Irish clergy sex crisis: A lost sense of sin

Pope Benedict XVI hit the nail on the head when he told Ireland’s 24 bishops that sexual abuse of children by Irish priests and Religious is a “grave sin” as well as a “heinous crime.” 

This sin offends God. Why? It wounds the dignity of the human person created in God’s image. 

He urged the Irish bishops “to address the problems of the past with determination and resolve and to face the present crisis with honesty and courage.” The “present crisis” is the result in Ireland of a series of reports and revelations, over a period of more than 10 years, which has shown the extent of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and Religious for generations. 

A major part of the crisis is that, to a significant degree, it has killed the historic regard among the Irish for Catholic priests and Religious by ending the people’s trust in these figures who represent, and act on behalf of, the Church. It all has come at a very bad time for Irish religion, because religious practice is, and recently has been, in a virtual freefall. (The majority of the Irish, once so noted for piety, no longer regularly attend Sunday Mass. Vocations are at an alarmingly minimal number, in a country once renowned for vocations.) 

So, there is the air of urgency. However, it is not just about falling Mass attendance or a lapse in veneration for Church officials. 

Here again, the pope has shown great concern for victims of sexual abuse by Catholic priests and Religious. I admire the fact that he clearly demonstrates that he, indeed, is a pastor. 

Now, what about the point of “grave sin”? The inclination to sexual relations with children, or with adolescents, is defined in medical circles as a mental illness that is chronic and incurable. 

That is all well and good, but even so, I long have thought that the diminished sense of sin, and of personal moral responsibility, in the cultures of Western Europe and North America has provided an ideal breeding ground for sexual abuse of the young. 

By the way, the problem is not isolated to Catholic clergy and Religious. Other American denominations, most notably the Southern Baptists, are dealing with it. It is not isolated to clergy in any denomination. 

The Church must get serious about helping victims and preventing future cases. At least in America, I honestly think that most dioceses are trying to help victims and prevent future abuse. They’ve acknowledged cases of less than earnest efforts to assist victims or to stop future abuse. 

Crucial to the future are seminarians and aspirants for the Religious life. I am quite familiar with several seminaries training diocesan priesthood candidates, and I know that their programs place great emphasis on the mental health of students. However, psychological testing and therapy have their limits. 

This emphasis on candidates must continue. However, there is a role in this for all Catholics, lay as well as ordained or those with Religious vows. Indeed, there is a place for everyone in society. 

We simply must return to a respect for universal moral values and stop applying them in this instance but not in the next. We must realize that human acts have an impact upon others. It is not just what happens to me but to those whom I affect by my actions. 

We must develop a culture in which sexuality is not simply about me, but about my relationship — in God’s order — with another. 

The clergy sex abuse crisis not only involves Ireland, but our own society. Analyze it. It is a sign of a much greater social problem in which we all have a stake. 

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV associate publisher.