Stories like this have become mind-numbingly familiar, but in this case the abuser is Father Stefano Cherubini and the story takes place in the 17th Century. The superior who covers for him is Joseph Calasanz, a peer and correspondent of Galileo who, in 1767, will be canonized.
Sexual abuse perpetrated and hidden by clergy goes way back.
Historian Karen Liebreich uncovered the story of Cherubini and Calasanz while conducting research among the annals of the Inquisition, in a library that had been closed to lay researchers for over 300 years. She also found this: In 1948, while records of these events lay in archives open only to Vatican insiders, Pope Pius XII declared Calasanz the patron saint of Catholic schools.
As we all now know, in the intervening centuries—at least until very recently—little changed in how the Church hierarchy dealt with abusive clergy. Problem priests were variously promoted, retired, or shuffled from parish to parish in an attempt to disrupt abusive relationships without exposing them. In 1631, when Calasanz sent a colleague to investigate Cherubini, he gave these explicit instructions,“I want you to know that Your Reverence’s sole aim is to cover up this great shame in order that it does not come to the notice of our superiors.” A modern bishop might have added “the press” and “the public” to “our superiors,” but the objective—to cover up this great shame—has been identical.
Desperately Seeking Scapegoats
Frantic to avoid shame and responsibility in recent years, Catholic leaders have variously blamed homosexuals, a modern culture of excessive sexual liberty, or even the child victims themselves. Meanwhile, Protestant clergy have sought to portray the problem as Catholic, an exclusive attribute of the celibate priesthood. But with the tally of perpetrators in the thousands and documented victims now including nuns, and with recent investigative exposure of widespread abuse and cover-ups in the Southern Baptist denomination, pointing fingers isn’t working so well. It has become impossible to deny either the scale or scope of the problem.
There is no evidence to suggest that homosexual men, though disproportionately represented in the priesthood, are disproportionately responsible for the violations, nor is there reason to believe that sexual abusers are more common among Catholic clergy than in other sects. Queer sex-advice columnist Dan Savage, frustrated by conservative attempts to further stigmatize his peers, compiled a list of over 100 youth pastors accused or convicted of sexual crimes against minors in a church setting between the years 2008 and 2016. The Freedom from Religion Foundation has long published a column titled “Black Collar Crime Blotter.” The list of those charged and convicted would suggest that abusers represent a wide range of denominations and clerical roles, and that their crimes and victims also vary widely. Formal records, though incomplete, back up these more haphazard lists.
Research distinguishes homosexual and heterosexual adults who are attracted to other adults from pedophilic adults who are attracted to prepubescent children (sometimes of both genders), and hebephilic or ephebophelic adults who are preferentially attracted to younger and older adolescents. If penile arousal during controlled research is any indicator, age preference tends to be as specific as sexual orientation. How many sexual violators in the church fit these different categories? How many are simply situational generalists, exploiting the trust and reverence assigned them and taking advantage of whoever was close at hand under the available cloak of secrecy? We don’t know.
Christian Pitfalls, Human Pitfalls
We also don’t know which if any Christian teachings and traditions exacerbate patterns of sexual exploitation in the Church. Certainly there are plenty of contenders: the Catholic refusal to allow healthy sexual intimacy for priests; the Catholic and Protestant obsession with virginity and forbidden fruit; the culture of adolescent titillation and secretive sexuality that accompany this obsession; the taboos that perpetuate sexual ignorance; the Protestant cult of personality in which male leaders are God’s mouthpieces, beyond question or reproach; the biblical residue of Iron Age culture that treats children and women as chattel created to serve the needs of men. Any of these, on the face of it, could play a role.
But the fact is, sexual exploitation is widespread in everyday settings and relationships outside the Church. Consider:
Nationwide, one in five girls and one in 12 boys are sexually abused before their 18th birthday; 95 percent of boys and girls are abused by someone they know; 50 percent of victims between the ages of 1 and 6 and 25 percent of victims between the ages of 12 and 17 are abused by a member of their own family; 84 percent of child sexual abuse occurs in homes. In 2014, 1.8 million adolescents in the United States were the victims of a sexual assault. The overwhelming number of victims are females. The overwhelming number of perpetrators are males, more often an older child under the age of 18. And these government statistics are merely a best guess; most incidents involving the sexual abuse of a minor go unreported.
The paragraph above is taken from a Jesuit article about abuse by priests. After decades or even centuries of denial, defenders of the faith are now reduced to protesting, “It’s a really big problem outside of the church walls, too.” Yes. It is. Finally, we’ve hit something we can say with certainty: sexual exploitation of children (and vulnerable people more broadly) is horribly common wherever power differentials and opportunity exist.
