A Problem of Religious Integrity

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A report released by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court revealed that over one thousand children were identifiable victims of sexual abuse by over 300 predator priests in only 6 of the Catholic Church dioceses of Pennsylvania (40th Statewide Investigating.A similar sex abuse scandal rocked the Church in Boston in 2002 when over 130 people came forward with stories of abuse, all of which had been covered up and hushed for years and even decades by the Church (Davis). The details of the cases are vulgar, unacceptable, and were covered up and brushed aside by the Roman Catholic Church in order to protect the abusers and the good name of the Church. Incidents like these show that when it comes to what drives the Vaticans decisions, religious integrity and moral standards take second place when it comes to their image. The required vow of celibacy and the recurring theme of cover-up, denial, and blackmail have made the church a breeding ground for sexual abuse.

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops website provides their stance on morality, saying that [t]he Christian moral life is one that seeks to cultivate and practice virtue. . . Compassion, responsibility, a sense of duty, self-discipline and restraint, honesty, loyalty, friendship, courage, and persistence are examples of desirable virtues for sustaining a moral life (Morality). Why is there so much abuse in a church whose moral standards clearly indicate that abuse cases like those in Pittsburgh and Boston are completely unacceptable? Many critics feel that they are the result of the mandatory celibacy that priests must commit to when entering the church. Celibacy was defined by Rev. Thomas Doyle as forbidding not only marriage but also any kind of romantic or sexual relationship or sexual contact with any other person in any degree (Frawley-O’Dea 87). It is a vow that men who become ordained members of the clergy and women who become nuns must take (Frawley-O’Dea 88). However, mental health counselor Richard Sipe found from his research that that only half of the 2,776 active and resigned priests that he collected data from for over 40 years (1960-2002) were committed to celibacy (Frawley-O’Dea 91).

Twenty-eight percent of the priests were sexually active with women, 11 percent homosexually active, and 5 percent were involved with other types of sexual pursuits, such as cross-dressing and masturbation (Frawley-O’Dea 91). Sipe guessed that the remaining 6 percent [were] sexually active with minors, a percentage that was consistent with the results of the John Jay Study of abusive priests between 1950 and 2002 (Frawley-O’Dea 91). The problem seems to be that priests dont take their vows seriously and that many of them acknowledged that celibacy was neither relevant nor observed within their priesthoods (Frawley-O’Dea 92) This reflects the attitude that celibacy is optional. Additionally, because of the way the church treats the topic as taboo, it leaves many priests unable to have open discussion[s], [analyses], and confrontation[s] (Frawley-O’Dea 92). This leads to secrecy, denial, and shame which could cause the priests to feel unable to come forward and seek help with their struggles of lust and lack of restraint. Without seeking the help they need they allow their problems to fester and even get worse, until it becomes years and years of cases of abuse.

Meanwhile, other commentators feel that it wasnt the celibacy, but rather the lapse of it that was allowed by fellow clergy members. They believe that the system of cover-up, blackmail, and fear of persecution that priests have contrived out of their own selfish desires are the biggest part of the reason why abuse in the church occurs in such magnitude. In 2002, the world was brought into this secret system when about 200 people came forward so far with stories of abuse by priest John J. Geoghan (Betrayal 14). Geoghan was known by the church nearly his whole profession to be a serial rapist yet was somehow allowed to continue to be involved with the church for over 30 years (Betrayal 31-33). Every time that he was would get into some sort of trouble with abuse, they would simply relocate him to another church. This would happen many times, where a church would just relocate the problem without telling anyone about the priests history of abuse (Betrayal 31-33). Pushing these problems to the side like this enables bishops to continue violating minors. Author Mary Gail Frawley-ODea gives a metaphor that shows the unreasonable nature of these situations.

