Clergy Misconduct

Dear People of St. Mary’s Church,

“Put not your trust in princes, in mortal men in whom there is no help…Happy is he whose help is the God of Jacob, whose hope is in the Lord his God” (Psalm 146:3,5).

These words of the palmist came to me several days ago when I first heard the news about the disgrace of the Bishop of Palm Beach, who resigned after admitting to the immoral and illegal abuse of a teenage boy entrusted to his care. This shocking and shameful revelation is even harder to endure because of the recent disclosure of the numerous cases of sexual abuse of minors by priests in Boston and other cities all over the country.

Bishops stand in apostolic succession as authentic teachers of the Gospel, high priests of divine worship, and chief shepherds of the flock. In their task of teaching, sanctifying, and governing the Church, bishops are assisted by priests who are configured through ordination to the Person of Jesus Christ, Head and Bridegroom of the Church. Because of the sacred office entrusted to bishops and priests in the Church, the People of God rightly look to them as living witnesses to the truth of the Gospel and expect them to live in keeping with the evangelical truth they preach and celebrate in the sacred liturgy. For this reason, the lay faithful rightly take scandal when bishops and priests do not live according to the truth of the Gospel, and this is true of any sort of sinful behavior. The damage done is worse, however, when children are involved.

When the welfare of children is at stake, the danger of scandal and lasting harm from the misconduct of the clergy is so great that Jesus solemnly warned the Apostles: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea” (Mt 18:6). These sobering words of the Son of God should make every bishop and priest tremble at the thought of giving scandal, and yet we know that in every age some bishops and priests have failed to live according to the promises of their baptism and ordination. While this fact should distress us, it should not surprise us.

After intense prayer, the Lord Jesus personally selected the twelve men who would be His Apostles, His emissaries to the world. And on the night before Christ died, when He gave us the Holy Eucharist and the priesthood, what did these chosen Twelve do? Judas betrayed Him; Peter, James, and John went to sleep; they all fled in terror; and Peter lied through his teeth three times just to save his skin. In other words, treachery, sloth, cowardice, and mendacity were found in the apostolic office from the very beginning. Should we be surprised to find it today?

“All have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” (Romans 3:21). This truth is at the very heart of the Gospel. The human condition after the Fall from grace is one of wretchedness, and from the catastrophe of sin there is only one rescue: Jesus Christ and Him crucified. When bishops and priests sin, we are right to be scandalized. But we must not conclude from the grotesque crimes reported in these last weeks that the Gospel preached by these men is false. The failure of these messengers is not a failure of the message; in fact, in a sad way the moral weakness and transgressions of the clergy are confirmation of the Gospel they preach. Nevertheless, also at the heart of the Gospel is the universal call to holiness; all who are baptized into Christ have become a new creation and are called to share the very holiness of God. All Christians, bishops and priests most especially, are called to be martyrs-living witnesses to Christ.

Given the scope of this scandal it is reasonable to ask: What has gone wrong? Some cities of the Church have suggested that clerical celibacy is the real problem, but this argument is refuted by two simple facts. First, the available evidence clearly shows that the sexual abuse of children is no more common among Catholic priests than among any other population group; celibacy no more causes child abuse than marriage causes adultery. Second, and by far more important, the Lord Jesus taught us that embracing celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom of God is a grace which should be accepted when offered (Mt 19:12). Freely surrendering the blessings of marriage for the service of God and His Church has been for two thousand years one of the most spiritually fruitful disciplines of the Christian life, and on numerous occasions in our own time the Church has vigorously endorsed the present and future value of continuing this apostolic and evangelical custom. So, if celibacy is not the cause of these difficulties, what is?

Answering that question definitively is beyond my wisdom, but I believe most strongly that the present corruption of the priesthood is caused, at least in part, by a lack of faith in the revealed Word of God. The Sacred Scriptures teach us quite clearly the principles which must govern human sexuality; these principles flow from and give shape to a comprehensive doctrine of the human person, a doctrine which can be called Christian anthropology. When priests have left everything to follow Jesus Christ in the obedience of faith, making the sacrifices necessary to lead a counter-cultural life of celibate chastity becomes a fruitful path of radical discipleship. But when priests have accepted the criticisms of the Gospel offered by the sexual revolution, living peacefully and chastely as a celibate in our present culture becomes all but impossible. Genuine pedophilia is compulsive attraction to pre-pubescent children and weakness of faith, of course, does not cause true pedophilia in anyone. But most of the priests now accused of abusing children are not true pedophiles. They are simply homosexual men who have not renounced sinful patterns of immoral and illegal behavior with adolescents, and the cure for this malady is conversion, not counseling.

The crisis of faith today confronts not just priests, but all Christians. Married Christians striving to be faithful to each other and single Christians seeking to live in celibate chastity are both challenged by the same question: Who is Jesus of Nazareth? If the son of Mary is also the Incarnate Word, the Son of the living God, then all who believe in Him and receive His word with faith have freedom from sin and death by the power of His Resurrection. If we surrender our lives to His mercy and cooperate with His grace, then He will transform our hearts and minds with liberating truth. That is the only path to holiness: Jesus Christ.

The words of the Apostle Paul give us hope in the victory of the Cross: “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are as nothing compared with the glory to be revealed for us. For creation awaits with eager expectation the revelation of the children of God; for creation was made subject to futility, not of its own accord but because of the one who subjected it, in hope that creation itself would be set free from slavery to corruption and share in the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that all creation is groaning in labor pains even until now, and not only that, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we also groan within ourselves as we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved” (Romans 8:18-24).

Father Jay Scott Newman