Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Our Church's Response to the Sexual Abuse Crisis

I am worried for our priests and our Church's future.

We have allowed lawyers to craft our response to the sexual abuse crisis, and so dioceses all over the country have created "Child Protection" policies to limit our liability when the next tragedy strikes. We're now doing background checks, running workshops for teachers and volunteers, and teaching children the difference between a "good touch" and a "bad touch".

However, we haven't attacked the problem pastorally. I believe the root of it is the fact that most of our priests live most of their lives completely alone. Gone are the days of yesteryear when rectories were full of priests, thus providing them with a kind of automatic community and built in opportunities for fraternity and fellowship. Now our parishes have typically one priest, living alone in a rectory, largely unaccountable and generally lonely. One young priest told me it was a terrible awakening: In the seminary, he enjoyed the friendships of so many seminarians , all of whom looked forward to the day they'd become priests. Then that day occurred, he was placed in the parish and suddenly, he was all by himself, realizing this was the life he'd chosen for the next 50+ years!

And yet, we're surprised, disappointed and angry when our priests become alcoholics or develop sexual problems.

No, this isn't an argument for a married priesthood. It could be that, but I'll let others argue that. What I AM arguing for is that we begin to rethink our model of priestly living. The parish rectory is an anachronism, designed for a time when people couldn't drive or talk on telephones. Instead, they'd walk to the parish, which was often the center of town life. But with cars, email, telephones, cell phones, etc. the idea of a "priest at every parish rectory" no longer makes sense. Instead, let us begin to insist that priests from surrounding parishes live together and share some sort of religious life together. Make a minimal common rule (prayer and dinner once/day, perhaps?) and then send these priest to their various ministries all over the city.

You'll notice that although religious orders are not immune to the scandals we've endured, the predominant problem has been with diocesan priests. It only makes sense: in a community with other priests, destructive personal behavior can be addressed long before it becomes an entrenched sickness. But even before that, the laughter, friendships, and yes, aggravations and "opportunities" for personal growth that living in a community encourages are healthy for priests--indeed, for all of us.

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