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The Abuse Crisis and Church Independence

St.Catherine of Siena (1347-1380), designated a “Doctor of the Church” along with thirty-two other saints, is best known for her Dialogues, in which she speaks with God the Father. The first parts of the Dialogue constitute a treatise on the spiritual life, in which the Father describes several stages, and even indicates the possibility of a final stage of constant perceptible union with God. The stages are similar to what may be found in St. Theresa of Avila’s Interior Castle or in the works of St. John of the Cross.

In a later chapter of the book, however, God begins to chronicle for Catherine numerous examples of sinful corruption in the Church – priests and bishops greedy for wealth and power, committing fornication, visiting prostitutes, carousing in secular clothes in taverns, openly marrying despite their vows of celibacy, even shamelessly having their wives and children bring the gifts up to the altar during Mass. 

A separate and long chapter discusses the scandal of sodomy, which the Father excoriates as completely unnatural. He adds, however, that one should never despair of salvation, because “my mercy, which you receive in the blood [of Christ], is incomparably greater than all the sins that have ever been committed in the world.”

But the Father also makes a statement that many of us, in the current cultural climate, may find surprising – and even counter-intuitive: “By the dignity and authority I have bestowed on [priests and bishops and other clerics] I have freed them from slavery, that is, from submission to the authority of temporal rulers. Civil law has no power whatever to punish them; this right belongs solely to the one who has been appointed to rule and to serve according to divine law.”

Putting this into context, we should realize that Catherine was living in an era fraught with struggles between the papacy and the Italian city-states, which were vying for influence over the papacy; and also that civil laws at that time differed from our own – notions about who are “minors,” who are “children,” what constitutes a felony, etc. In other words, the Father is not intending to exempt clerics from prevailing and just civil laws, but is emphasizing that rectification and punishment should come from bishops and superiors of religious orders, who are castigated for their inaction – inaction due to their fear of unpopularity, or of losing prestige or property; or because they themselves may be involved in the same sorts of sins.

In the context of our own times, and the civil laws now prevailing, the most recent John Jay report offers the statistics related to the clerical abuse issue: Approximately 5 percent of priests between 1950 and 2002 were accused of sexual abuse; the vast majority of victims were post-pubescent and adolescent males; 0.3 percent were children; 138 of the abusers were convicted and 100 served time in prison.

Those who are guilty of pedophilia or sexual abuse of minors should face justice from civil authorities. But anyone who has learned about the “presumption of innocence” and other legal safeguards in a basic high-school civics class – and follows recent media reports – should realize that justice is hard to come by for an accused but innocent priest. David Pierre’s book, Double Standard: Abuse Scandals and the Attack on the Catholic Church, includes the following examples:

– After the state of California lifted the “statute of limitations” for sex abuse accusations, the Los Angeles diocese faced an avalanche of suits, resulting in a $60,000,000 settlement to plaintiffs. But 30 percent of the accused priests were deceased!

– In 1993 the Archdiocese of Chicago spent massive sums defending Cardinal Bernardin from accusations by a man who later recanted the “repressed memories” discovered by his therapist.

– Fr. Gordon McRae (
www.TheseStoneWalls.com [1]) has been in prison for fourteen years, and will probably be there for life, because he refused to plead guilty to accusations against him.

– In 1992 a diocese in New Hampshire, facing accusations from sixty-two individuals, paid out millions to avoid the legal expenses of case-by-case examination.

The constitutional “separation of Church and State” is a two-way street. The Church is not allowed to control the state, and vice versa. But the state can control the Church in subtle ways by discarding the basic constitutional principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” nullifying “statutes of limitation,” weakening the rights of “due process” in the face of media frenzy, and being cavalier about traditional “rules of evidence.”

What evidence is relevant to cases in which an accused priest denies an accusation of sexual abuse? Convincing evidence might include witnesses, a history of previous convictions, DNA samples, possibly lie-detector tests taken by accused and accuser. But many such cases end up analogous to the “he said, she said” situations common, for example, in domestic abuse cases. And accused priests are often at the mercy of their bishops, who may be pressured by civil authorities to report the case for public consumption, in spite of a lack of convincing evidence.

Many young men at present, experiencing the grace of a call to the priesthood realize that if they were to make enemies bent on retaliation, or be in close contact with those willing to concoct stories, they could easily face “abuse” charges. Understandably, this might give aspirants “second thoughts.” 

In some dioceses, and under some civic jurisdictions, they would be, for all practical purposes, guilty until immensely powerful evidence exonerates them; they would be transferred, maybe to “administrative” positions; and even if civil charges were dismissed, their vocational aspirations might be under the shadow of suspicion if, for example, they were assigned to normal pastoral duties with younger people.

The “vocation crisis” in the Catholic Church is ascribed by liberals to various causes – celibacy, restrictions on the ordination of women, etc. But the current incursions of the state, egged on by greedy attorneys, against the independence of the Church, may be another major factor discouraging entrance to the priesthood. And perhaps this, along with historic anti-Catholicism, is part of the motivation for the harsh punishments that our legal system now permits to be dealt out against priests, and virtually against priests alone.


Howard Kainz, Emeritus Professor at Marquette University, is the author of twenty-five books on German philosophy, ethics, political philosophy, and religion, and over a hundred articles in scholarly journals, print magazines, online magazines, and op-eds. He was a recipient of an NEH fellowship for 1977-8, and Fulbright fellowships in Germany for 1980-1 and 1987-8. His website is at Marquette University.