Why is the Church still struggling to get a grip on a scandal that emerged decades ago?

Surveying the ravaged landscape of the Church today, one question presses itself upon the viewer of the scene with palpable urgency: how did we get here?

There have been many answers to that question, none of them completely satisfactory. Some people say that the problem is the infiltration of homosexual predators into the ranks of the clergy. That is certainly a significant element of the crisis, but we need to ask far-reaching questions about how and why abusers were able to operate within the Church.

Certainly, the naiveté of some pastors contributed to the exacerbation of the problem. On the advice of expert psychologists, bishops treated sex offenders in the clergy as though they were sick and capable of being cured. That, however, was no excuse for returning the men to positions of trust, where they went on to abuse other victims. The failure to see the sexual abuse of minors as anything other than a crime cannot find explanation, nor the guilt of the failure mitigation, in a protestation of bad information from doctors. That is a moral failure so basic as to disqualify anyone guilty of it.

The American bishops and the Vatican were appraised as early as the 1940s of the futility of any attempt to cure them. Fr Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete – a religious order dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating struggling and wayward priests, principally those suffering alcoholism and other addictions – also treated paedophiles at the beginning of his Congregation’s ministry.

Fr Fitzgerald quickly became convinced that cure was impossible and spent more than 20 years explaining to Church leaders the nature of the predilection and the impossibility of treating men who had it. In 1957, he wrote to Archbishop Edwin Byrne of Santa Fe, New Mexico – the archdiocese in which the Paracletes had their flagship facility – to say, “Experience has taught us these men are too dangerous to the children of the parish and neighbourhood for us to be justified in receiving them here.”

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