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End Private Priestly Access to Minors in the Catholic Church

End private priestly access to minors in the Catholic Church

As Pope Francis tries to save his job -- partly by denigrating gay men -- we need to save the children.

Cardinal Walter Kasper, a liberal reformer in the Catholic Church, recently spilled the beans about the state of Pope Francis's shaky papacy, telling a German interviewer that, "There are people who simply don't like this pontificate. They want it to end as soon as possible to then have, so to say, a new conclave."

While Pope Francis is on thin ice with conservative Catholics, for a host of reasons, he is arguably one of the most politically shrewd men on the planet. The 82-year-old is showing signs he's aware that if his papacy comes undone it will be because of movements from the Catholic right, the faction of the Church that insists homosexual men in the priesthood are the root cause of the clerical sex abuse crisis. The now-disgraced and defrocked Cardinal McCarrick, who is alleged to have abused both boys and grown men, is their Exhibit A (recently-convicted Australian cardinal George Pell was only known for abusing male children, as opposed to adults, which complicates their gay=pedophile narrative).

With liberal Catholics already in his back pocket -- at least the unquestioning ones -- Pope Francis knows how to shore up his right flank, this time with greater rhetorical finesse than the time he clumsily blamed "leftists" for protesting his support of a scandal-mired Chilean bishop. Can there be any more expedient way to throw red meat to the Catholic right than to attack homosexuality and to present homosexuality as a disorder? Last year, on his flight back from Ireland, Pope "Who am I to judge?" intimated that parents of gay youth should seek psychiatric intervention. This was on the heels of his private talk with the Italian bishops conference in which he warned the prelates about the dangers of allowing men with "deep-seated" homosexual tendencies into seminaries. If past is prologue, unquestioning Catholic liberals, gay and straight, will continue to treat Pope Francis as just a loveable, misunderstood prophet, all as the Argentine Machiavelli moves to telegraph to traditionalist Catholics that he shares their way of thinking: namely, that the key to making the Catholic Church safe for children is to rid the priesthood of homosexual men.

If past is prologue, and if leopards don't change their spots, Pope Francis at some point in the future will, once again, telegraph to Catholic gays and allies that he is on their side, and that he rejects antigay bigotry, etc. For instance, in a speech at the end of a recent Vatican summit on sexual abuse, Pope Francis said that sexual abuse results from an abuse of power and did not explicitly associate priest sexual abuse with adult homosexuality. As noted by Marrianne Duddy-Burke of Dignity USA, in that same speech the pope warned against "journalistic practices that often exploit, for various interests, the very tragedy experienced by the little ones." According to Duddy-Burke, that line from the pope was "heard by many as a clear rejection of scapegoating attempts." She's right: Pope Francis, ever the Machiavelli, is doing what he needs to do to ensure the mainstream media, absolutely pivotal to his positive public image, does not turn on him, precisely by putting some perceivable distance between his own "loveable and compassionate" character and those of the mean-spirited right-wingers who are at his heels.

If your main interest in life is learning how to survive for as long as possible as a pope in the 21st century, or to apply that same cunning skill set in another complex organization, then, indeed, you should study Pope Francis and study him closely. You may even take to admiring his craftiness. If, however, your primary interest is ensuring the holistic sexual dignity of every human being, which includes both the fundamental right of consenting adults to form sexual relationships and the fundamental right of children to have a childhood free of sexual molestation, then, frankly, it's time to get real and stop processing the world according to political needs and utterances of a conniving pope.
As one of the most powerful religious figures on the world stage continues to makes his clever, byzantine moves to slander all homosexual men as mentally deranged and in need of psychiatric intervention -- via bullhorn, dog whistle or that Bergoglian amalgam of both -- and all to save his own hide, it's time for lay Catholics, at least those who aren't stakeholders in global slander, to step up to the plate and nip the clerical sex abuse of minors in the bud. Namely, to help end all private priestly access to minors, including child and adolescent participation in the sacrament of confession. Readily available statistics show that the vast majority of Roman Catholic priests are not child molesters and in and of themselves present no danger to children and teens. But the church structures that enable grown men's private access to minors are demonstrably a danger to the young, and for continuing that reality, priests can be held to moral account. Ultimately, it is ordinary Catholic parents, not the bishops, priests, and assorted lay Catholic power brokers/hangers-on who have the power to end private priestly access to minors, not merely by ending their children's participation in the sacrament of confession, but by putting that decision in writing to their parish priests, copied to their local bishops.

If Catholic parents, en masse, were to go such a route, what would be the effects of the spiritual development of children? Put simply, what is the efficacy of childhood participation in the sacrament of confession? Are Catholic children more advanced in the examination of conscience, and thus moral and spiritual maturation, than non-Catholic children? We have no data, just our individual biases based on our Catholic experiences.

