Jewish World Review May 2, 2002/ 20 Iyar, 5762

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Go ahead, pass judgment | One does not like to kick those who are down, particularly when the one down can name saints. I have, therefore, avoided the priest scandal. An op-ed piece seemed terribly dry: child molestation is wrong and Catholics will end it.

I erred in my assessment. Moral relativism has found its wishy washy way into the Vatican. Following a meeting in Rome, the Pope unleashed with the moral clarity of a Robert Altman film: the Catholic Church will remove "notorious" priests.

Forgive me, and I realize I am about to indict those with jurisdiction over such atonement, but does "notorious" mean jackbooted priests who are NAMBLA officers? Why is it so difficult for the Vatican to issue a zero tolerance policy, to wit: if you have molested children, you cannot remain in the priesthood. Would such a bar be too high?

Pedophiles are a dangerous for cure is elusive, often, impossible. Transfers and forgiveness do not stop repeat behaviors. Accountability and prevention require that the conduct be reported and that guilty priests find another line of work. Current or former pedophiles cannot occupy positions of trust with children.

The puzzle is why the reluctance among the prelates to condemn this conduct and take assertive steps? Why the lack of moral clarity from an unequivocal pope?

There are several possible explanations. Groups within the Catholic Church are using this tragedy to advance their agendas. Women's rights advocates are clicking their tongues madly, "You see! If you let women hold the priesthood or gave nuns more authority, this wouldn't happen." Having grown up with kowtowing children who attended parochial school, I have no doubt about the latter. But, individual failures are not grounds for reversal of church doctrine or policy.

Percolating just beneath the surface is the fear of incurring the wrath of gay activists who are poised with claws should there be peripheral condemnation of homosexuality. That beacon of truth, the New York Times, has thrown down the gauntlet to head off such notions at the pass. "Abusive Priests Are Varied, but Treatable" is the headline for its story about the Jemez Springs, NM treatment center for priests with sexuality "issues." A quote, ". . . psychologists and psychiatrists . . . said few of the clergymen fitted the image often presented in the news media. For one thing, . . . the vast majority were not pedophiles: most had molested adolescents, not young children."

Breathe a sigh of relief because priests target mostly teenage boys! By seizing on age, therapists and activists claim that the priests are but ephebophiles, something not considered a disorder because, as one psychiatrist put it, all of our culture is obsessed with youth. But, priests hitting on teen boys is a tad more serious than fountain of youth issues. A minor is a minor is a minor. Adults who abuse positions of trust are despicable. Priests introduced impressionable youth to homosexuality. That introduction makes the church balk at condemnation for fear of offense.

The therapists' description harkens back to the tired "he didn't know it was wrong" theme. One doctor offered "the priests seemed oblivious that the boys they were abusing were minors. . . . they would talk as if they themselves were junior high school students, describing how they 'fell in love.'" With these crackerjack professionals providing treatment, the Catholic Church had best start hedging for financial risk.

The Catholic Church has adopted the mantra of our time: Passing judgment is the sin. Moral relativists condemn the war on terrorism because 19 hijackers had their reasons. We must put our own house in order first, they say. The same sympathizers now ask that we explore the root causes for Palestinian suicide bombers, not condemn them. They condemn Israel for its defense, but tolerate Arafat for his aggression. Mr. Bush got more outrage for "axis of evil" than these priests earned for inherently evil acts.

Such is our time. We pass unusually harsh judgment in areas devoid of morality. Say "black" instead of "African-American," and you are branded a racist clod. Say "gal" instead of "woman," and you are a troglodyte. Make a rebuffed advance to a woman at work and you are banished, whether in Washington or the front line of Ford.

We pass judgment all the time on views and language, but cannot bring ourselves to utter an absolute when it comes to adults molesting children. We will work to tear the judicial robes from Clarence Thomas or Charles Pickering, but we cannot remove a priest when there is incontrovertible evidence of irreparable damage to youth.

C'mon. Be judgmental. Say it aloud - priests who molest children (and/or adolescents) have no place in the Catholic Church. Moral clarity does work. Those who have been language and thought police for the past 30 years of PC condemnation know that the impact of judgmentalism and absolutes is that you halt the condemned conduct. The Catholic Church needs to apply the societal pressure of absolutes to child molesters.

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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© 2002, Marianne M. Jennings