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How to Solve the Appalling Problem of Child Sex Abuse: Why Catholic Priest Andrew Greeley Is Very Wrong to Suggest Church Self-Policing Is the Answer


Thursday, Feb. 21, 2008

Last week, the Chicago Sun Times published an Op Ed by sociologist, novelist, and Roman Catholic Church priest Andrew Greeley, entitled "Celibacy Isn't Cause of Sex Abuse." Greeley is right on that point, but he is also extremely misguided about the scourge of child sex abuse in this country, as I will explain.

Greeley states in his Op Ed, "I contend that the problem will be solved only when priests assume full responsibility for self-policing. The current response of many a priest is to wash their hands of the crimes and blame the bishops…."

These sentences, written by an important public intellectual within the Church who has been critical of the hierarchy's handling of abuse, deserve very close analysis.

"The Problem" as Greeley Defines It

First, when Greeley refers to "the problem," he is talking about the hierarchy's evil pattern of covering up child abuse by clergy, and about the dead silence of fellow priests who knew full well that their cohorts were taking children into their bedrooms and to their vacation homes. No decent human being should ever lose his or her initial revulsion at the accounts of children being offered up to predators again and again, over decades. It is not a "problem" - it is debased behavior that should not be known to man.

The real problem, though, is not about the Church - it's about all the victims. And responsibility rests upon our entire society. We have created a legal and social system that has permitted predators in robes, predators behind school desks, and predators in the home to dominate and abuse the utterly defenseless. Reliable studies show that at least one in five children has been sexually abused - and plenty of experts say that number is too low. No more than 10% of those victims ever get to court before the statutes of limitations have expired, and as a result, the adults' depraved behavior is hidden and abetted.

There is no such thing as an accident of this magnitude. Rather, the system has been constructed to favor the adults at the expense of the children. We have choices, but only a very few states have had the guts to flip the balance, placing children's interests above those of adults. The Catholic Church hierarchy's actions are just one example among millions of the ways in which children have been subjected to conditions that permit and encourage abuse.

To put it succinctly, while the Church hierarchy has been an active participant in the pattern of abuse, it is one cog within a larger social pattern. Focus, like Greeley's, on the Church, does not begin to speak to what needs to be done to protect children.

The Narcissism of Relying on "Self-Policing" by Priests

If there were any point that a person of Greeley's obvious intelligence should have apprehended by now, I would have thought that it would be this one: There is no such thing as the successful "self-policing" of child abuse. Child molesters are too devious, dogged, and charming to be contained by any private system. Self-policing is a chimera, if not a contradiction in terms: When it comes to protecting children, it is nothing but self-indulgence.

The only cover it provides is for an organization's ugly secrets. The impulse to self-police by Chicago's Cardinal Francis George (also President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops) was disastrous for the boys recently abused after he let others within the Church "monitor" Fr. David McCormack rather than turn him into authorities. And this happened well after the bishops promised to report abuse to the authorities. Only the legal authorities can "contain" child abusers, and even that system is far from perfect.

Perhaps by "self-policing," Greeley means the church process of defrocking. What a joke. One of the sickest pedophiles within the church to date, Fr. David Sicoli, whose crimes were detailed in the Philadelphia Grand Jury Report on the Philadelphia Archdiocese, was defrocked just last week, which is a good six years after the Boston Globe first broke the coverup story and over two years following the Grand Jury Report - and thus decades after the hierarchy started hearing about him.

And here is the result of this fabulous example of self-policing: If we're talking about protecting the Church from scandal, defrocking was good for the Church, generating some positive publicity and making the Church appear to be taking action. However, it was disastrous for everyone else's children, as no one seems to know where Sicoli is now. Because the Church never turned him into the authorities, he's not in jail, he's not on any Megan's Law list, and he's free to continue his predatory ways.

Greeley poses the ultimate narcissistic question: Does celibacy cause child abuse? By itself? Of course not. No single policy has created this state of affairs. Rather, it takes an entire society and, in the case of the Church, the orchestration of an entire organization, to permit and foster the widespread child sex abuse we now face.

Where Are The Priests? When Many Must Have Suspected Others' Abuse, Why Have So Few Come Forward?

Greeley makes a good, though muted, point about the culpability of clergy in general: Was it really just the bishops who created this situation? A few clergy members have been brave witnesses to the corruption that has led to the abuse of children within the Church, but they have been hounded and demoted as well, including Bishop Thomas Gumbleton, Fr. Thomas Doyle, and Sister Maureen Turlish. Most of the rest are silent, as Greeley points out, apparently hoping that the problem will fix itself or worse, praying that no one will learn about their dealings with children.

You can be certain that plenty of priests suspected their fellow clergymen, or knew them to be unstable in seminary, but did nothing to prevent the inevitable abuse. According to Greeley, they need to do a better job of "self-policing." Quite to the contrary, they need to move beyond the internal dynamics of the organization and call the police.

Who Cares What the Church Has to Say About Child Sex Abuse, Anyway?

Finally, I have to wonder at the Sun Times' decision to publish Greeley's Op Ed in the first place. The Church's seemingly intractable internal problems are old news at this point.

Who cares what the Church has to say about child abuse, anyway? You don't see the hierarchy taking any steps to ensure that all children are protected or floating new ideas about how to transform all of society to make this a better place for children. The focus remains where Greeley's is - inside the institution. This navel-gazing is a distraction from the pressing need to protect all children now.

Even if the Church were to take care of every one of its victims perfectly (which will never happen), and were to never permit another child to be abused (ditto), it would have taken care of only a small percentage of the total number of children abused in this country. And even if it screened perfectly every priest on its doorstep, the problem transcends the Church.

Many more children are abused within the home, and plenty are abused in the schools. The breaking news is that there is a growing national grassroots movement for all victims of child sex abuse.

As I've written in previous columns such as this one, and as I explain in my forthcoming book, Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children, there is one change in public policy that will do more to protect children from future abuse and to bring justice to the millions currently suffering outside locked courthouse doors than any other: the simple fix of eliminating the statutes of limitations for child sex abuse.

The Church hierarchy is implacably opposed to such reform. Let me repeat myself - who cares?

Marci A. Hamilton is a Visiting Professor of Public Affairs and the Kathleen and Martin Crane Senior Research Fellow at the Program in Law and Public Affairs at Princeton University. An archive of her columns on church/state issues - as well as other topics -- can be found on this site. Professor Hamilton's most recent work is God vs. the Gavel: Religion and the Rule of Law (Cambridge University Press 2005), now available in paperback. Professor Hamilton's forthcoming book, which will be published this spring is entitled Justice Denied: What America Must Do to Protect Its Children (Cambridge 2008). Professor Hamilton's email address is

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