Ask The Expert: March-April 2002


How will the recent pedophilia scandal affect the clergy and laity?

The pedophilia crisis facing the Catholic Church is tragic in its consequences. Those closest to the incidents of abuse are obviously the most seriously affected--especially the victims, their families, and their fellow parishioners. Besides the actual abuse, the hierarchy's handling of the crisis has been scandalous. But there is another victim: the bond of trust that is so essential to clergy-parishioner relationships and to the clergy's moral authority.

Clergy relate to people in the deepest moments of their lives, in moments of profound sorrow as well as great joy. These are often times of great vulnerability, and parishioners need to be able to trust that their vulnerability will not be exploited. Being ordained as one called by God symbolizes that the pastor can be trusted. When, however, clergy engage in pedophilia, in other forms of sexual abuse, or abuse of their position generally, this sacred bond is violated and their moral authority is called into question.

Would that the damage could be limited only to those involved, as serious and painful as this is; yet all priests and laity are implicated. The large majority of exemplary Catholic clergy will suffer the effects of their brother priests' failures, and many Catholic parents will think twice about allowing their child to be an altar boy or girl--regardless of their respect for their priest.

Furthermore, there will no doubt be a spillover effect. The relationships between clergy and laity of other faiths are also likely to be tainted by these events. Public-opinion data from the past two decades revealed that the public's confidence in religious leaders dropped substantially for all age groups and especially among the young. The pedophilia crisis will do further damage.

The poet John Donne once wrote that "No man is an island." Neither is any priest or minister an island. What one does has consequences for all.

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