When Dr. Christine Blasey Ford gave her compelling testimony on national television last September during the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, I remember having an impromptu examination of my own Catholic conscience. If, hypothetically speaking, I was selected for the jury in a criminal trial of Judge Kavanaugh for the charges brought by Dr. Ford, I would have to ask the presiding judge to dismiss me. My explanation to the trial judge would go something like this:

"Your Honor, having grown up in the same Catholic milieu as Brett Kavanaugh, leaving a Catholic prep school after my freshman year because of the incessant, nauseating speech about sexual violence toward young women from my Catholic peers, I would not, under any circumstances, be able to perform my civic duty to give this man a fair hearing precisely because I happen to believe every single word Dr. Blasey Ford has said.

"Moreover, your Honor, I firmly believe that Kavanaugh's high-octane denials in the face of these charges are the product of a now-grown man who is deeply embarrassed, and who has yet to reconcile with the fact that the very same Catholic prep school upbringing that put him on the pathway to leadership in our judicial system didn't do a damn thing to make him an empathic, internally-examined young man: namely, the kind of young man who would protect his female peers from sexual violence and sexual humiliation, as opposed to the kind of young man who would pin a 15-year-old girl to a bed, cover her mouth to prevent her from screaming, all while he and his other Catholic prep school buddy laughed hysterically as she struggled for air. So, your Honor, you must dismiss me from the task of deciding this man's legal fate, because in my judgement, the verdict is already in. I believe Dr. Ford's account to be true."
Just as there are surely lay Catholics who believe in the efficacy of childhood inclusion in the sacrament of confession, there will be those of us who are mystified that this practice still takes place in churches all over the world. Some Catholics will have witnessed their siblings blossom from foul-mouthed, Snickers bar-stealing brats into virtuous Boy Scout types helping old ladies cross the street, all aided by the opportunity Catholic children have to confess their sins in private to a priest, make a firm purpose of amendment, and realize their participation in the divine life. While certainly positive, theirs is every bit as much of an anecdotally-rooted bias as my own bias that Catholic prep school boys are more likely than their peers, of all religions or no religion, to engage in forms of sexual degradation and violence against women and girls, precisely because, collectively, their masculine inferiority complexes are more acute than the general population. Given the rush to judgment that enveloped the boys of Covington Catholic High School in January, excoriated in social media and establishment media as racist hatemongers, it seems others, including many conservative commentators, like Rod Dreher and Princeton's Robert P. George, who were quick to condemn the boys and later retracted, likewise have their own built-in biases against Catholic high school boys. The Diocese of Covington, which issued a quick condemnation of the boys before getting all the facts, has demonstrated, yet again, that the Catholic hierarchy places primacy on its own public image than with actual justice for each and every youth they claim to care so much about.

Biases, positive or negative, are a far cry from peer-reviewed social scientific data. With attorneys general in various states investigating Catholic dioceses, and with more clerical sex abuse scandals propping up in every corner of the globe -- Australia, Chile, Germany -- is it asking too much of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to, at minimum, provide the American public with some hard social scientific data, from objective non-Catholic sources, on child conscience formation to justify ongoing private access to minors by Catholic priests? Or will Catholics, indeed the American public at large, content themselves with yet another "oversight board" or "safe practices model" every time another clerical sex abuse scandal hits the news cycle, especially in light of the recent admission by German Cardinal Reinhard Marx that Catholic Church officials simply destroyed documents on child sexual abuse to cover-up for the crimes of priests?

Of course, there is a rather simple alternative that all Catholic parents can take who wish to instill gospel values into their children and teenagers, and to ensure their kids can look to the saints of history, official and unofficial, as role models. Be they parents in same-sex or opposite-sex relationships, single, liberal, conservative, or what have you, the safe alternative for Catholic parents is this: reading, praying and talking together as a family about life, about the virtues, and about the importance of examining conscience on a daily basis. Absolutely none of that requires a level of personal intimacy with strangers, and most certainly not the kind of intimacy that attends, especially for impressionable minors, calling a grown man outside of the family "Father."

If we can confront the degrees to which those of us who identify as Catholic sustain, by active commission or unexamined patterns, the ecclesial structures that are still, at present, endangering children and teens while serving as a springboard for the slander of innocent adults, we can ensure that future generations will look back on this one and feel what should come naturally -- a sense of total mystification that we ever tolerated this trash heap of sexual abusers, enablers, and assorted slanderers for one second.
TIMOTHY VILLAREAL is a Miami-based writer.
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Timothy Villareal