Another Reformation?

God and reason can co-exist; thinking and believing can be reconciledWhat is Grace-an unearned, supernatural sense that hope is not in vain-but each individual's reassurance that he, too, is standing in the holy fire?

-Hal Crowther

You don't have to be Catholic to have an opinion about the controversy surrounding the Church, its leadership, its judgment, and its ethics in the way it has handled repeated and longtime allegations of child sexual abuse by priests.

Day by day, it hits closer and closer to home. At press, local media outlets report that a class-action lawsuit against Lexington's Catholic Diocese will likely be filed within the next week.

Separate allegations of sexual abuse surfaced in a lawsuit against Lexington Bishop J. Kendrick Williams (dating back to 1981, when he was a priest in Louisville). He has denied the allegations.

This week's cover story is an essay about innocence and innocence lost, as it relates to this topic, written by award-winning columnist, and frequent Ace contributor, Hal Crowther.

Duke University English professor (and jury member for the Lillian Smith Book Award for Commentary, which Crowther won), Elizabeth Cox writes, "Hal Crowther has written many articles and essays over the years that have moved me, angered me, or disturbed me into a new way of thinking."

This week's essay is nothing if not provocative, something that can always be expected of Crowther.

The public discourse on this topic has grown increasingly inflammatory and incendiary-and certainly it's a subject that deserves a public forum.

That said, there are elements of the discussion that are being neglected or dismissed entirely, as is often the case when scandal erupts.

First, does any entity (much less a church) deserve to be defended when they cover up an atrocity such as child sexual abuse?

Absolutely not.

But is such a cover-up unprecedented, or exclusive to the Catholic Church in some way?


Many entities (e.g., governments, corporations, school systems, youth organizations, Enron, etc.)-when confronted with crime in their midst (be it sexual or financial)-sweep it under the rug until confronted and forced to do otherwise.

Often, civil settlements are reached without the public's knowledge that a crime has even been committed.

Of course, as the Church purports to a higher moral authority than say, Enron or Congress, their accountability should be higher.

Catholics and Protestants expect that.

Second, the high number of allegations of sex crimes against children within the Catholic Church-while justifiably shocking and deserving of outrage-may not be as disproportionate as the media frenzy suggests.

It's well documented that pedophiles gravitate towards jobs that give them access to victims. Sadly, this includes environments where children should expect complete trust and safety (church, school, etc.)

Jehovah's Witnesses (evangelical Christians) who have an estimated 6 million members worldwide, have also been accused of covering up instances of child sexual abuse, with an NBC Dateline report quoting their policy to "take care of it within the congregation," a policy that they apply to other moral and legal issues as well.

Does this mean that we should eye all ministers, schoolbus drivers or school custodians or teachers with constant suspicion? Of course not. Any more than we should presume guilt of every cleric who wears a collar.

Third, while the Catholic Church, as Crowther points out, isn't known for any sort of sexual tolerance of any kind (officially denouncing homosexuality and birth control and non-reproductive sex, while it's widely suspected that there may be Catholics out there who practice any/all of the above-albeit, bad, bad Catholics, in the eyes of those who proclaim every sperm sacred), neither celibacy nor homosexuality promotes the molestation of children.

Celibacy may be denounced by many as outmoded as Fish-on-Fridays for the priesthood, but for whatever reasons, the requirement persists. Still, cannibalism isn't a reasonable foreseeable consequence of hunger, when a Snickers would suffice (and is available at most convenience stores). Likewise, if a priest chooses to violate the vow of celibacy, he need not commit a crime to do it, when there's a surfeit of available women possessing a certain elasticity of moral fiber in most any parish.

Availing oneself of said temptations is a sin to be sure, in the eyes of the church (for all parties involved), but not a crime. Not among consenting adults.

As for homosexuality, it should be irrelevant for those who embrace the priesthood's tenets- which mean no sex, of any kind, with anybody, of any gender or age.

Sex with children (whatever the gender) is a crime and an atrocity; homosexuality, though, again, a sin in the eyes of many Christians, is not a crime.

And finally, while the Church deserves a heaping helping of blame and shame here, there are countless unindicted co-conspirators.

This country's criminal justice system wins no prizes for its treatment of sex crimes, and particularly, sex crimes against children.

Sex offenders frequently go under-reported, and when (and if) convicted, under-sentenced. They are far more likely to re-offend than murderers. They are less likely to be caught in the first place, much less convicted.

Convictions in sex crimes against children are onerous to secure, partially because almost no one acknowledges that the jury system is virtually set up to fail in protecting children. No reasonable jury of sane "peers" can conceive that any adult would be sexually attracted to a child. The human response is denial. Even in the case of physical evidence, still, convictions are still too hard to come by.

Post-conviction, the sentences of sex offenders are often too short to accommodate a mandatory treatment program (particularly when the minimum 25 percent good time allowance is applied when they walk in the prison doors, as it is in Kentucky). And then, treatment is often not successful.

And that's just the tip of the iceberg.

Yes, the allegations facing the Church have opened a dialogue, and they may have opened the door to much-needed reforms.

But is this an excuse for an embrace of nihilism or an abdication of all faith? Obviously, that's a personal decision.

In an essay Crowther contributed to Ace in 1999, he described enlightened discourse as "a place to start, and a beacon in the fog for the disillusioned minority that might become drab atheists because they think there's nowhere else to go."