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Sex, Lies, and Apologetics

Anyone who has endeavored to explain the Catholic faith to non-believers has inevitably run up against the following objection: “How can anyone believe the Catholic Church is the one, true Church of Jesus Christ with all the sex abusers in the ranks of its clergy?” This little maxim is bound to be asked with even greater frequency in light of the recent sex scandals rocking Ireland.

In case anyone has missed the news, the reports go as follows: In 1993 a Norbertine priest, Brendan Smyth, was indicted by a court in Northern Ireland for child molestation. Since Smyth had fled to the South, authorities in the North had to file an extradition request with the Republic of Ireland. Attorney General Harry Whelehan, whom The National Catholic Reporter described as a “conservative Catholic,” allowed the request to sit unattended on his desk for seven months, apparently out of concern for the negative publicity such a case would cause. After being ordered to return to the North by Cardinal Cahal Daly, Smyth pleaded guilty to 17 counts of indecently assaulting five girls and two boys while serving in West Belfast from 1964 to 1988. He was sentenced to four years in prison in June 1994.

But that was not the end of the scandal. In November, just hours before another priest, Liam Cosgrove, was found dead in a homosexual nightclub in Dublin, Irish Prime Minister Albert Reynolds appointed Attorney General Whelehan to the Irish High Court. The Labor Party, partners in the two-year-old coalition government in the Republic of Ireland, demanded that Reynolds require Whelehan to explain his refusal to extradite Smyth, the pedophile priest. Reynolds refused and subsequently resigned his post, as did Whelehan.

As the coalition government fell apart, Church officials scrambled to repair the damage to their credibility. At a meeting of the Irish episcopate that same month, the bishops formally apologized for the scandal, saying that “child sexual abuse by a priest is especially heinous not only because it is an evil in itself, but because it is also a violation of a sacred trust. . . . We recognize that these children and their families have been hurt and betrayed by abusive behavior on the part of a priest. They deserve an apology, which we unreservedly offer.”

November, it seems, was a rough month for the Church of the emerald isle. While December was considerably quieter, the storm set off by these scandals is far from over. There are several reasons for this.

First of all, as the Irish bishops pointed out, sexual misconduct by those charged with ministering in the name of Jesus Christ is an especially grievous sin in that it involves a betrayal of a sacred trust. Furthermore, the scurrilous attempts at covering up such conduct only add to the righteous anger many people feel. Fr. Gino Concetti, writing in the November 20 issue of L’Osservatore Romano, noted that “justice requires that the crime of sexual violence be punished with the maximum sentences foreseen for criminals,” and he strongly condemned the notion that pedophilia should be seen as a quasi-civil right.

Another reason why scandals of this sort go widely reported in the media is probably the most important. The Catholic Church remains the last bulwark against the insidious sexual revolution. This is galling to the secular media, the members of which do not seem to show a great deal of affection for God’s moral law, particularly those precepts that deal with sexual activity. Thus, stories about sexual sins within the bosom of the Church almost always receive special attention and are usually followed by snide commentary on the impracticality of expecting “ordinary people” to adhere to the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

As G. K. Chesterton remarked, “When it comes to beating the Church, any stick will do.” In this case, the “stick” is sexual abuse by a few members of the ordained clergy. It has already been stated that sexual abuse committed by anyone is grossly sinful and should be severely punished, but it is also quite true that the Church bears an unfair burden of negative publicity surrounding this crime. That’s almost entirely due to its courageous stand against the prevailing winds of a sexually-crazed society seemingly bent on its own destruction.

In November 1989, Newsweek magazine reported that there were 325,000 allegations of sexual abuse in the United States, a 20-fold increase in ten years. Though the article did not go into the reasons for the increase (rising crime? better reporting? more lawyers?), it did note that as many as 30% of those cases stemmed from mistakes or malice.

In a March issue of America, Fr. Andrew Greely stated that “most sexual abuse victims are girls and young women abused by their fathers and other male relatives.” As for the rest of the victims (boys and young men), “police experts insist that most abusers of boys and young men are in fact married men.” Greely went on to add that Catholics aren’t the only ones who have to deal with this problem, contrary to the impression given by media reporting: “I am told Lutheran bishops estimate they spend a quarter of their time on sexual abuse cases.” (It is interesting, as well as sad, to consider The New York Times‘ report in October 1993 that 1,800 Scoutmasters were removed over a 20-year period on allegations of sexual abuse.)

