Jesus Christ turned many things upside down. The Son of God, the Almighty, Immortal, became man and subjected himself to the weakness of the cross, to save those who had offended His Father by their sin, also us. And so, through his teaching, life and death, he transformed all sorts of power relationships.
Worldwide and in the history of the human race the man tends to stand above the woman, to have more power or authority in the relationship between them and in society.
Paul recognizes such a relationship between husband and wife, however — and this is a tremendous qualification — in the context of a mutual subject in reverence for Christ, and, still more, with the understanding that in the body of Christ, every authority and power is for the benefit of the subordinate or weaker, regardless whether the authority arises from an office, ability, or a particular situation. For Christ, too, came to serve and to give us life for us. St. Paul, in a manner, inverts the power relationship (“Husbands, love your wives”). Contrary to the common polemic, according to which the Church oppresses women, it is especially there, where the Church and Christianity flowered, that the dignity and freedom of women is most recognized. Still, it took a long time for the teaching of Christ and St. Paul to penetrate the culture, and we must admit that it is various respects still not fully realized.
The general principle, that power and authority is for the benefit of the weaker and subordinate, I want to connect today with the various reports from the USA and Ireland over the past few weeks, which most of you have likely heard something of in newspapers or on television, of abuse perpetrated by deacons, priests and bishops within the Church, against those entrusted to them, men and women, youth, children. That would be bad enough, but what at least in my country, the USA, especially outrages persons, and that not only the usual enemies of the Church, who are always on the lookout for an occasion to attack the Church, but also those most faithful to the Church, is the way in which many cases were dealt with, that greater attention was given to preserving the Church's image or retaining the Church's ministers than to doing all reasonably possibly to prevent further abuses.
On this subject I want to make three points today.
First, we should not neither instrumentalize nor polemize the suffering of victims. Many gladly use such reports as an occasion to push for something that they are in favor of regardless. Within the Church, from one side (the liberal), the abuse is used to argue against the discipline of priestly celibacy, from another side (conservative/orthodox), to argue for stricter upholding of the Church's teaching and discipline regarding homosexuality and the priestly ministry. From without the Church, it is used to argue, in effect, that the Church is inherently wicked, does more harm than good. Very briefly, to the concrete issues: the incidence of abuse perpetrated by Anglican priests, who are generally married, is the same as that perpetrated by Roman Catholic priests, who are generally celibate; and in both cases it is something like twice as rate as the incidence of some crimes by teachers and coaches, who are in many cases married. So there is at least no immediate statistical evidence to conclude that either the priestly office or celibacy increases the chance of a man becoming a perpetrator. That said, given the Church's call to holiness, it is no claim to fame that its ministers are only just as prone to sexual misbehavior and crimes as other religious ministers are, are just somewhat less than other professions. And there may be some substantive issues in some cases linked with celibacy, e.g., loneliness, particularly for those not living in some form of community. The issue of homosexuality is more complex; here, in fact, the majority of persons abused by priests are male, though overall females are abused more than males. On the other hand, many perpetrators at least claim that the sex of the victim did not particularly matter to them… it was a matter of who was accessible to them. To the third point, again, the incidence of abuse by ministers of the Church, as far as we have definite numbers, is less than that in non-religious educational institutions, or sport clubs, as well as by family members. That doesn't make the abuse by ministers of the Church in any way okay, but does take the feet out of the argument that the Church's teaching on salvation, sin, sexuality, etc. or structure inclines people generally to wickedness.
More fundamentally, while all such reports may provide food for thought and possible input and evidence on these various topics, it is a unjust instrumentalization of victim's sufferings to use them merely to prop up positions one holds otherwise.
For us all, it is important, on the one hand, not to exaggerate the evil and tar all ministers with the same brush, nor, on the other hand, out of zeal for the Church, to downplay the wrong and the abuses in handling the situations.
We can, however, and this is my second point, learn some things and recognize certain temptations and pitfalls to be avoided. In the Church, as a long-standing institution being and recognizing itself as the bearer of the most important message, the Gospel, and even, in its sacraments and life, of Jesus Christ himself, one can easily be tempted to overrate oneself and to focus on self-preservation. To preserve its image, to be unwilling to believe that such a good priest could do such a thing (and laity may fall prey to this temptation just as much as bishops or other priests); to preserve its peace, to be unwilling to upset things; to preserve its constituency, its ministers (and here, too, it is not just bishops, but also laity, who often put such on a emphasis on having a priest, regardless of his qualities or deficiencies). For such reasons, priests have, at times, been silently moved to other parishes, even while those responsible knew of grave misdeeds.
This isn't something that happens only in the Church. The same thing happens in families and extended families, where most cases of abuse take place. One doesn't want or can't believe such a thing about one's stepfather, uncle, brother, nephew; one doesn't want to disturb family peace or cause a ruckus, one doesn't want to get involved, doesn't want to set something in motion that could lead to a indictment or prison for a relative, etc.
Thirdly, recognizing the existence of such temptations, we need to make it a point, in the Church, in families and extended families, not to look away or ignore the situation, when we have a bad feeling about a situation, or hear something about it, from a potential victim or another person, but to carefully look at it. Not to silently let it be, but to do something. In many cases, the first step should be to get advice, to talk about the situation with someone not so close to it and so emotionally involved, with someone with experience or education in the area. For, indeed, to act too quickly, especially when it is a case where active abuse is still ongoing, came not infrequently cause more harm than good. (Some comments about institutions serving this purpose in the diocese of Vienna made here…) We are called to co-responsibility for each other within the body of Christ, whether ordained or not, and regardless of our place in the hierarchy.
I'd like to close with a more general look at this temptation to self-preservation. The temptation to avoid the real problem, and instead focus on preservation, can appear in many other areas. E.g., in countries that were Christian for many centuries, a Christian and ecclesial culture was taken for granted. Those who couldn't name any other reason to go to Church on Sunday than the fact that it was customary, and that "that's just what one does", still went out of custom and as a tradition. In face of the rapid decline in Christian and ecclesial culture the temptation can be great to take up the attitude of preservation and resistance, a defense mechanism keeping us from recognizing the state of the faith in purportedly Christian countries such as Austria, to think, "the most important thing is, we still have a priest"; "the most important thing is, we still have OUR Mass", to oppose proposed parish unions, joint liturgies celebrated in another Church, etc. This, too, can be a distraction from what is happening, finally, a distraction from HIM, who alone matters. Peter says, "to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life"; if it is a matter of preservation, than a matter of preserving <i>his</i> presence in the Church, <i>his</i> words, <i>his</i> teaching.
I'd like to close with a prayer…