Catholic shame

Dateline: Fri 14 Dec 2007

The Star was right to lead today's paper with a five-column headline above the fold: "RECORDS: EX-PRIEST ADMITS ABUSE," by Robert King.

The story reverberates with pain at many levels -- for the innocent victims, for practicing Catholics, and, yes, for the church -- but you will never read about it in the Criterion, the Catholic newspaper published by the Indianapolis Archdiocese.

That fact may indicate the level of shame and denial that still exits within the official church structure. But challenging that mindset, thankfully, are many good Catholic laypeople who are members of Voice of the Faithful and other groups and individuals, including religious, who demand accountability of their church.

Perhaps it is difficult for non-Catholics to understand the issue -- celibate priests and nuns seem "unnatural" in our sex-saturated culture -- but all healthy human beings should be able to comprehend the sin of pride that leads to arrogance that leads to denial. I happen to believe that many of these sexual transgressions have their root in pure pride and arrogance: the belief that "I can have what I want" simply because "I want it." Throw drugs and alcohol into this mix, and the result is out of control.

It's sadly familiar that this former priest, Harry Monroe, was treated for his sexual abuse by the church at the House of Affirmation in California in 1982. Still, Monroe was transferred time and again to unsuspecting parishes, and nobody in authority ever contacted the police. This lack of accountability is a crime, in every sense, and the level of rage for victims and their families is understandable. The denial they experienced from church leaders must have been maddening.

How did the church get to this point? It has as much to do with social climate as sinfulness. Non-Catholics may not know that, years ago, many young men who became priests were sent away to schools when they were just 13 or so. Often, these children had no idea what they wanted to do with their lives; often, they were trying to please a zealous parent, usually a mother. This sense of false piety coupled with ignorance and/or denial of the strong sexual drive in puberty may have had a toxic effect on some boys. I know one priest, now in his late 60s, who said that when he was at St. Meinrad Seminary, all the men wore swim trunks in the showers -- that's how unnatural and strained the environment was.

Some of these men grew up to become priests and eventually realized that they did not belong in the church. Others, tragically, became priests and acted out perverted fantasies. And still others stayed in the church and were mostly good and faithful servants.

In my 34 years of being a Catholic, I've never known a priest who was accused of sexual abuse. I've known many very fine priests.

But the problem will not go away by pretending it did not exist, or that the potential is not there for it to exist again. The Star did the church a great service by printing this story in such a prominent fashion.

Let's hope that truth can crack the wall of denial, which of all the human traits, must be the most seductive.


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