In yesterday’s AP picks up Maciel incest allegations thread, Bill White asks me some good questions. Namely…
– Any thoughts about the historical and sociological roots of the modern wave of religious sexual abuse?
– Did it start just a couple of generations ago, or has it been with us the last two millenia or more?
To answer Bill’s second question first, clerical sexual misconduct has been with us since the beginning of the Church. It tends to come in waves. This is why tradition built up a whole body of canonical jurisprudence to prevent and punish molesters among the clergy. Had Marcial Maciel been living in the Middle Ages, he would have risked public execution for witchcraft.
Similarly, retiring to a monastery for “prayer and penance” is a tradition as old as monasteries themselves. I suspect this may be where the word “penitentiary” came from as a synonym for prison. Nevertheless, it would be a mistake to conclude that monasteries were exclusively for grave sinners. In times where the secular clergy were infested with perverts and the power-hungry, pious celibates would band together and found monasteries to escape the debauchery (often sexual, financial and political) among their secular counterparts. Regardless, the Church has always struggled with the issue.
That being said, let’s look at Bill’s first question. From my experience with the recent sexual misconduct crisis to face the Church in North America, and now Ireland, I’ve come to take a dim view of the Church’s minor seminaries. Basically, ripping young teens from their families while they’re going through puberty – a time when they need the example of Mom and Dad and healthy relationships between the sexes – is a recipe for disaster down the road. Often one emerges from these seminaries a grown man intellectually and physically, but still a teenager emotionally and in terms of mental maturity.
Many of my clients were older priests who had gone through the minor seminaries, and who in their first year of priesthood had committed one or two inappropriate acts with sexual overtones against teenaged boys. This is behavior that a parent or coach would normally correct if exchanged among teens of roughly the same age, but feel no need to approach law enforcement authorities over if the two parties had been roughly the same age. I’m talking things like rolling up your wet towel in the dressing room after a shower and whacking your team-mate in the arse. It’s immaturity when exchanged between two 15-year-old boys. It’s creepy when coming from a grown man who also happens to be clergy.
So the young priest is dragged before the bishop, is rebuked severely, and shipped off to a grueling assignment away from youth for the next year or two (such as chaplain to local Catholic nursing home). He comes back to parish ministry, and ministers for several decades without further incident or complaint. However, come the sex abuse crisis, the Church opened all the old files and these priests now found themselves shipped off to “prayer and penance” because of these types of incident during their first year of priesthood. And no, I’m not justifying what they did at the time. But I feel many of these incidents might have been avoided had these priests spent their teen years with their families, rather than in minor seminaries. After all, St. Joseph and the Blessed Mother and the local synagogue were good enough for Our Lord Jesus Christ during His formative years.
That being said, the question has taken a more gruesome turn if recent allegations are true. As noted by Randie in the comments section of Life-After-RC (click here), “Maciel’s son said his abuse began when he was 7 years old. I hope we can stop splitting hairs over whether MM was a pedophile or an ephebophile.” And this is without considering the incest angle, as well as the allegation Maciel photographed the abuse of his own children.
Which is why at this point my reaction as a father to young children trumps my reaction as a canonist or Catholic journalist: SID – SHUT. IT. DOWN.