Righting pedophiles' five-sided wrongs

April 18, 2002|By The Rev. John Langan

WASHINGTON -- Few things seem more clearly wrong than pedophilia. Few things seem more clearly incompatible with the teachings of the Catholic Church, which is seen in our culture as the guardian of sexual morality.

So how and why did the American Catholic Church get itself into the worst mess in its history?

The how depends on priests, victims, lawyers, bishops and the media. And it nicely illustrates the Watergate truth that a poorly conceived and executed cover-up is the surest way to turn serious mistakes into major disasters.

The why rests on the fact that pedophilia can be condemned for many different reasons and that church leaders have been slow to develop a clear understanding of something that provokes hurt, anger, embarrassment, anxiety, fear and revulsion.

The first reason for condemning pedophilia is that it harms children. The central and inescapable form of harm that our society sees in pedophilia is the disruption of the normal psychosexual development of the victim.

The child loses trust in adults, links sex with secrecy and shame, undergoes the trauma of coerced sexual activity. In some victims, pedophilia becomes part of a history that leaves them incapacitated for adult life. Any adequate response must acknowledge the harm done to the victim and must include restitution or compensation to the victim and to the family of the victim. This implies honest, if limited, disclosure.

Second, pedophilia is a psychological disorder, an addictive form of sexual behavior that the pedophile is unable to control. A desire, even an earnest and sincere desire, to avoid the behavior in the future is not enough. The pedophile needs treatment, which will not cause the problem to disappear, and removal from those situations in which he is likely to relapse. Guilt and repentance do not solve the problem.

Third, pedophilia is shameful. It is a form of deviant sexual development. It is incompatible with being a mature and trustworthy adult. Disclosure is looked on with fear and aversion by the pedophile and those who are responsible for him. Denial and concealment are inadequate responses, as are vilification of the pedophile and shuddering at his continued existence.

Fourth, pedophilia is a sin, a violation of God's law and of a commitment undertaken by the priest at the time of his ordination. It is disordered sexual activity that cannot find its appropriate fulfillment in mutual love and procreation.

The proper response to sin is repentance, confession and a firm purpose to avoid the sin in the future. What is confessed is protected by the seal of confession, and unauthorized disclosure is itself sinful. Once the sinner repents, he is to be forgiven. This response addresses the ultimate problem of the pedophile's relationship to God, and it fits into the normal patterns of church life.

Fifth, pedophilia is a crime. It is a violation of the rights of the victim, especially the rights to bodily integrity and privacy. It must be reported to the proper secular authorities, scrutinized in a court of law and punished with appropriate severity.

Disclosure is an important step in bringing the culprit to justice and in preventing future harm. Concealing the pedophile's activities can be both an obstruction of justice and a cause of future harm.

These five ways of thinking about pedophilia all treat it as negative. But they lead to incompatible practical conclusions, especially on the crucial question of disclosure.

There is some point in all five views, and insistence on one view in isolation is incomplete. In a comprehensive response to pedophilia, there must be a place for forgiveness, for psychological treatment, for compensation, for disclosure and for punishment. But the morally most compelling view is the first one, which focuses on the harm to children.

Current criticism of the church's hierarchy arises from the suspicion that it has routinely put the reputation of the pedophile and the personnel needs of the church ahead of harm to children and observing the law. Dispelling that suspicion will require that the church, without giving up all concern for confidentiality and privacy, establish the reliability and accountability of its personnel decisions.

This will have to mean more than providing information to insurers, psychological consultants and legal counsel, most of whom are primarily charged with protecting the interests of the church.

In the long run, it will also require that the church resolve its ongoing personnel crisis. For the temptation to retain unsuitable personnel and the suspicion that this is being done will continue to haunt the church and its relations with even its most faithful and most committed members.

The Rev. John Langan is the Joseph Cardinal Bernardin Professor of Catholic Social Thought at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics.

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