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A moral panic surfaced in early 2002. It alleges widespread child and youth sexual abuse by priests and at least one bishop of the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. This essay discusses solutions to the problem, as advocated by both conservative and liberal Catholics.

Among the responses to this crisis within the church, we have selected the following two:

bulletWilliam Donohue is the president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, a U.S. non-profit group that fights anti-Catholic bigotry. He wrote: "People on the far left and the far right greet bad news for the church as good news for them, because the left can smile and say, 'We told you so - you didn't make enough reforms,' and the right can say, 'We had too many reforms, and let's go back to pre-Vatican II,' People on the left have been itching for reform regarding the totality of the church's teachings on sexual ethics, and they're going to seize this moment. And on the right, a lot of people have been arguing for a long time that the church has gone soft and doesn't have the courage of its convictions."
bulletPatrick J. Buchanan, columnist and former candidate for the presidency of the U.S., wrote: "what the Church needs, to restore its moral authority, is to stand up to the moral confusion of modernity, not embrace it. That way lies total ruin." 1

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Solutions advocated by conservative Catholics:

Many conservative U.S. Catholic groups and individuals, shocked by the scope of sexual abuse within the church, have suggested that the church:

bulletPlace renewed emphasis on celibacy: George Weigel is the pope's American biographer and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He commented: "It's obvious that there has been a considerable breakdown of clerical discipline, and that is an indication of people who have been inadequately converted. It's not a problem of celibacy, but a problem of people failing to live out the celibate commitments they have made, because they were not properly formed into being radical Christian disciples."
bulletReduce the percentage of priests with a homosexual orientation: Many conservative critics suggest that homosexual priests are primarily responsible for the sexual abuse of male Catholic teenagers. This belief cannot currently be supported by facts, as there is no data available on the sexual orientation of abusive clergy. Critics suggest that the church aggressively recruit more heterosexual men into the priesthood.
bulletRestore traditional standards at seminaries. Ronald P. McArthur is the president emeritus of Thomas Aquinas College, a conservative Catholic institution in California. He said: "It's pretty well documented that seminaries, by and large, in these latter times have not wanted orthodox, ordinary male candidates, but have rather looked to those who are more pliable or more upbeat with all the modern ideas, and therefore many of those who would have become faithful priests have not gone into seminaries." He suggests that seminaries recruit candidates who are "heterosexual, with a certain psychological stability and rigorous intelligence." He believes that "There has been an attempt by so-called theologians and liturgists and leaders within the church to literally midwife another religion, and that has had repercussions in the seminaries and in the wider life of the church. What is happening now, if not predictable, is at least compatible with the flight from orthodoxy." 1

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Solutions advocated by liberal Catholics:

Liberal reform movements within the Roman Catholic Church in North America and Europe have long advocated that the church make a major overhaul of its policies toward human sexuality, and of its internal organization. They have pressed for:

bulletElimination of enforced celibacy: Many see enforced celibacy as a main cause of the current crisis. Being denied a normal outlet for their sexual drives, a small minority of priests turn to children and youth. Allowing bisexual and heterosexual priests to marry would not be a massive step for the church to take:
bulletThe Catholic church already has a number of married priests in the U.S. These were originally Anglican priests who were unable to accept female ordination when the Episcopal Church ended its sexist policy and started to ordain women. They left their church and were accepted as Catholic priests.
bulletIn the 1990's the pope allowed a married priest in South America to continue practicing, as long as he terminated sexual relations with his wife.
bulletMarried priests are common in the Eastern Orthodox churches.

However, the pope has repeatedly closed the door on free discussion of a married priesthood. And, of course, marriage is not an option for the minority of the church's priests who have a homosexual orientation.

bulletPermission for women to be ordained as priests and consecrated as bishops: Many liberals view this as a human rights issue. Society has gradually eliminated sexism in employment, except for certain job assignments in the military, and in positions of authority within some religious groups. As a side benefit, most researchers believe that a much lower percentage of women then men are sexual predators. Thus, sexual abuse of children and youth would decrease if women were ordained.

Ending sexism in the church's selection of priests would be a more difficult step than allowing existing priests to marry. However, liberal traditions within Judaism and Protestant Christianity have been able to make the transition. They started accepting females into the clergy decades ago. This policy has been accepted by most mainline and some conservative Protestant denominations. However, the pope has repeatedly stated that the church does not have the authority to ordain women. This policy is based on a number of factors:
bulletAlthough Jesus had the freedom to select anyone as his 12 disciples, the Bible reports that he selected only males.
bulletThe Bible also describes that the apostles continued this tradition by selecting a male to replace Judas.
bulletDuring mass, there needs to be a "natural resemblance" between Christ and his minister; thus the priest cannot be just any human; he must be male.
bulletDemocratization of the church's leadership: Unlike Protestant churches, there is no mechanism in North America by which the People of God, the membership of the church, is able to elect -- or remove from office -- priests, bishops, cardinals and the pope. There was a tradition in some areas of Europe in which the priests selected their bishop. But that convention has been bypassed by the present pope. Some liberal Catholics advocate at least the partial democratization of the church's leadership, in order to make it more responsive to the membership. 1

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Related essay on this web site:

bulletMenu: Women as clergy: priests, pastors, ministers, rabbis
bulletThe Roman Catholic Church and the ordination of women

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  1. Michael Paulson, "Abuse scandal angers conservative Catholics," The Boston Globe, 2002-MAR-27, Page A1. Online at: http://www.boston.com/dailyglobe2/086/

Copyright © 2001 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Originally written: 2002-MAR-27
Latest update: 2002-MAY-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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