A grave offense

Reports of the recent arrest in Canada of a bishop on charges of possessing child pornography hit me in the stomach, bringing back the scandal about priests and sexual abuse of children that embarrassed and angered so many of us Catholics just seven years ago. Bishop Raymond Lahey was arrested just days after the Vatican accepted his resignation as bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

So far, there is small consolation in the fact that he has not been accused of actual physical contact with a young person.

However, the situation still discloses a serious emotional problem -- namely, for an adult to be attracted sexually to a person who is not also an adult. It represents a very disordered turn, or lapse, in normal sexual development, and psychiatry has no cure for it. And, it reveals a failure in the Church to live up to the Gospel.

Thus, in the United States, and similarly in Canada in many respects, bishops have taken very stern steps to remove priests involved -- even long ago -- in sexual abuse of children from the active priesthood. There is no cure, and the awful experience has been that persons, priests or otherwise, who suffer from this illness cannot help themselves from repeating the offense.

Within the last generation, another insight has come to be. Mental health professionals and sociologists have learned about the gravely harmful effects that sexual abuse by elders, especially by elders who should be trusted, have upon children and upon their future lives.Victims of the abuse very often indeed carry the scars with them throughout their lives.

Whenever I hear of events such as the arrest in Canada I hang my head in sadness. I am reminded of the warning spoken by Jesus in a Gospel read at Sunday Masses quite recently about the evil of leading the young into sin, or by extension, exploiting the young for evil purposes.

Is there a bright side to the picture? There is, I think. It is in the fact that the leadership of the Church, from Pope Benedict XVI on down, is aware of the awfulness of child sex abuse and, in particular, of its injury upon victims. Because of this awareness, admittedly prodded by the scandal of seven years past, the American bishops, with full Vatican approval, have undertaken a variety of steps to confront and to prevent the problem.

It involves not just priests, but lay employees of the Church as well. Virtually every diocese in this country has a rigid process -- no exceptions allowed -- to investigate persons hired for Church service, specifically in terms of sexual abuse of children.

Priests are not exempt from this process. Included in the process are provisions to update information. Almost all dioceses have fully maintained offices to review employment applications and vigorously monitor conditions. Any accusation is immediately and thoroughly considered. Consequences are stern.

Given the number of people employed, and the number of facilities and institutions, some cases, to be frank, have fallen through the cracks. But, these cases have been very few indeed.

Seminaries now scrupulously look at candidates for the priesthood. Careful psychological screening is as much a part of seminary life as attending class or daily Mass. And while psychological testing has not yet reached the point where it can in every instance predict child sexual abuse in the future, it can help. We all should recognize and appreciate what the Church is doing -- for the present and for the future.

We also should realize that the loose approach to morality in our day, the widespread notion that sex is entertainment and the mindset that everything is about me, myself and I, are setting the stage for abuse. I am convinced of that. The impulse to abuse children sexually is an illness. Still, the world in which we live is a place where sexual exploitation, of any kind, can thrive. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is the associate publisher of Our Sunday Visitor.