No official in the Catholic Church has any credibility when speaking on issues of sexuality, gender, or relationships.
If that was not already obvious, it became compellingly clear with the release of the Pennsylvania attorney general’s report on a grand jury investigation into more than 1,000 cases of sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests in six dioceses across that state. The horrific details of repeated abuse, networks of abusers, and systemic cover-up by church leaders make it painfully clear that care for children and families came nowhere close to concerns about protecting the institution of the church, and even abusers, in the minds of Catholic leaders. From children being raped in hospital beds to serial abuse of siblings, marking targets with “gifts” of gold crosses, and making pornography later shared among groups of abusive priests, what these young girls and boys were subjected to is almost beyond imagining. The after-effects of the abuse impact people to this day, long after the statute of limitations has made criminal accountability for perpetrators and their enablers impossible. Bishops and cardinals repeatedly kept perpetrators out of the reach of law enforcement until they could no longer be prosecuted, through a series of steps the Pennsylvania attorney general called “a playbook for concealing the truth.”
This devastating report follows close on the heels of the resignation of one of the most powerful U.S. clerics, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C. He was forced to resign from the College of Cardinals for alleged abuse of an altar boy decades ago and after dozens of reports became public that he abused seminarians under his authority. High-ranking church officials from Australia, Chile, and Honduras have also been recently ousted for sexual abuse. Following numerous reports of abuse of their members, the leaders of Catholic women’s religious communities from two continents have called on the Vatican to end the “culture of silence” that enabled decades of exploitation. All of this comes more than 15 years after The Boston Globe broke the story of rampant child sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston, and amid the persistent drum of stories that has emerged from across the country and internationally since.
Official Catholic teaching on sexuality, human relationships, and gender are all rooted in bad — even harmful — theology. The teachings flow from a concept called “complementarity,” which is essentially biological determinism. This belief says that there are only two genders, male and female, which are fixed by God from conception, and that gender gives rise to divinely ordained social roles ordered toward procreation and raising children. Any expression of gender that deviates from the binary, or any other use of sexuality, is considered disordered and often sinful. From this teaching arises the condemnation of being gay, bisexual, or transgender as well as the repression of many forms of sexual expression.
When this narrow, grossly inadequate view of gender and sexuality is combined with the institutional church’s well-known hierarchicalism and lack of accountability to anyone outside the clerical culture, abuse and cover-ups become almost predictable. The only figures that truly matter in the church structure — priests, bishops, and Vatican officials — become aligned in protecting one another and the material assets of the church. Their power is reinforced, in their own minds and to the public, by godly decree, so that nearly anything they do can be justified to those at the bottom of the pyramid as sacred mystery. The exposure of the rot that has been too long at the core of the Catholic Church’s power structure should bring the whole system crashing down.
The Pennsylvania clergy sex abuse report should alarm and disgust all of us. Most especially, it should be a warning to anyone who collaborates with Catholic officials in the development of public policy that promotes Catholic teaching on sex, gender, marriage, and family life at the expense of other beliefs. Catholic bishops are simply not credible and should be given no moral authority on these matters. The people who make up the church — the people in the pews — have known this for decades and have long made their own conscience-based decisions on questions of sexuality and gender, including supporting LGBTQI people, the use of contraception and assistive reproductive technologies, abortion, divorce, remarriage, and cohabitation, all in defiance of church teaching. They do so while remaining committed to what they know are the essential elements of our faith. Now it is time for public officials to realize this and to deny those who sacrificed the innocence of children to institutional interest any opportunities to further their own agenda at the expense of the rest of us. In particular, any group that aggressively lobbies against efforts to repeal or lengthen statutes of limitation on sexual abuse in states where priest sexual abuse has been uncovered is clearly more interested in self-protection than in the public good. Furthermore, thinly veiled attempts to discriminate against LGBTQI people on the basis of “religious liberty” can now be seen more clearly than ever to be based on fraudulent, bankrupt, and self-serving theology.
The Pennsylvania clergy sex abuse report is the most comprehensive and disturbing document to date about the systemic corruption within the Catholic Church’s governance structure. Let it also mark the beginning of the end of the church’s inordinate power over the private lives and civil rights of our LGBTQI community.
MARIANNE DUDDY-BURKE is the executive director of Dignity USA, which works for respect and justice for people of all sexual orientations, genders, and gender identities — especially gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons — in the Catholic Church and the world through education, advocacy, and support.