By Stephen McKinley
After several weeks of revelations, the growing perception of the public — certainly of some sectors of the media — is that the Catholic church is riddled with pedophile priests.
A New York Post editorial cartoon last Friday, for example, showed sordid-looking priests in compromising positions, being asked by children, “Anything you want to confess to me?”
Buried in the media last week was a story that reminded the public that pedophilia is by no means a problem for the Catholic church alone. The FBI arrested 90 people nationwide in a swoop against hard-core child pornographers.
At the same time, another crucial fact has received scant attention, as raised by Philip Jenkins, a professor of history and religious studies at Pennsylvania State University and author of “Pedophiles and Priests: Anatomy of a Contemporary Crisis.”
Jenkins’s data shows that the number of truly pedophile priests — those with a prurient interest in very young children — is tiny, certainly no more than in society in general, and that there are more priests whose misdemeanors involve sexual misconduct with teenagers beyond the age of puberty.
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But buried even further was any kind of rational debate on the issues raised by the scandals.
Whether or not the Catholic hierarchy welcomes it, celibacy, ordination, and whether pedophilia is sickness, sin or crime, or all three, are in the arena of public debate.
For Tom Phelan, a novelist and former priest who lives on Long Island, the issue regarding celibacy is clear, based on his experience of 11 years as a priest.
“The general mental health of priests needs to be examined,” said Phelan, who no longer considers himself to be a Catholic.
“Studies were done in the 1970s, socio-psychological surveys for Catholic bishops, and found that 51 percent of priests were emotionally underdeveloped. Eight percent were what was termed maldeveloped.
“I never knew a pedophile when I was in the priesthood,” he continued, “but many priests often expressed extraordinarily naive sexual opinions. I was so overwhelmingly disappointed in my colleagues. I had, after all spent, six years training for ordination.”
The Rev. Paul Surlis, former professor of Social and Sexual Ethics in St. John’s University’s Department of Theology, takes a different view of the problems besetting the church.
“We cannot expect bishops and cardinals to be ahead of psychoanalysts in understanding pedophilia,” said Surlis, whose motivation, he said, is to give the issue some perspective.
“Remember, if you were to have an epileptic fit in Paris in the 19th Century, you would have been sent to jail. Today we understand epilepsy to be a sickness.”
Our understanding of pedophilia must also become more sophisticated, said Surlis, while “not in any way to evade taking responsibility for victims, their families and communities or to avoid responsibility for mistakes made.”
“Crime and sin have predominated in people’s responses. It is now time to give more public consideration to the sickness element.”
Surlis said that bishops must recognize the problem as a pathology and bring in the help of professional.
There is strong evidence that “the whole incidence of pedophilia is a process of discovery, not choice, among those afflicted,” he continued.
For Phelan, this does not attack the root of the problem, which he sees as the selection of candidates for ordination and the continued church insistence on celibacy, as distinct from chastity.
“I met guys who were priests who were not just afraid of women, they were afraid of everyone,” Phelan said, adding that the priesthood protected priests from interacting with the wider world, because “in seminary, this thing was heaped upon them that they are the mouthpieces of God, and no one is willing to stand up to them.”
“The aloneness of priests is the fatal flaw,” Phelan said.
Surlis agrees. “I think it would be useful if the Church considered a return to the pre-12th century discipline,” he said, referring to the time before celibacy was made mandatory.
“Celibacy only became mandated in 1123 by the First Lateran Council,” said Surlis, giving a brief history of the doctrine in the Church. “By the time of the Second Vatican Council, it was noted to be a ‘charism,’ a grace that is given to the very, very few. Very few priests don’t struggle constantly with the human desire.”
Phelan, meanwhile, is pessimistic about the church’s ability to change. “The church should ask people to become priests for 10 years,” he said. “It is a very energy-consuming job, and after 10 years they could decide whether to continue.” But he saw little prospect for this happening, perhaps because his disillusionment with the church was enough to make him leave.
Surlis responded: “At the very center of a religion is the capacity for self-criticism,” he said. “Look at Billy Graham having to apologize for anti-Semitic remarks made in the 1970s. The church has survived for 2,000 years. It may take time.”
“It is only when you can see the church, and with sin in it, and still accept it as a sacrament for salvation, that you have faith,” he said.