in his novel The Human Stain as our most common communal passion — the ecstasy of sanctimony.

Rather than condemning instances of clerical sexual abuse for the personal and institutional moral failures that they are, many people have used this as an opportunity to denounce the church’s policies on the ordination of women, clerical celibacy, and its sexual ethics more generally.

These are all worthy topics of disagreement and debate. But to suggest that these policies and practices are somehow implicated in the sexual abuse of minors is spurious. It is tantamount to claiming that the well over 50,000 substantiated cases of child sexual abuse in the United States each year are the result of too much celibacy among Americans generally or too much patriarchal bureaucracy. By this logic, we should promote the dismantlement of the family (where most cases of sexual abuse actually occur) rather than the Catholic Church.

We do the victims of sexual abuse no honor if we use their experiences as an excuse to revel in our own purported virtues. Members of a society that countenances more than 1 million abortions every year, whose popular culture is regarded globally as deeply salacious, and whose addiction to consumerist titillation has created an increasingly untenable economic and political situation have little business celebrating their virtues. We have much to learn and to teach in the face of this scandal, but we will do neither if we deny that we too are implicated in the failures at issue.

If Americans have anything to offer the church at this painful moment, it is not our superior grasp of the dynamics of sex, power, and the good life. What we can offer is our society’s well-earned confidence in democratic transparency and accountability.

A church more open about its failures and more transparent in its operation would be more accountable to its own standards of justice. A highly centralized papacy that operates like a Byzantine court has revealed itself incapable of the truth-telling, confession, and repentance that it promotes. Perhaps this scandal will invite the church’s leaders to return to the more democratic aspects of the Second Vatican Council’s proposals for reform and consider them with renewed energy.

Such reforms would not, of course, prevent sexual abuse from occurring in the church. They would, however, liberate the church from the anxious and prideful secrecy that rendered it incapable of adequately addressing the abuse of the last several decades. It would also better enable the church to offer the examples of chaste self-denial in the service of God and neighbor that this society truly needs.

Howard Rhodes is an assistant professor in the University of Iowa religious-studies department.

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