success stories

Posted July 15, 2004

Thoughts of Priests on Pedophilia

From the book: Grace Under Pressure: What Gives Life to American Priests
NCEA, Washington, D.C.

The reaction of these effective priests to the pedophilia issue is mixed. On the one hand, they see it having a negative impact on the Church and the image of the priesthood. Rick, for example, said there are times when being a priest is something you don’t want to call attention to. Mark, an Eastern priest, said, “I have to say I’ve been very circumspect whenever I’m around teens. Fifteen, twenty years ago you would not have hesitated in taking a group of teens out to the creek. Now I just don’t do that. We are living in a different age.

Rick said the parish’s credibility in the community helped him deal with the scandals. “You can hold your head high because we were engaged in the community. If we weren’t, then I would feel like, ‘Oh God.’”

Frank, a Southern priest, spoke of the tension of being advised to be very careful about touching children, and being in an African-American community where touching and holding is affirming and a way of life. You are advised to become “a cold monolith on the playground.”

On the other hand, priests see some positive outcomes of the pedophilia scandals. For one thing it highlights the importance of the individual priest witnessing to and representing the priesthood. Some of the priests felt a stigma when they represented “Priesthood” to people who did not know them, but felt no problem when people knew them. Don from the Midwest said, “”Sometimes when I am in an anonymous place with a collar on, I feel people projecting all kinds of stuff onto me. But in the parish I feel very little of it. It doesn’t get in my way and it doesn’t limit my ministry much.”

“The scandals hurt,” said Bob from the Midwest. “I wouldn’t be human if they didn’t. But somehow I want to say I can handle that. I can process that and move beyond that. I can make a statement about what it means to be a healthy priest in the larger society.”

Don said that while he is well aware of the pedophilia situation, “It doesn’t stop me from tickling the kids once in a while. I think we are fine if we just stay grounded in ourselves, we don’t have to stop that.”

Walt from the Midwest said, “I think people receive us as we are. And so I don’t feel threatened today by the scandals. I just hope that the goodness that is out there and the sincerity can overshadow that and give people a chance to recognize us as who we are.”

What seemed clear is that these priests hoped to be perceived and judged as individuals rather than a group. There seems to be a shift here. Thirty years ago “the priesthood” was able to “carry” or give credibility to individual priests. Today, because of the scandals, individual priests are “carrying” or giving credibility to the “priesthood.”

These priests saw the situation in the Church as a “graced moment” because the scandals have called forth an honesty and an end of denial from Church leaders and has brought forth a deep compassion for the victims. And perhaps, they say, it will help bring about the end of clericalism. A Southern priest said, “Maybe this is good because it may be the beginning of the death knell of clericalism.”

An Eastern pastor talked about an adult education series his parish ran on sexual abuse in the Church. It was around the time that Cardinal Bernardin was accused so there was a lot of interest. “I think one of the ways you deal with it is to talk about it,” he said. “The worst thing is not to talk about it or pretend it doesn’t exist. I think the secrecy has been really devastating. To have a healthy discussion about it with a group of normal people is one really helpful way of dealing with it.”

George, another Eastern priest, said:

Everybody is trying to learn how to deal with this reality. What do you do? How do you respond? I think the blessing of all this has been oddly, or maybe, ironically, that we’ve finally been responding to the victims in a sensitive way, which was a terrible blind spot for the institution. That will probably be most helpful for future victims and past victims who aren’t speaking out. I think it has created a kind of climate where people know they will be responded to effectively.

Frank sees it as an invitation to conversion for the Church: “This is part of the emptying out that we have to do of the sin that is within us.”

Effective priests don’t shy away from controversy, whether it involves scandal or institutional divisions. They feel capable of handling controversy when they turn to their most effective resources — the life-giving power of the Gospel, the people they know and serve, their own sense of mission, and their trust that somehow God’s Grace is in all of this.