clergy abuse crisis

The Zero-Sum Clergy Abuse Game

Catholics thinking they understand the problem are part of the problem.

I feel like I spend all of my time talking and writing about clerical abuse. This weekend, I met with a group for three hours to discuss the recent paper published by the Ruth Institute on homosexuality and clerical abuse of minors, after which I concluded that every Catholic should have a working knowledge of statistics (and perhaps this should be a seminary requirement). This evening, I will attend a young adult listening session with the Archbishop of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Next month, I plan to host discussions with individuals who have been involved personally and professionally in these issues.

In my diocese, I see that young Catholics are taking these issues seriously. On a personal level, the more I learn, the more I find that I have been ill-equipped to respond to them. And this presents a new concern.

There is a new danger presented by the recent acceptance of the seriousness of the Church’s crises: a presumption that we are equipped to provide a good response. Statements by leaders such as, “We will end the clerical abuse of minors,” reveal an entirely uneducated view on the nature, causes, and context of sexual violence against minors. And selecting a class of persons as the primary culprit—men, the patriarchy, celibacy advocates, homosexuals, religious persons generally—demonstrates a lack of engagement in the most relevant professional research on sexual violence. Catholics don’t really know what causes sexual violence against minors. No one does. All that we have are some (developing) hypotheses. That’s what the most reputable research tells us.

I worry that failing to recognize both the complexity of these issues and our relative lack of education in this complexity will only lead to create further damage, by creating false solutions with unintended harmful consequences and by assigning blame where it may not be appropriate. Catholics making too ready a leap from the scope of the crises to their causes represent a Church that fails to pursue the integration of faith and the sciences, lacks the appropriate ascetic disposition to check impulsive reactivity, and sacrifices the vulnerable to appease a false god of temporal and psychological comfort.

Catholics must recognize and state clearly the problems we are facing: abuse, deception, lies, clericalism, undue deference to certain members of the laity, sexual consumerism, etc. However, just as we must clearly place our problems into the light, we must also check our impulses to dismiss these problems by assigning simplified blame. Assigning blame on the cause that seems most obvious to us is not actually providing a real solution to the problem.

Rather, it dismisses the problem by claiming that it would all be resolved as long as people do what I say. It presumes for the speaker the status of informed expert who sees all of these issues in their complexity and can reduce them to a single cause. It presumes an ability to read into the contexts and motivations of abusers, Church leadership, and the laity in that community. And it blames the history and perpetuation of these issues on everyone except for oneself, while holding out oneself as a clean bystander and victim. Most of all, we grab onto easy causalities because they make us feel better while allowing us to stop looking at and taking responsibility for the problem.

There was a time in the Church when clerical abuse was dismissed as a one-off occurrence that could be fixed with counseling. We thought we could make the problem go away. We now see how that oversimplification of the problem—the search for an easy fix that coheres with our limited experiences and education in this area—actually made matters much worse and harmed not only the minor involved, but also parents, parishes, and even priests who were given false promises of “healing” and who were, as demonstrated by the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report, dismissed even when they presented to their superiors concerns about their fitness for ministry. Time and again, we told ourselves that we had found “the problem” and could make it just go away with the right solution. In this respect, we have not changed.

When we think about the “cost” of responding to this crisis, we think in terms of audits by the diocese, changes of protocol by the bishops, and diminishments of power implemented by the Vatican. But do we think about what we are willing to pay for our own improved response? Is the crisis worth to me the cost of a statistics course to understand the deceptive use of numbers? Is it worth to me the time of sitting down to read the John Jay Report? Is it worth to me the open mindedness to consider that my hobby horse may not be as relevant as I thought it was, or that I may be wrong? For the majority of Catholics, we hear a resounding: no.

Sure, perhaps you have other priorities. But we must admit that we have these other priorities and then perhaps approach these issues with greater humility. The Church needs this.

As another exercise in humility, I must be open to the truth wherever it may lead. Even as a gay man, I must be open to what the actual data says about the relationship between abuse and homosexuality. This issue is too important for me to put up barriers to the truth in order to protect myself.

But rather than accepting the abuse of minors as a complex issue that we must educate ourselves on in order to best understand and respond to it, and rather than checking our impulses to push for reforms that are merely projections based on our limited experiences and factional alliances, and rather than taking the time to review the most relevant research, Catholics left and right are presenting major overhauls to the structures of the Church that represent their own personal hobby horses more than anything else. There are exceptions, but the loudest voices in the most prominent publications simply speak the things they were going to say whether or not we were in a crisis: exclude gay men from the seminary, ordain women, change the celibacy requirement, limit episcopal power, etc.

Certainly, we might want to explore these options as possible partial solutions to a complex problem. But no one presents it this way. Catholics act like clerical abuse is a zero-sum, single-issue game.

We can wait ten years to see the problems with this approach. Or we can finally decide to try something new. We can sit down and study. We can consider the other side. We can look at actual history and reputable research. We can implement solutions, while realizing that we can’t ever make this problem 100% go away. We can recognize the need for constant vigilance, change, and renewal. Will we?


Chris Damian is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. He is the author of “I Desired You: Intellectual Journals on Faith and (Homo)sexuality” (volumes I and II). He is also the co-founder of YArespond, a group of Catholic young adults seeking informed and holistic responses to the clergy abuse crisis. In his free time, he enjoys hosting dinner parties and creative writing workshops. 

2 comments on “The Zero-Sum Clergy Abuse Game

  1. This is one of the most thoughtful, insightful, and overall great takes I have heard on the sex abuse scandal.


  2. Gail Bederman

    Brilliant! Any chance you could append a brief bibliography to let us know some of what you’ve been reading on the topic?


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