A journal of academic theology

June 2002 editorial

The first several months of this year have been acutely painful and deeply troubling for Catholics in the United States. Each day, so it seemed, new revelations about sexual abuse of minors by priests have been made public. Adding to the shock have been published accounts illustrating grievous neglect by church leaders to address the physical, psychological, and emotional harm done to young people who were sexually victimized by members of the clergy. Also disquieting has been the realization that not every bishop has been vigilant in protecting the defenseless from predators, nor have church leaders been forthcoming in dealing with civil and legal agencies about the criminal behavior of certain priests. Whatever the etiology for the sexual abuse perpetrated by priests–and doubtlessly there are various causes ranging from pathologies to callous disregard for the well being of youngsters–one conclusion is undeniable. The very persons who are expected to be alert and sensitive to the needs of the marginalized have failed to protect and heal wounded children. This remains a stinging indictment of those whose religious teachings demand solidarity with the poor and the oppressed.

Countless articles, editorials, op-ed columns, and letters to the editor, as well as interviews on TV talk-shows have tried to analyze the causes of these lamentable facts. Topics such as clerical culture, mandatory celibacy, homosexuality among priests, seminary formation, even the procedures in effect for appointing bishops are no longer taboo, and are alleged to be part of the problem. Unfortunately, what has received far less attention amid these explorations are the needs of children, especially the abused.

In the last half century society and church have promoted, with greater or lesser rates of success, awareness about oppression of women, conscientization about the poor and disabled, justice for the native people of North America, the need for anti-discriminatory legislation for gays and lesbians, even the rights of animals to be protected from torture in the name of clinical experimentation. Among oppressed humans, voices within their own groups have spoken out about injustices and abuse. Individual theologians and concerned organizations in solidarity with victims have demanded justice.

For children and adolescents there is obviously an urgent need for protection. This large group of persons, because of their age and distance from power, has not been able to speak for themselves or to publicly expose crimes against them. Sometimes, especially in the case of older children, they are even heartlessly blamed for encouraging or not resisting predators.

To remedy this lamentable situation, many agencies and groups need to take action on behalf of the young. There are a few encouraging signs that theologians are not sitting back as ineffective observers. One such welcome initiative has been the recent publication entitled The Child in Christian Thought, edited by Marcia J. Bunge of Valparaiso University (Eerdmans 2001)—a work that will be reviewed in the next issue of Theological Studies. Funded in part by money from the Lilly Endowment, Inc., this pioneering work begins to remedy our collective neglect. Among the works numerous insights, it argues that even recent Catholic social thought that has described the family as “domestic church” has focused too exclusively on parents and not children. One of the informative essays by Mary Ann Hinsdale illustrates that even the seemingly abstruse theology of Karl Rahner has pertinence for how we should care for and appreciate children in our midst. The research undertaken by educators such as James Fowler about the childs faith development has been helpful and further refined. But more needs to be done to correct our underevaluation of sacredness of childrens lives.

Besides physical and sexual abuse, the young are also oppressed by poverty and its impact on access to quality education, medical care, proper nutrition, and job opportunities. According to statistics of the U.S. Census Bureau some 19 percent of children under 18 are classified as poor.

In the wake of kidnappings and drug culture, children are being alerted to avoid contact with strangers or to say “no” to those that promote chemical experimentation. How can parents and educators effectively teach children to be alert to inappropriate touches or actions by family members, clergy, teachers, and others? And how can this be effected so that the life-giving and legitimate role of sexual pleasure in marriage not be distorted?

The Catholic Church clearly needs to put its house in order about the sexual misconduct of those who blatantly betray the trust bestowed on them. But that is only part of its responsibility. How to minister especially to those who in their youth were harmed and how to protect now the vulnerable remain urgent tasks.

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