Friday, April 9, 2010

A Time of Confusion

On Easter Sunday I heard three direct or indirect apologies from priests for the Catholic Church's sex abuse scandal. The first came from a Hispanic priest who was rambling and defensive. This man, who is given to effusive abrazos, honestly wants to convince us that all priests are not abusive, that clergy abuse is a small percentage of total child sexual abuse. He is someone who genuinely cares for children and wants to go back to a time before all the confusion and mistrust, when he could hug young and old alike without questions being asked. The second and third came from North American priests -- one of whom also took the opportunity to apologize for the Church's broader sins of sexism and homophobia.

I hear these words and realize that my previous columns on this subject have been harsh -- perhaps like a mother might talk when she is mortified by her children's behavior that has embarrassed her publicly. I also think it is important to realize that most of the cases that are emerging date from a time when we were less open and less aware of these issues than we are today. They are painful, but the pain is by and large coming from the past, not the present.

Most dioceses including our own have the mechanisms in place to prevent future scandals. We have a rigorous application and training process in place for anyone who wants to work with children and youth or for any diocesan institution. It has presumably weeded out child molesters. It has also weeded out undocumented immigrants -- regardless of their experience in catechesis -- and people like me who have previous arrest records (for civil disobedience, in my case) and who don't want to be bothered with fingerprinting and background checks. It weeds out those whose work schedules and lack of computer and language proficiency make it difficult for them to sign up for and receive the training classes.

The diocese also provides regular Masses in English and Spanish for victims of abuse and counseling services as well as referrals to outside providers. It provides a place to report abuse and issues an annual report. Here are some statistics from the latest report which came out a couple of weeks ago:

  • Between 2003 and 6/30/2009, the office received 246 calls from victim/survivors of sexual abuse.

  • Between 7/1/2008 and 6/30/2009 the office received 52 calls. Two of the calls were received from third parties reporting on two alleged victims of child abuse by diocesan clergy. The victims refused to come forward themselves so those cases could not proceed. Another two calls were reports of inappropriate conduct towards minors but these did not rise to the definition of child abuse. This is not hard to imagine, given that such a seemingly innocuous act as a priest giving a book or a CD to a child without informing the parents first is prohibited by our diocesan guidelines. The guidelines are so broad that I can think of numerous times I have been guilty of violating the prohibition on photo'ing specific children while taking pictures for the Renovacion -- with no more evil intent than to show, for example, how the younger members of our prayer groups help out by distributing water during the healing Masses.

  • During the same time period there were two reports of inappropriate conduct by a clergy member towards adults.

  • There were four allegations of child abuse or inappropriate behavior by priests from other dioceses or religious orders and the Arlington office assisted those persons in reporting to those institutions.

  • The remaining calls were about non-church related sexual abuse.

The four diocesan cases "were forwarded to the Bishop's Delegate for Clergy for investigation and appropriate action has been taken." The report cannot say more because these priests are entitled to employment privacy law protection, particularly if they have not done anything illegal. And so we are left with unanswered questions and must trust that real abusers are not still being covered up for and shuffled around.

It is also important to address the question of inappropriate behavior towards adults -- something that the diocesan office appears to have taken on even though it is not strictly within its purview. I have certainly been at the receiving end of behavior and comments that I would consider inappropriate coming from persons who are vowed to celibacy. These were not offensive, merely a little unusual, and I saw no reason to report them. I have been concerned that such ill-concealed displays of affection might lead outside observers to cause trouble for the priests. It is a highly subjective area.

We are a multicultural diocese and need to be aware that "appropriate" can vary from culture to culture. An example: A friend of mine who is a Peruvian priest routinely greets me with a kiss on the cheek. The first time this happened, I was a little taken aback. Later I came to realize that this is how all Peruvian men regardless of marital or clerical status greet women acquaintances and that it means absolutely nothing. I'm also aware that an American outside observer might think they are seeing "inappropriate conduct".

So I don't blame priests for feeling confused and defensive about this renewed focus on the Church's sexual issues. These are confusing times and I keep hoping and praying that we can get beyond them and be able to go back to exchanging abrazos freely without having to worry about misperceptions, complaints, and lawsuits.

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