Curbing the sex abuse crisis

The Catholic Press Association’s annual convention will be in Pittsburgh at the end of June. These conventions bring together Catholic editors and writers from around the country. 

Much of the time is spent in formal sessions. A great benefit, however, is the opportunities simply to talk about what is happening in Catholic communications and, more broadly, in the Church. 

I have kept no precise record of informal conversations at CPA meetings over the past 10 years, but I strongly suspect that the most-discussed topic has been clergy sex abuse. 

Closer to home, this subject has commanded so much attention here at Our Sunday Visitor. I have written many columns. 

It is difficult. Under any conditions, sexual failings of priests disgust any Catholic. This absolutely should be the case. Giving the sex abuse crisis a particular horror is the fact that children, or adolescents, have been the victims. Compounding it all has been the often ineffective, and difficult to explain, handling of cases by some Church authorities. 

If there is any consolation in all this, it is in the realization that very serious efforts are being made to see that such abuse does not occur in the future. While I realize that the criticism will be made that some dioceses have dragged their feet in this regard, many are determined to address the problem and prevent future occurrences. 

For example, my own diocese, Nashville, rarely requires clergy to attend clergy study days. I just opened an email in which an exception has been announced. The diocese is presenting a seminar on boundaries and possible problems in the matter of priestly contacts with youths. The bishop has ordered every priest to attend, unless prevented by ill health and specifically excused. 

Recently, a new study on clergy sex abuse commissioned by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops was released. Its guidelines set down for the future concerning seminary education were reassuring. 

As background for these comments, seminary formation has dramatically changed since my day, since the time of any American priest ordained for 30 years or more. Now every candidate must undergo a complete psychological evaluation, administered by a mental health care provider. Psychology has not reached the stage whereby tendency to abuse youths can be predicted. But students for the priesthood today are tested and observed psychologically, and bluntly called to deeply consider human sexuality, their own sexual needs, chastity, virginity and celibacy, more than ever in the past. 

Seminarians today also learn how sexual abuse harms victims, something those ordained not so long ago never heard anything about. 

Another consoling fact is that cases of abuse by priests already ordained are extraordinarily few and far between. This does not excuse or discount cases that have taken place. But it does say that something is being done right by many priests and bishops. 

Partly because so much has been accomplished, recent revelations of cases not well managed in the past sting so badly. 

Will sexual abuse by priests ever be completely a thing of the past? Sadly, probably not, despite whatever precautions are taken. Why? Pedophilia is widespread across society, even if most stories of cases within families are kept hidden, and cases in public schools or in professional circles come and go with little publicity.  

Although I have hopes for the clergy and for Church environments, I worry. I fear that the current cultural attitude about sex in general and the distorted relationships among people will only create further dysfunction.  

Msgr. Owen F. Campion is OSV’s associate publisher.