It’s been more than forty years since the first religious sex scandal became pubic and made a shift in our understanding of and relation to the church and its clerks. Since the beginning of the 2000s, there has been more and more legal response to the allegations, and the church is paying large amounts of money to settle with the victims. With strong media attention to the subject, more people have decided to speak up, which resulted in more lawsuits and criminal cases.
Two things are not very clear in all this — how will the church deal with those most corrupt in their lines, and how will the faithful react in the long run?
A Crisis in Faith
The problem of abuse was recognized by the church, or at least some of its members, far earlier than the public became aware of the problem. In the 1950s, American priest Gerald Fitzgerald founded the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete, a religious order that treats Roman Catholic priests who struggle with personal difficulties, such as substance abuse and sexual misconduct. Fitzgerald wrote a series of letters warning high-rank officials of the church about the potential problem involving abusive priests.
The first case that became public happened in 1985. A catholic priest pleaded guilty of molesting 11 young boys. Since then, more allegations became public in the 1990s, and in 2002, Boston Globe published a series of publications on the subject. By the end of 2010, organization HolySee examined more than 3,000 cases involving priests abusing their power, some of which dated back fifty years.
The scale of the problem is so large that many of the dioceses now have Independent Reconciliation and Reparations Programs, which help the victims get their settlements.
The findings of many investigations around the globe conducted by church officials are, to say the least, horrible. Rape and sexual abuse of minors, both boys and girls, some younger than five, are just some of the stories revealed in the gruesome cases.
Although the public and media eye retained their focus on the Catholic church, reports of abuse didn’t miss other religious organizations. The Adass Israel School sex abuse scandal rocked the Jewish community, while MormonLeaks published a three-hundred-and-sixteen-page document, which contains confirmed and alleged instances of child sexual abuse in the Mormon churches between 1959 and 2017.
The Response From the Church
You’re probably wondering how the church reacted to sexual scandals. In nearly all of the cases, the church decided to deal with problems behind closed doors. Aside from public and law sanctions, the priests were sanctioned under the canon law and never sought help outside the church and its treatment agencies. In some cases, the church tried to cover up the problem by moving abusive priests from parish to parish.
All the convicted priests were excluded from the church. Those prosecuted were helped financially and legally to settle with the victims. The numbers in the settlement cases go up to thirty million. For example, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Dallas paid $30.9 million in 1998 to twelve victims of one priest. In 2004, the Roman Catholic Diocese of Orange settled nearly 90 cases for $100 million.
The scandals didn’t spare other denominations. The Southern Baptist Convention had to deal with its own crisis recently when an investigation by the Houston Chronicle and San Antonio Express-News hit. The articles reported over a hundred cases of sexual misconduct in the last 20 years, with more than 700 victims.
A documentary movie about the Jesus Army sex scandal by BBC brought attention to sexual abuse in religious organizations other than the Catholic church. The sect closed its door for believers, confronted with the overwhelming public response. Six of its members have been sentenced for sexual assault of 11 victims from the 1970s to 1990s.
How the Scandals Affected the Faithful
When the average churchgoer looks at the number of crimes and listens to the stories of victims, it’s really hard not to feel angry or confused. Many families trusted the priests with their children, believing that’s the right environment for them to grow up in, especially in orders with a strict code of conduct. Their trust is now broken, and their lives are scarred for good. The effect of sex scandals on the faithful is strong.
The younger generations of millennials or post-millennials, if religious at all, don’t trust that the church is as pure as it presents itself to be. Church attendance is surely dropping, but so is the influence that the church has.
A recent poll has found that 78 percent of Catholics disapprove of the way the church has handled scandals. Many of them just stopped going to masses, shocked and horrified with the severity of the scandals. Part of the blame goes to the church for handling the situation with little concern from public opinion and not distancing from the abusers in the right manner. Because of its authoritarian hierarchy, the Catholic church has allowed abusers to slip under the hand of justice and shut down those who insisted on reformation.
The scandals have done the most damage in Ireland, where the church totally lost control of the situation. Aside from that, many dioceses were bankrupted by the hefty costs of settlements.
How the Churches and the Faithful Move on From These Scandals
It’s been long and hard two decades for all denominations and church organizations in the whole world, especially in the US. Evangelical sex scandals within these institutions have completely changed the way we look at religion. In the past two years, there have been so many investigations that some analysts claim that the church is scattered to pieces. It’s tough to say how the church will move on from these scandals.
The public, as always, is divided. One side claims the number of corrupt priests is only four percent of all the clergy (at least in the US) and that sexually deviant behavior is present in all parts of society. On the other hand, intellectuals and members of the #MeToo and #ChurchToo movements disagree that this is something that should be taken lightly.
There is certainly a great need for a full reform within the church. The problem must be solved from the inside, and this particular period seems like a good time to do so. Those who broke the most sacred of laws of their order should be severely punished.
On the other side, religion, its practices, and the rest of the good clergy, who stayed true to their call, make for a significant emotional and psychological stronghold in the ever-changing post-modern life. A world without religion could easily slide into chaos.
It’s Possible to Move On
The only way the church could restore the faith of the people it once had is through open distancing from the bad apples in their lines. They should portray themselves as a new and reformed organization that learned from its mistakes and is sure they will never happen again.
The people, although disappointed, are open towards a new and different view of the church, one that is not as dogmatic and is more human. How the faithful will move on from these scandals remains to be seen.