A Reasonable person with no particular expertise in social sciences or criminal justice would not arrange for a known diamond thief, even a one-time thief, to work as an unsupervised night watchman at Harry Winston, especially without informing the famous jewelers management about the new employees background. (Frawley-ODea 138)
This is what the church did hundreds of times and was effective at keeping their issues at bay (Davis). Another way abuse has been covered up is through blackmail. Priests who have acted on sexual behaviors but have not known made them known to the whole community can be blackmailed by other clergy members to keep silent on their own abuse, like the child molesters (Frawley-ODea 98). For instance, say one Priest was having sexual interactions with a girlfriend that he had and one day caught fellow priest abusing a minor. The pedophile could threaten the priest who discovered his secret by saying he would tell the rest of the community about his girlfriend. The priest would then feel pressured to keep quiet in order to maintain his own reputation. Finally, there is the fear of being marginalized from other clergy members. Christian Brother Barry Coldrey faced this problem when he had written a report on a superior about sexual abuse and was shunned by his peers; he said, Its fair to say I was marginalized There was a lot of bitching and bickering about what I was doing (Frawley-ODea 91).

All of this cover-up was presumably done to maintain the churchs image and to save the abusers from facing actual justice. What is at stake from a tarnished image is the reputation of other clergy members, the 50 percent who are celibates (Frawley-O’Dea 91) and loss of practitioners and therefore money. About 27 percent of Catholics who left the clergy claimed the sexual abuse scandals were the reason for leaving the church in 2015, and 21 percent of former Catholics now Protestants gave the same reason for switching (Zauzmer). This is a decent chunk of what the churchs income consists of, so they have suffered. Some members have stopped giving financial contributions as a way to discourage the church from allowing this to happen any longer (Zaumer). The church countered these actions, saying that stopping these contributions will only limit how the church will be able to serve their own members and will not change the entire system of the entire church. (Zauzmer).

A lot of time and change will be needed to ensure that things like the cases detailed in Boston and the Pittsburgh Grand Jury investigation report will be put to an end. The vow of celibacy and the recurring theme of cover-up, denial, and blackmail have forced the church to compromise their integrity and moral standards. However, the church has made changes; Pope Francis has addressed the problem.

With shame and repentance, we acknowledge as an ecclesial community that we were not where we should have been, that we did not act in a timely manner, realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives. We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them. (Povoledo)

With this mindset, the church has made changes since the Boston incident: In 2002, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Church Bishops decided to make mandatory rules on sexual abuse in all 194 dioceses in the U.S. They made it so that any priest who sexually abuse minors be removed from ministry and be reported to prosecutors, that dioceses reach out to victims, and that Church workers be trained to recognize and report indications that a child might have been harmed (Betrayal 194). Another positive aspect of the crisis is that it had brought to light many other problems of the church that can now begin to be resolved. For example, homosexuality, the role of women in the church, and celibacy and where or not it should be required (Betrayal 184). And most importantly, those accused are getting the justice they deserve behind bars.

Works Cited

  1. Betrayal: the Crisis in the Catholic Church. Little, Brown and Co., 2002.
  2. Davis, Jim. Spotlight Church Abuse Report: Church Allowed Abuse by Priest for Years – The Boston Globe. BostonGlobe.com, The Boston Globe, 6 Jan. 2002, www.bostonglobe.com/news/special-reports/2002/01/06/church-allowed-abuse-priest-for-years/cSHfGkTIrAT25qKGvBuDNM/story.html.
  3. Frawley-O’Dea, Mary Gail. Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church. Vanderbilt University Press, 2007.
  4. Povoledo, Elisabetta. ‘We Abandoned Them’: Pope Francis Condemns Sex Abuse and Cover-Up. The New York Times, The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/08/20/world/europe/pope-sexual-abuse-letter.html.
  5. Zauzmer, Julie, et al. ”Wasted Our Lives’: Catholic Sex Abuse Scandals Again Prompt a Crisis of Faith. The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Aug. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2018/08/19/wasted-our-lives-catholic-sex-abuse-scandals-again-prompt-a-crisis-of-faith/?utm_term=.d6bcfe2ea98d.
  6. 40th Statewide Investigation Grand Jury Report 1. 2018, pp. 1“3.
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A Problem Of Religious Integrity. (2019, May 13). Retrieved December 8, 2022 , from

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