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Church’s Response to Abuser-Priests Should Be Tempered with Mercy

by Rev. Michael P. Orsi, Ed.D

Rev. Michael P. Orsi is Chaplain and Research Fellow at Ave Maria University, Ann Arbor, Michigan.  He is a priest of the Diocese of Camden, New Jersey.  He has written four books and many articles.  He has a PhD from Fordham University.

            The recent revelations of sex crimes perpetrated by priests and their cover-up by some bishops has rocked the Catholic Church in America.  Both conservatives and liberals have used these scandals to promote their own agendas.  The right wing blames homosexuality and sees a purging of homosexuals from the priesthood and seminaries as the solution.  The left wing sees an opportunity to challenge the church’s teachings on celibacy and the all-male priesthood.  With the justified outrage of civil society, attention has been focused on the closed system that allowed the criminal acts to go unchecked.  Some reports have begun to assess the psychological and spiritual damage to the victims of clergy sexual abuse, but certainly a good deal more must be done for treatment and compensation.  Hardly anything, however, has been said or done regarding those clergymen who have been accused and found guilty of sexual misconduct except that they should be defrocked and put in jail.  While punishment is certainly deserved, politically correct attempts to cut the damages and assuage public outrage may compromise the Church’s core beliefs in redemption and in the Sacrament of Holy Orders.  When people are angry and frightened, they often resort to quick and poorly thought-out measures.  A case in point is Vatican spokesman Joachin Navarro Valls’ hint that homosexual ordinations might be invalid.  Although homosexual acts are defined by the Catechism of the Catholic Church as sexually disordered, there is no canonical impediment to valid ordination for those so afflicted.  Whether homosexuals should be ordained is another debate.  Many homosexuals have served and are serving as priests and bishops.  If their ordinations were considered invalid, what would this do to apostolic succession?  How many people would have received invalid sacraments?  Such a belief would question not only clerical credibility but the validity of the Church’s sacramental system and its legitimacy.

Central to Christ’s message is that even the most hardened sinner is redeemable.  This fact is demonstrated by Jesus’ promise of paradise to the repentant thief as he hung on the cross.  Many seem to have overlooked the fact that even guilty priests must be extended compassion and forgiveness by the Catholic community.  For bishops to declare ecclesiastical marshal law and bypass the medicinal purpose of canon law, which requires that certain steps be taken to rehabilitate the offender, would mock the Gospel.  “One strike, you’re out” policies contemplated by some bishops may work for pandering politicians, but have no place in a good shepherd’s pastoral practice.  It would also be contrary to 2001 Roman Synod, “The Bishop: Servant of the Gospel of Jesus Christ for the Hope of the World,” which stressed that “the bishop should be father, brother and friend” to his priests.  Because God calls all to repentance, the retribution and attempt to rehabilitate that these behaviors demand may very well be a grace-filled opportunity for the spiritual growth of the offending priest and perhaps the bishop, too.  In the long run, it would serve as role modeling for other Christians.

I have known personally three admittedly guilty priests.  After completing therapy with ongoing supervision, they continued to serve their dioceses in a safe and circumscribed way.  One of them, recently dismissed, was told by his bishop that he must sign a request for laicisation.  He said to me, “I did everything they asked, I’ve been clean for five years.  I want to be a priest.”  It seems to me each case must be evaluated on its own merits.  I believe that with ephebophiles, those attracted to teenagers, some arrangements could be made.  According to figures supplied by St. Luke Institute, a treatment center for priest sex offenders, 450 priests have been treated from 1985 to 1995.  Out of these cases, only three relapses have been reported and those did not involve physical contact.  One recovering priest, after treatment, lived in a residence for retired priests and spent five years in the chaplaincy of a hospital.  Upon his death, a plaque was erected by the non-sectarian hospital’s administration and staff in appreciation for his loving care.  As for the .3 percent of those cases dealing with pedophilia, those attracted to prepubescent children, a condition commonly held to be incurable by professionals in the field, these priests may be called to a hermetic life of prayer and the private celebration of Mass either at home or in a monastic type environment.  These options should be explored. 

Most priests feel deeply pained by their sinfulness since it contradicts their divine call to be an “alter Christus” or “another Christ.”  The sorrow and self-loathing for most of these abuser-priests has to be terrible.  Programs should be designed for those priests amenable to this solution which would include intensification of prayer, regular spiritual direction, prescribed religious reading and frequent reception of the sacraments, especially Penance and the Eucharist. God’s grace has a marvelous track record for changing sinners into saints.  I often think of the slave trader John Newton who, having experienced God’s presence in a storm at sea, ended his involvement in the “legalized” evil of the era and wrote “Amazing Grace.”  Not to at least offer this possibility to fallen priests is contrary to Christian tradition.  For the Church not to extend Christ’s mercy to them and to reject these men out-of-hand by laicising them or attempting to deny the validity of their ordinations is a dangerous and unworthy route to follow./p>

We must all readily admit in times of turmoil the past good done by individuals is often completely blocked out and any future good that may come from or through them is deemed an impossibility.  In some cases, however, those who were served by these fallen and sinful priests have attested to their kindness and pastoral care, as in the case of the late hospital chaplain.  In one Detroit parish where a pastor was recently removed for undenied misconduct which took place 14 years ago, parishioners rallied to his defense with letters and petitions to Cardinal Maida for his return.  But even in the worst of cases, Catholic theology cannot deny the efficacy of the confessions these priests heard and the Masses they celebrated, since the sacraments do not depend on the sanctity of the priest.  The traditional teaching is that God does not make mistakes in those ordained.  The fact has always been that all priests are imperfect and despite that, God chose each priest to make His grace present to His people.  God’s work in this present debacle may not be obvious now but to deny it has been effective or to quickly cut off what He has initiated may do greater harm to the Church than the sins and crimes committed.

While the state must continue to pursue justice and protect the young, the Church must begin to look more deeply at what the Pope calls “the mystery of iniquity” and how God’s grace can overcome it.  In other words, what can be salvaged from the ruined public lives of Her tainted priests?  With our belief in the infinite value of even one Mass, can we afford not to allow even the condemned to do what God appointed them to do at least sacramentally for His Church?

Despite the havoc wrought by priests who have engaged in sexual abuse, it seems possible that some of them, especially those who have proven themselves over time, may be able to serve in a restricted ministry.  For those who are suspended and/or imprisoned, bishops should encourage them to celebrate Mass privately for the remission of their sins, for the welfare of their victims and for the good of the universal Church.  Is it possible that this is the new ministry God is now calling them to?  I refuse to believe that, with God’s track record of using weak and sinful human beings for His ultimate purposes, He would change now.  The bishops and the laity shouldn’t forget that these priests are still and always will be God’s chosen ones.  Undoubtedly, Pope John Paul will reiterate this point with the Cardinals summoned to Rome to discuss a policy to deal with the growing crisis.  The Vatican’s historical perspective and theological acumen, as well as the luxury of geographical distance, enable the Pope to give clear-sighted direction which can prevent even a greater crisis from developing in clergy morale and institutional stability, thereby safeguarding the faith itself.


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