Here is something else we can say definitively: The Christian Church, which has long adopted an attitude of arrogant exceptionalism is no exception. The Church proclaims itself a sanctuary, a moral beacon shining on a hill, and a one-stop solution to the problem of evil; but when it comes to sexuality, it is none of these. It is a human institution plagued with human problems, and the tangled web of theological blather that emanates from the Vatican hierarchy and Protestant seminaries has in no way managed to exempt devout believers from human nature.
Neither Saints nor Monsters
Human beings are broadly and sometimes horribly flawed regardless of what religion they practice or preach. The plight of the Church should remind us that this includes people who care deeply about being good and doing good, because if there is one thing that does differentiate abusers within the church from abusers outside, it is that clergy are people who have committed themselves to lives of service and inquiry in the quest for moral goodness. Most—and here is the conundrum—take that quest very seriously, including abusers who have left lives in ruins.
It is easy from the outside to look at the cover-ups—the hasty moves, the promotions, the discrete retirements that let victimization continue and perpetrators walk free—and to see only the crass self-interest of an institution protecting its brand and cashflow. But that is too simple. Part of the problem—part of the reason that those who should have named and stopped the abuse didn’t—is that the perpetrators often were otherwise-decent people devoting much of themselves to genuine acts of service. Some abusers are sociopathic, but that isn’t the norm. We humans are complicated beings, and the same men who left a trail of broken lives, were often loved and protected for many reasons.
That doesn’t make their crimes less horrific. People can devote enormous energy to doing good and yet inflict harms that grievously outweigh the impact of those efforts. Most murderers don’t spend their lives murdering. They spend their lives to a greater or lesser degree doing the same things that you and I do: working, playing, loving, giving, and taking. And then they kill. Out of a lifetime, killing someone doesn’t take very long. Killing several someones doesn’t. Neither does buggering small children or grooming confused adolescents.
One factor that allows abuse to go on, unfettered, is we want to believe—childlike—that perpetrators are monsters, through and through, and so when otherwise decent people do bad things we get confounded. We vacillate and far too often look the other way. That is an abdication of responsibility, of adulthood. But the alternative is painful. Stopping the harm requires doing harm to real complicated people, and that involves genuine loss and grief.
Churches have long hoped that the threat of shame or excommunication or hell would be sufficient to deter sexual exploitation and abuse. It doesn’t. Stefano Cherubini and his abusive 17th Century peers were not deterred by even the terrifying shadow of the Holy Inquisition, an institution that regularly subjected “sinners” to Hell on Earth and—internal politics notwithstanding—had a shuddering horror of sexual sin.
Rather than being on the lookout for monsters or trying to terrify evildoers into submission, we need to assume that all good people are going to do some bad things, and that some good people are going to do very bad things. It is our job as a collective, as a community, to make that difficult—not just by threatening after-the-fact punishments and hoping the deterrent suffices, but by taking steps that are preventive.
What might it mean to get serious about prevention? In the case of violence, we know that a huge percent of harm can be prevented simply by making violence inconvenient—by making guns less accessible, for example—thus creating time for an impulse to pass and for a person to get drawn back into their better self.
In the case of sexual abuse, awareness itself creates inconvenience because it increases vigilance: no more assumption that nice people couldn’t possibly experience inappropriate sexual arousal; no more assumption that people in ministry are necessarily nice; no more assumption that when children or teens haltingly signal that they’re being hurt they must be confused or mistaken.
In 2004, a grandson of Billy Graham, Boz Tchividjian, founded an organization called GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment). GRACE conducts independent investigations in churches facing abuse allegations and provides training on how to prevent abuse. For a while, Tchividjian has been warning that abuse and denial in Evangelical churches rivaled that of Catholic parishes. The 700-plus Southern Baptist cases exposed by the Houston Chronicle, came as no surprise to folks like him.
Having been backed into a corner, perhaps the Southern Baptist leadership will take a few lessons from the Bishops, who are finally implementing preventive measures based not on the theology of sin and salvation but on the psychology of sexuality and vulnerability. After the Catholic abuse scandal was blown open by the Boston Globe in 2002, the Church created review boards that include mental health and law enforcement professionals who examine allegations of priestly misconduct. Church staff and lay volunteers are required to participate in trainings that include signs and symptoms of abuse, how to create safer environments, and how to manage reporting. Priests in training spend more time processing the implications of celibacy. Millions of children have received safe environment training. Protocols dictate that credible accusations of sexual abuse be reported to police. An independent firm audits dioceses to monitor compliance. And the audit suggests that the measures are helping.
The process of excavating past abuse is far from over, either outside or inside the Church. And even though statutes of limitations mean many cases will never be pursued, transparency and accountability for some is just beginning. Fortunately, we don’t need to finish redressing the harms of the past before we begin protecting a better future.
She writes about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society.