Mass media cited as culprit in cases
BOSTON GLOBE | July 8, 1993
By James L. Franklin, Globe Staff
A rising chorus of Catholic leaders is blaming US society – particularly the entertainment industry and the news media – for contributing to the problem of sexual abuse of children, in and out of the church.
But church observers counter that there are abuse cases dating from well before the sexual revolutions of the late 1960s and 1970s. And some mental health practitioners suggest that he church’s complaints about outside criticism are a sign of its own failure to deal with the problem of sexually abusive priests.
Writing to US bishops on sexual abuse, Pope John Paul II recently used severe terms to describe any priest who molests children, saying it would be better for him “to have a great millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
But the pope used language just as severe about “the mass media,” saying its “search for sensationalism leads to the loss of something essential to the morality of society” and is “in fact opposed to the pursuit of the moral good.”
Lest his point be lost, the pope’s press secretary explained later that the media-saturated US society bears responsibility for the high incidence of sexual abuse in the country, and for that among the clergy.
“One would have to ask if the real culprit is not a society that is irresponsibility permissive, hyper inflated with sexuality” and “capable of creating circumstances that induce even people who have received a solid moral formation to commit grave moral acts,” said the aide, Joaquin Navarro Valls.
Some of the most notorious abuse cases – such as the charges against James Porter, a former priest of the Fall River diocese accused of abused in Massachusetts, New Mexico and Minnesota – arose in the 1950s or early 1960s, before the sexual revolution and the rise of public dissent by US Catholics.
“There were cases in ‘the good old church’ where that kind of stuff happened,” said Lawrence Cunningham, chairman of the theology department at the University of Notre Dame.
“I knew some of the priests, because I’d been a seminarian,” Cunningham said in an interview. “They were packed out of parishes, put under the care of a friendly shrink or a retreat house, then put back in another parish. It happened over and over, and that was not in the liberal days of dissent on sexual teaching, when all this easy morality was alleged.”
Dr. Keith Russell Ablow, medical director of the Tri-City Community Mental Health Center in Lynn and a contributing columnist for the Washington Post, said that although he thinks the media have sensationalized the topic, he does not agree that sexual abuse by clergy is a result of wider social decay.
“I understand there would be a natural inclination to seek some refuge in larger issues,” Ablow said in an interview. “But when sexual abuse is identified in the ranks of any religion, it does argue for an examination of that religion’s system of either promoting or repressing emotional and the consequences of that.”
Dr. Peter Cimbolic, director of counseling at the Catholic University of America, said social factors play a role in abuse. For example, high school seminaries that isolate candidates for the priesthood from most contact with women during adolescence “may have contributed to sexual confusion and later made for ephebophilia,” sexual attraction to adolescents, he said.
But Cimbolic does not believe that US society is dramatically different than others. “Sexual abuse exists in every culture in the world,” he said.
Most church officials have deep seated concerns about the power and motives of news and entertainment media. For example, Rev. Canice Connors of Suitland, Md., who heads the best-known treatment center for sexual offenders in the clergy, cited the media in an address to the US bishops June 18 in New Orleans, consoling the bishops for having to undergo a “media assault.”
But what really animates the church leaders’ criticism of US culture and the media is a perception that abuse cases are being used to denigrate their faith and coerce an end to the prohibition on married priests.
Navarro, the Vatican spokesman, noted that the 400 US priests accused of abuse are just 1.2 percent of the total. Blaming the whole clergy for the failures is “a grave injustice to the overwhelming majority of American Catholic priests – nearly 99 percent – who are not involved,” he said.