SNAP Speaks Out on Episode 3 of Crisis: Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church
Catholic University and the Catholic Project sponsored a series of podcasts entitled Crisis: Clergy Abuse in the Catholic Church to address the scandal of sexual violence in their Church. The stated purpose of the series was to bring “light and understanding” to the issue and to end the silence about sexual abuse.
The group has released the first five episodes of a ten-part series. While we are very grateful to see the issue discussed publicly, including a supplemental podcast which featured SNAP President Tim Lennon, we are also extremely disappointed that so far this series presents the familiar Catholic evasions, excuses, misstatements, and diversions contained in the explanations for the scandal previously put forth by the Catholic hierarchy. In particular, we must categorically issue a strong condemnation of Episode 3.
Episode 3, What Caused the Crisis, did ask an extremely important question. That is, what caused Catholic clergy to prey on children? However, in attempting to answer this query, the panelists ignored some very important issues and failed to recognize the importance of correct language. Let us repeat that: when discussing the abuse of boys and girls by Catholic priests, words matter.
Margaret Smith, a professor at John Jay University, is the principal source for Episode 3. She says in the podcast, “adolescents are attracted to adults . . . we know that as they are vulnerable, unsure of themselves. They welcome attention.” She continues: “So, it is very difficult for both the adults and the adolescents to keep their relationships (emphasis supplied) healthy.”
We must object in the strongest possible terms to the use of the word “relationships.” When an adult has sex with a minor it is never a “relationship.” It is always a crime. Why is this distinction important to us? For many survivors, healing begins with recognizing that there was no “relationship,” that the clergyman, not the child, was responsible for maintaining the appropriate boundaries. When a priest fails to do so, he causes grave harm that will affect the victims for the rest of their lives.
We believe that by promoting Ms. Smith’s unfortunate terminology, the podcast engaged in a form of victim-blaming, whether or not that was its intent. For victims just beginning to come to terms with their abuse, this cavalier use of such an inappropriate descriptor presented by an “expert” can further lock them into self-blame and short-circuit their ability to move forward and heal. Even survivors well along in their healing will listen to the podcast and experience this as victim-blaming, which will be hurtful and re-abusing.
We also want to address two words that are missing from the podcast: grooming and predator.
Grooming is the process by which most abusive clergy little by little cross appropriate boundaries with a child. Ms. Smith says that when a priest gives a victim “gifts and special favors” that strengthens the “relationship.” She does not once identify this process as grooming, a common practice of child molesters. Such gifts are simply one of many steps in exploiting a child, or even a whole family, who trust in the clergyman because he is supposed to be a representative of God. The ultimate goal of all grooming behavior is the sexual exploitation of a child. It can be likened to placing a frog in a pot of cold water and turning up the heat. By the time the frog recognizes the danger, it is too late to leap from the pot.
The other word missing from the podcast is predator. A sexual predator seeks out the vulnerable because the hunt, and his success in that hunt, bring him pleasure. He lacks the empathy to see the pain he is causing his victim, and the compassion to stop.
What Caused the Crisis, like the Catholic bishops, mistakenly posit the loneliness of the “celibate” priesthood, clericalism, and the loosening of social mores in the sixties as contributing to the scandal. There is an explanation of the difference between those who exploit children as opposed to those who abuse teens. But the focus on sex is the reason why the podcast can never answer the question of why priests abuse children. Sexual abuse of the vulnerable – minors or adults – is not about sex. It is about power and control. It is the act of a predator.
We could go on in our critique, but we believe we have made the point that the podcasts, particularly Episode 3, are missing critical information about the way that sexual predators function, and the way that children react to those manipulations. What Caused the Crisis is missing the voices of survivors and practitioners of trauma-informed care, and it shows.
In conclusion, we cannot recommend Episode 3 for insights into what caused the clergy abuse scandal. However, we do appaud the series for recognizing a missing piece of the puzzle. That is, the unanswered question of why priests abuse children is only one side of the equation. The other is why the Catholic bishops allowed them to continue their predation. The podcast admits that they have no answer for that question either.
However, for us, recognizing the bishops' important role in the scandal points to the need for action. We will continue to call out the failure of these Catholic leaders to report crimes to the police and to protect the faithful. Clergy sexual abuse does not happen in a vacuum. It is not a problem with individual priests, but rather with a system that values prestige and money over people. As the late canon lawyer and activist Richard Sipe said, "... sexual corruption is conferred from the top down -- from men in power."
(SNAP, the Survivors Network, has been providing support for victims of sexual abuse in institutional settings for 30 years. We have more than 25,000 survivors and supporters in our network. Our website is SNAPnetwork.org)