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Clerical abuse is not only sexual

In dealing with the sex-pest priest, the Church must not forget the other type of offender in a cassock. Clericalism, warns Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya, can be found on both sides of the sanctuary.

It must be encouraging and somewhat disconcerting to the global Catholic Church community that its leadership is correctly seized by the scourge of sex abuse by the clergy.

It is encouraging because sex abuse, particularly of minors, is gravely serious matter. And is most certainly deserving of the attention it has had, not least in the form of the recent unprecedented gathering of 190 Catholic leaders, including 114 bishops from around the world.

It is disconcerting to have to come to terms with the idea that the Church, that over a billion people call their spiritual home, has housed — and in some cases protected — such monsters.

As the Pope added: “Consecrated persons, chosen by God to guide souls to salvation, let themselves be dominated by their human frailty or sickness and thus become tools of Satan.”

All that said, it is important that the Church remembers to deal also with other forms of abuse and shortcomings by its clergy — even if these don’t make headline news.

The “human frailty or sickness” that makes priests become tools of Satan does not only confine itself to sexual predation.

We must start by acknowledging that the men who become priests are everyday men. They are begotten by earthly fathers and mothers; very man of very man and of the same substance as other men, to misquote the Nicene Creed.

The only difference between them and other men is that they have responded positively to a calling to the priesthood — even if they have not always been faithful to their vocation.

Therefore they, being man like other men, surely have the same propensity to become sex pests, alcoholics, drug users, gamblers, addicted to porn, and any number of addictions that exist in the society that they — and we — live in. The perhaps unfortunate reality of the world is that it does not wait for one problem to be solved before it introduces another.

There are other concurrent forms of abuse and ‘demons’ in the Church, other than one to sexually prey on others. It would be a mistake to wait until the Church has purged itself of sex pests before it pays attention to its other challenges.

The gambler and alcoholic leave a trail of victims just like the sex-pest priest. In all the cases, they are entrusted with the souls of the parishioners and the resources of the parish.

A gambler will sooner or later blow the parish’s finances, feeding their addiction, and the alcoholic will say an incoherent Mass or leave parishioners waiting in the pews, embarrassing himself and those gathered to worship.

The priest struggling with a gambling addiction, with alcohol or whatever thorn in their own flesh; deserves our attention as much as any parishioner with the same issues.

Just like a priest would (hopefully) not in the first instance, counsel a parishioner living with an alcoholic or a gambler, to throw them out of the house, it would be sad if our first instinct was to sack the embarrassing priest.

Like all of us, the priest is not spared from fitting the description of the Gerasene demoniac in the Gospel of St Mark, who continues to break the chains aimed at stopping him from harming himself, by “gashing himself with stones”.

The Church leadership and community must also show that they too tried to help the priest from hurting himself and the parish community — before we condemn and throw him out of our backyard.

For the laity to assume that the priest has all the answers to their own demons, is not only uncharitable but also another form of clericalism. But only that this time, clericalism comes from the pews and not the sanctuary.

It is no better than the attitude by some priests that only they know or can come up with good ideas and everyone who sees it differently is an enemy or a dissident.

As said earlier, life’s difficult questions do not wait for one issue to be solved before attending to the next. The Church must therefore continue purging criminal priests out of the system, while it shows compassion to those possessed by demons they cannot shake off.

A church whose anointed lack the humility to acknowledge their human shortcomings and a leadership whose only tool is to punish those who embarrass it, will struggle to translate what it means when it says that it is there for the sinner, to preach the good news to the poor and free those enslaved and blinded by sin and ignorance.

One of Pope Francis’ most often quoted quotes is: “The thing the Church needs most today is the ability to heal wounds and to warm the hearts of the faithful; it needs nearness, proximity. I see the Church as a field hospital after battle. It is useless to ask a seriously injured person if he has high cholesterol and about the level of his blood sugars! You have to heal his wounds. Then we can talk about everything else. Heal the wounds, heal the wounds. … And you have to start from the ground up.”

For some reason, we tend to assume that this applies only to the laity. We readily take this as a message intended only for us sitting in the pews, who need the nurse’s gentle hand. But the truth is that we are in this together; regardless of which side of the sanctuary we’re sitting on.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.


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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

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