So the Church is not alone in having pedophiles in its ranks. As a matter of fact, the Church has been home to entire classes of sinners who sin in a wide variety of ways. One could argue that if it weren’t for sin, there wouldn’t be any need for the Church. Far from excusing sinful conduct, the Church exists precisely because Jesus established it as the means through which he continues his work of redemption, the work of saving sinners by bringing them closer to himself. If the Church appears to welcome sins, it is only because the Church welcomes sinners, who bring their sins with them.

In its section on the Apostles’ Creed, the Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches that the true Church of Christ is known by four “marks” (one, holy, Catholic, apostolic) which are delineated in the centuries-old Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The Catechism, in quoting the Second Vatican Council’s Decree on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio), reaffirms the Church’s teaching that the Catholic Church alone satisfies all these requirements: “For it is through Christ’s Catholic Church alone . . . that the fullness of the means of salvation can be obtained. It was to the apostolic college alone, of which Peter is the head, that we believe that our Lord entrusted all the blessings of the New Covenant, in order to establish on earth the one Body of Christ into which all those should be fully incorporated who belong in any way to the People of God” (CCC 816, quoting UR 3).

The Catechism also makes reference to Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church: “The one mediator, Christ, established and ever sustains here on earth his holy Church, the community of faith, hope, and charity, as a visible organization through which he communicates truth and grace to all men. . . . This Church, constituted and organized as a society in the present world, subsists in the Catholic Church, which is governed by the successor of Peter and by the bishops in communion with him. Nevertheless, many elements of sanctification and of truth are found outside of her visible confines” (LG 8).

This does not mean that all Catholics necessarily go to heaven and all non-Catholics necessarily go to hell; such an idea is an incorrect interpretation of the maxim extra ecclesiam nulla salus (“no salvation outside the Church”). A Catholic priest from Boston, Leonard Feeney, was censured in the 1940s for teaching that all non-Catholics were doomed.

Rather, the Church teaches that only those who truly know the Catholic Church is the ordinary means by which God has chosen to continue his work on earth and who then stubbornly refuse to join have shut themselves out from the chance of eternal joy. As a matter of fact, Catholics are taught that they will be judged more severely because they have been given more (LG 14-15).

The Church has handed down faithfully the depositum fidei (deposit of faith) Christ gave to his apostles, with all the aids to salvation and happiness that includes, such as the sacraments and an infallible teaching authority. The Catholic Church is the means Christ has established for the salvation of the world. While it is certainly possible for some people to “work out their salvation” without being formal, visible members of the Church, it is important to remember that Christ wants us to be fully in his Church and to use the ordinary means of grace that are entrusted to it. After all, he gave his life, out of love, so that we might have access to them.

But what about scandals? Aren’t notorious sinners such a serious counter-sign to the gospel lifestyle that they cast a shadow over the whole Church? Turning once again to the Catechism, we learn that “Christ, ‘holy, innocent, and undefiled,’ knew nothing of sin, but came only to expiate the sins of the people. The Church, however, c.asping sinners to her bosom, at once holy and always in need of purification, follows constantly the path of penance and renewal.

All members of the Church, including her ministers, must acknowledge that they are sinners. In everyone the weeds of sin will be mixed with the good wheat of the gospel until the end of time. Hence the Church gathers sinners already caught up in Christ’s salvation but still on the way to holiness” (CCC 827).

On more than one occasion our Lord himself predicted that scandals would arise, causing harm within the family of God. Rather than promising to rush down from heaven every time a scandal looms, he assured us he will take care of everything on the Last Day, warning that it would be better for those who lead others astray to be thrown into the sea with millstones hung around their necks (Matt. 18:6-7, Mark 9:42, Luke 17:1-2).

Next time someone brings up a reported sex scandal as an excuse not to climb on board the barque of Peter, try these three simple steps:

First, remember that even priests have the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Catholics should nurture a healthy skepticism to claims of sexual misconduct recounted by a media establishment that hardly represents a paragon of collective virtue and has repeatedly demonstrated an avid thirst for Catholic blood. (Remember the furor over Cardinal Bernadin?)

Second, if wrongful conduct is admitted or proved beyond a reasonable doubt, we must acknowledge the damage and seek justice with mercy, praying for everyone involved.

Finally, we must in any case defend the Church against its accusers and could employ with great profit pertinent passages from the Catechism of the Catholic Church, some of which have been cited above.

Following these steps will not only help us deal with a real and painful problem in a positive way, but will give witness to our deep and abiding trust in the Lord of the Harvest.

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