A Catholic newspaper has removed an interview from their website in which a priest said that pedophiles are seduced by children in “a lot of the cases” and the abusers should not go to jail.
During an interview with National Catholic Register, 78-year-old Father Benedict Groeschel was asked about his experience working with priests involved in abuse.
“People have this picture in their minds of a person planning to — a psychopath. But that’s not the case,” Groeschel explained. “Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him. A lot of the cases, the youngster — 14, 16, 18 — is the seducer.”
This is a big deal. Father Groeschel is a respected psychologist who has worked with pedophile priests within the Church. And the newspaper has apparently engaged in self-censorship in order to help polish the Vatican’s image on it’s disastrous handling of its priests accused of abusing children. But, unfortunately, our culture being what it is the overlay of agenda’s onto this incredibly revealing piece of journalism is likely to completely misunderstand what we’ve actually learned.
For the discerning reader, then, here is a brief primer on three things this story is not about:
1.) It’s not about Catholic coverups, its about journalistic ethics
Some commentators are likely to spin this as an extension of the Catholic Church’s documented history of covering up priest abuse. This is wrong. While the national catholic register has taken down the original text of the interview, they have not attempted to hide that they removed the article.
The statement by the Friars and by Father Groeschel that now occupies the place of the article are legitimate responses that deserve a public hearing. This has not been covered up.
However, it has been massaged in order to avoid offending powerful interests, and that is something the National Catholic Register is wrong for doing. They should, and must, return the original interview to print and/or release the text of the raw interview recording because readers have a right to make their own judgments about the reasons for Father Groeschel’s statements. They are entitled to their editorial policies and positions, but they are wronging their readership in replacing the interview with the responsive mea culpa letters.
The mea culpa letters are in fact a separate story and should be presented as such by the paper. This is a key consideration because the Friars and Father Groeschal make specific claims about the reasons for his comments, but those claims may or may not be true.
In fact the original article, as captured by google and reported on by raw story, does not appear to be of an elderly man with failing mental capacities making foolish statements that embarass him. For the curious, this is what that looks like. In fact there are numerous, and more likely, readings of the father’s comments. But there lies another problem where people are going to get this wrong.
2.) It’s not about apologizing for abusers, it’s about the culture within the Church that led to priest abuse remaining unreported still being in place.
So, in all fairness, the cases that Father Groeschel appears to be talking about were more the hazy area of statutory rape than the more ethically clear cut issue of child molestation. Specifically he mentions priests having sex with kids in their teens who may have exhibited behavior that in an adult would amount to consent. OF course, children are not able to consent and in most states that’s usually in the 18 year old range where the transition to lawful consent takes place.
And also Father Groeschel was right, at least in broad contours, to point out that particularly teenagers should not be considered asexual beings and therefore the ethical calculus is slightly different when adults abuse them sexually. They are not, as anyone who has ever been a hormone addled sex-crazed teenager—and by that, read “everyone in the whole world” can attest. Most of us recognize this and are okay with making that distinction, as is demonstrated by the generally more forgiving attitudes we exhibit in society and in our penal codes to “mere” statutory rape, and specific intent crimes like child rape and child sexual assault.
So far as that, and the general call for compassion for the sick individuals who commit those kinds of crimes, is nothing that’s particularly controversial, particularly coming from a Priest and psychologist. This article and the story that grows out of it then, is not one about an elderly priest making excuses for abusers.
What it’s about is the culture of blindness that apparently priests like Father Groeschel who were dealing with the issue engaged in such that they apparently didn’t recognize that with the majority of the priests where there has been public outcry are about those lesser offenses of statutory rape of children nearing adulthood. The outcry is over the sexual abuse, assault, rape, and of very young children, not yet teenagers, by priests who were then protected by the Church.
In this Father Groeschel’s comments were revealing, in that he blurred that distinction and seemed to be lumping all instances of child sex abuse into the much less blameworthy act of statutory rape. This goes some way into shedding light into the institutional errors and denial that the Vatican engaged in in its failure to protect it’s most vulnerable students. After all if you believe that what you are dealing with in a child sex abuse case are primarily situational violations, tied to an inappropriate relationship with a young person nearing adulthood and the issue is over a lack of the ability to consent rather than a lack of consent or pedophiliac predation, you will, as an institution, respond to the problem in a different way. Seen in this light, the reasons why the Church was so willfully blind become clear. A frank discussion of this willful blindness in the context of the Church’s horrific arrogance in trying to shield its priests from secular law would be a useful and productive step toward reforming the Church’s attitude toward these things.
To that end, by foreclosing for its readers and the Church the opportunity to engage in that discussion, the National Catholic Register has become complicit in the Church’s position that it is above reproach from secular sources on how it failed so many children so horribly.
Which brings us to:
3.) It’s not about the flaws of religion or of Catholocism, it’s about the failure of the quasi-State vatican to operate in the interests of its members.
The lazy version of this story is the one about how bad this all makes Catholics look, still not learning the lessons of the Vatican’s multigenerational failure to turn over pedophiles to law enforcement. The tag line of such op-eds will be a resounding “boo, hiss” call and response session coupled with a rambling incoherent restatement of Christopher Hitchens’s or Richard Dawkins’s generally inept pseudo-scientific arguments against Christianity and a smug dismissal on the part of the lazy author.
THe lazy version of this story is wrong. This is not a story about the religion of Catholics. The strongest critics of the Church and its failures in this arena have been members of the Church after all. The failure of the Vatican is one that is a failure of an institution that has a complex and fraught relationship to the global body of the faithful who it serves. That is the story. Once again rehashing the New Atheism does nothing to inform anyone about anything. Sides have already been taken in that fight and at this late date major defections one way or the other are a remote possibility at best.
The real, interesting part of this story is about the place of the Vatican, an international power accorded diplomatic status similar to nationhood by most countries in the world. So when the Vatican acts, as it has done and has done poorly with the ongoing series of failures to properly address its problem with pedophilia and the safety of children, it is not the same thing as what happens when a Televangelist like Pat Robertson runs his mouth about nonsense on a more or less daily basis.
Instead, this is a sophisticated state-like entity with ambassadors and lobbyists who have a real agenda with respect to its diplomatic mission to the rest of the world. And like a state, it considers itself to have a great deal of individual autonomy even where it is operating as a church within another sovereign nation.
The child sex abuse scandal and the continued failure of Vatican or Church players is a wakeup call about whether we should allow this authoritarian organization to claim such wide rights or if hosting states ought to be more skeptical of how cooperative this foreign entity is.
Of course, the rest of the media is just going to tell you how awful it is that some senile monk got caught blabbing insensitively about the matter. But if that is the only story you find, there is good reason there to doubt the source that brought the truncated incorrect story to you.
Because the media is going to blow this one. You can already tell.