The Catholic Herald UK reports
Mgr Peter Smith, former chancellor of Glasgow archdiocese, said the Church accepted conventional wisdom of the 1970s that it was “better to repair the [abuser], to fix them or to redeem them”, than punish them. In that era priests accused of abuse could be sent for therapy rather than face criminal charges.
The paper is reporting Mgr Smith’s words with the strong insinuation that Vatican II is to blame for the scandal. I’m not sure if that’s what he really meant, or if his comments might be taken out of context. But I have most certainly heard other Catholics say outright that we can pin the sex abuse scandal on the laxness, the sloppiness, and the psychological sentimentality of the 70’s and Vatican II’s implementation. Vatican II, at least the way it played out in many places, was all about letting go of mean old rules and regulations, and doing what felt good, they argue. Of course we had abusers.
But they are forgetting one thing: Almost 70% of the abusive priests were ordained before 1970. They weren’t formed in feel-good Vatican II seminaries. These were old school guys. They are the ones who were molesting kids, and their world was the world that allowed it to happen.
The sex abuse scandal has three components:
1. Priests abusing kids;
2. The Church knowing about it, and letting it continue; and
3. Various people either not believing kids or parents who reported abuse, or being too in awe of priests to do anything about it, or blaming the kids for the abuse.
This third one has absolutely zero to do with any touchy-feely spirit of Vatican II, and everything to do with what Vatican II set out to change in the Church, because it needed changing.
Priests did not suddenly begin to abuse kids in the early 70’s (although the reports of alleged abuse peaked then; which is not to say that there was necessarily more abuse, but only that more people reported it). Many of the victims who came forward to report childhood abuse, after the Boston Globe‘s work started to gather steam, were children in the 1950’s. At that time, it was unthinkable to criticize a priest, unthinkable to believe that Father could do wrong, unthinkable to go over a priest’s head. There simply wasn’t any precedent for doing such a thing, other than, like, Martin Luther.
Sex abuse by clergy wasn’t a problem of loosey-goosey, post-sexual-revolutionary perverts infiltrating an institution that had heretofore been utterly chaste and holy. This was a problem of a horrible marriage between two deadly trends in the Church and in the country as a whole: the nascent sexual perversions that pervaded 1950’s American culture, and the institutional perverted understanding of authority and respect.
Where do you suppose the sexual revolution came from? Out of nowhere? It never could have happened if things weren’t already rotten underground; and it was just as true in the Church as it was everywhere else in the country. It’s a lie that things were wholesome and pure in the 50’s. But that grotesque artifice of happy, shiny exteriors worked exceedingly well together with the “Father knows best,” mentality. If Doris Day had to smile and have perfect hair no matter what, good Catholic families had to be respectful and obedient to their pastor no matter what. There was no room for going off script, even when lives were at stake.
Children who were molested were too afraid to speak up, because it was Father.
Parents who knew their kids were being molested were too afraid to speak up, because it was Father.
Parents who reported abuse were not believed, because it was Father.
Kids were rightly afraid that no one would believe them. Parents were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. Parishes were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. Bishops were afraid that their reputations would be ruined. And so this horrible carapace of silence was formed to cover up and cover up and cover up, shift the blame, shift the responsibility, and never look at the person at the heart of the problem.
And yes, the errors of the 70’s perpetuated the problem. It is very true that in the 70’s, the 80’s, and beyond, the Church and the rest of the country believed that one could simply see a therapist, attend a few classes, and not be a real danger to kids anymore. That was horrible. But it was no worse than the attitude it replaced, which was that Such Things Never Happened, and if they did, we Simply Don’t Talk About Them.
Of course, dreadful to say, the abuse scandal almost certainly goes back further than the 1950’s — centuries further — but those victims aren’t alive to give their testimony. But at very least, we can put to rest the idea that this hideous stain on our history came about by means of the Vatican II-style “Church of Nice.”
It’s always tempting, when we see gross behavior, to blame it on those who speak of mercy, of forgiveness, of healing. It’s tempting to think, “If we just clamped down and got tough, like we did back in the old days when everyone wore hats, then we’d have none of this nonsense!”
But the real lesson here isn’t that mercy is an error. The real lesson is that mercy and forgiveness can be abused just like innocence can be abused, and that evil is endlessly adaptable. It will grab hold of whatever weakness, foolishness, and wickedness is popular in any age, and it will put it in the service of sin.
Hell is overjoyed when we learn all the wrong lessons from suffering. Violation of innocents was horrible enough. Let’s not compound the outrage by trying to root true mercy, true forgiveness, and true compassion out of the heart of our Church.
Photo by Milliped (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons