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Woodstock made them do it

The study is in. The reason for incredibly high sexual abuse cases by priests in the Roman Catholic Church over the last 60 years is because of the sexual confusion in the culture at large. The one and a half million dollar research study by John Jay College that was sponsored by, in part, the US Council of Bishops, has concluded that these changing mores in society in combination with priests who were vulnerable, confused, and who lacked social supports created the conditions for the abuse of clergy power with parishioners, the majority of these being small boys. It is a stretch of the imagination for me to believe that the era of free love as typified perhaps at the renowned festival at Woodstock  also gave rise to inappropriate sexual behaviors in Ireland throughout Europe as well. But that would require another study. Let's just say I am skeptical.

One therapist who has extensive knowledge of clergy who violate parishioners’ trust by crossing ethical sexual boundaries said to me, “You have to ask yourself whatever would possess a man to, in 10 minutes, completely torpedo his entire career? When you ask that question you begin to understand the depth of the issues we are dealing with.” There are losers in all of these scenarios; young people who lose their sexual innocence and their spiritual naïveté, parents who lose their trust in the Church as institution, and the priests whose misconduct and criminal behavior now marks them as sexual deviants, whether it occurred only one time or was habitual.

As a sociologist by training I am very aware of the power of culture to influence our behaviors to be inconsistent with some of our most deeply held religious teachings. In the case of sexuality, as the study noted, many clerics are sexually vulnerable and minimally supported. And we know the lack of sex education for clergy to prepare them for their ministry continues today. However, as I have been saying for years, when you place these clergy into a religious framework that denigrates the body, is suspicious of pleasure, and then also requires a degree of personal sexual repression, it should come as no surprise that inappropriate sexual behavior occurs. It doesn’t make it any less acceptable. There are no excuses. But it does make it more understandable.

Years ago the man who murdered Harvey Milk argued in his defense that he was depressed and in that state binged on foods with sugar thus leading him to be dangerous. This became known by the press as the “twinkie defense” after the man’s preference for that wonderfully sugary dessert. The jury did not agree with this line of thinking however and he now sits in prison. With the release of the Bishops’ study one could argue that the “Woodstock defense” of changing sexual norms and little institutional or theological support caused the most vulnerable priests to be unprepared and therefore causing them to act inappropriately. But even if it were true, it has as much weight as the twinkie defense. It does not make it acceptable. There are no excuses. The danger of this study is that it minimizes the responsibility of the Church to protect its parishioners and hold clergy supervisors accountable. And until that lesson sinks in there will be no internal critique of Christianity’s complicity in failing to provide healthy and ethical sexual guidance to a culture desperately in need of it, not the least being clergy themselves.


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