It comes out of the dark. Memories like steam leave the person confused, ashamed and scared. Survivors of childhood sexual abuse won’t know for years what happened to their bodies. The hot hands of the pedophile are folded into the depths of forgetting until some jarring moment, some odd connection opens a passageway to daylight. When the pedophile’s face becomes visible in the mind, the next shock is that it’s someone they know.
And what if that face is supposed to be the face of God? It is a learned fear and respect for figures of authority that creates silent victims of abuse. Their mute suffering deepens to the degree that the sexual predator has social status, which is why for decades, pedophile priests were invisible: above them was the blinding light of God. It has only been in the past two decades that the mystique of the Catholic Church has been eroded enough for everyone to see the shifty shuffling of pedophiles from one parish to another by church leaders in Rome, including former Pope Benedict Ratzinger.
The Catholic Church, with its 1.2 billion followers, is the largest Christian denomination in the world. It’s a top-down hierarchy: standing at the summit is the Pope, an elderly man who is God’s representative on earth; next are the dioceses, which are led by a bishop; below them are the parishes, which are overseen by priests, deacons or lay ministers. Ornate Catholic churches can be seen in every country, sometimes nestled between tall modern skyscrapers, sometimes in the tangled foliage of the country. For hundreds of years, millions of people have gone through those doors in search of salvation and now we learn, many have emerged scarred with guilt and shame.
The reported numbers on child sex abuse are inevitably too low. Many victims are too ashamed to speak. Many are silenced when they do. And some kill themselves because the pain is too great to endure. Only a few victims fight back. Only 3,000 lawsuits have been filed against the church. According to bishopaccountability.org, U.S. bishops received allegations of abuse directed at about 6,115 priests from 1950 to 2011, and they calculated about 16,324 victims or about three per priest. Based on a report by the Dallas Morning News, at least two-thirds of U.S. bishops kept priests accused of pedophilia serving in the ministry and moved them to new assignments.
But why this culture of sexual predation? Maybe it is because the first victim of monotheistic religion is the body itself. Clerical celibacy, the idea that one must sacrifice bodily desires to be closer to God, comes from the separation of the body and the soul that is at the core of church doctrine. The temptations of the flesh are seen as dangerous diversions. The body is a vehicle for the transmission of life, a sacred essence that comes from the Lord, and life must be valued above all. Masturbation and contraception are wrong because they waste the “seed.” Abortion is wrong because it kills life. Sex outside of marriage and not for procreation is wrong. The only right way to live one’s sexuality is to have unprotected sex within marriage.
If you intend to serve God within the church, you must renounce even sex within marriage to be absolutely dedicated to the divine messages God whispers into the world. The body is a swamp of desire that one can escape by climbing the glowing steps of prayer. And these social ideals, set in the early centuries of Christianity, are a giant anchor embedded in the past that is being stretched to snapping as history moves forward.
So here’s the picture: the Catholic Church, a global institution of 1.2 billion people, a network of churches that span the world, has been led by a cabal of chaste men who preach against bodily desires to the millions of people who pour through the pews. And yet in the dark quiet rectories, some of these men have, like cheetahs in National Geographic shows, isolated young, weak or helpless believers to prey upon and feed their hunger for sex and power. The others who are not targeted leave the church, erotically mangled as they vacillate between their desires and the ideas they are taught come from God.
Child sexual abuse is the most extreme form of the violence the church does to the erotic body. It is one pole on a spectrum that includes unwanted pregnancy, unequal power relationships between men and women, guilt at masturbation, self-destructive rebellion against those very religious rules or the “Catholic girl gone bad” stereotype and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases because of the prohibition on contraception.
The only protection the church has is people’s habitual, learned subservience to power. Once that breaks, so will its hold on human history. So let’s imagine the new Pope Francis at the Vatican. He recently held his first homily saying, “Let us protect Christ in our lives, so we can protect others.” Thousands of Catholics sat in hot sunlight and fanned their faces. The Pope paused as he shuffled his pages, so imagine in that moment, a hundred people in audience standing up and unfolding a banner that reads, “I was raped by a priest and the church protected him.” Imagine reporters rushing the barricades, aiming cameras at the protesters as burly security men plow through the seats to wrestle them down.