6 Life Lessons Learned From the Sex-Abuse Scandal

There is much to be done before the Church can begin to heal the scars from the current crisis.

Archbishop Theodore McCarrick
Archbishop Theodore McCarrick (photo: U.S. Institute of Peace, CC BY-NC 2.0, via CNA)

As details of the abuse scandal in the Catholic Church continue to unfold, countless blogs and articles have been dedicated to disentangling why all this has occurred, and what this means for the Church in the future. Whether it is a critique of leadership, an examination of “cultural” factors that have perpetuated these pernicious practices, or just an emotional purging of all sorts from the pews, there is no shortage of opinions and reactions to this ongoing crisis.

Amid all of this, though, is a set of life lessons that applies to all of us. Here are six lessons from the scandal that we must never forget:

1. Abuse of authority and power creates a deep disdain and bitterness that spans generations. Rarely a week goes by when I don’t have a discussion with a parent in session about how decisions they make (consciously or unconsciously) for their kids are directly related to what they experienced as a child. So often, parents have acknowledged that deep-seated emotions from difficult childhood experiences lead them to act toward their own kids in particular ways, often which they acknowledge are not the best. And yet, when someone experiences the wrath of an authoritarian or abusive parent early in life, it creates such a strong emotional experience that, even decades later, these emotions are difficult to untangle and moderate in a healthy manner. It is one reason why, sadly, abused kids are more likely to become abusive parents. As our Church is learning, abuse at the hands of a person who we are supposed to revere and trust the most is the worst kind; there is something particularly pernicious and debilitating about taking advantage of someone in a subordinate position.

2. A lack of transparency regarding actions, especially those that involve others, creates a sense of mistrust that is difficult to dispel. Have you ever noticed that when people make up excuses, even about seemingly minor issues, a leakage of trust occurs? Human nature is built on the foundation of trust, and transparency is designed to be one of its strongest beams. But when transparency gives way to a type of communication shrouded in nebulous, contradictory, confusing responses, the foundation starts to weaken from all sides. It’s not that we as human beings and institutions don’t have a right to a certain degree of privacy. It’s just that there is a big difference between “making excuses” about various matters and being responsibly honest when an issue exists. So often, a lack of transparency is justified as a means of “protecting” another person or entity even while what is actually occurring is more damaging than any admission of truth will ever be. When people, families, institutions and even countries don’t acknowledge their challenges and mistakes, and don't seek to do what is right instead of what appears to keep the peace, then the long-term outcomes only get worse.

3. No one, no matter what position or status, should be allowed to act in ways that contradict the “Golden Rule” and the basic rights of an individual. For years, at hospitals and other medical institutions, physicians have been allowed to act in ways that no one else could. I personally have witnessed “esteemed” doctors use their clout to disparage, intimidate and downright overwhelm others in ways that would have gotten their administrative and supportive counterparts fired immediately. Although still a work in progress, the medical establishment has finally started to acknowledge this problem, and has taken some steps to address it (although much still needs to be done).

Within our Church, a similar situation exists for priests, bishops and other leaders. I sympathize with the difficult mission clerics have, and for all the priests that I consider friends, I appreciate and admire them so much for what they do each day. But just as I or anyone else should be held accountable for failures and offenses in small and large matters, so it is important that all Church leaders be afforded the same ideal. I realize that our priest shortage leads us all to fear that if demands are too great, and more priests leave (or don’t become ordained), it may lead to further negative realities. This is a painful thought. But a more painful one than that is when we don’t adhere to the most important law of the land―treating others as we would like to be treated. Nothing ever should supersede this.

4. When needs, desires and past hurts are not dealt with effectively, a great risk emerges for the individual and others around him or her. For as long as the Church has dealt with the abuse scandal, many ideas and theories have been put forth about why this has persisted. Whether it is a culture of homosexuality, misuse of power and authority, or poor formation regarding celibacy, there is no shortage of opinions in this matter. Yet beneath it all lies a simple reality. All human beings are responsible for channeling their desires and their past trauma in ways that do not create intergenerational pain. It starts from the youngest age, when we teach preschoolers how to harness the anger they feel of being slighted in an effective, reasonable way. Whether it is urges related to sexuality, revenge, competence, belonging, pleasure or anything else, I would argue that any desire left without an appropriate outlet (or actually, inlet) is a scandal waiting to happen. All of us have spontaneous desires and temptations that are difficult to prevent, but we must manage them effectively when they occur. As parents, few things are more important to teach than the art and discipline of healthy sublimation.  

5. Doing no harm is just as important, or even more important, than doing good. As a psychologist, I am bound by a code of ethics, which is founded on two ideals: beneficence and nonmaleficence. Simply put, I am to strive to help others and to do no harm. Although we all fail at certain levels to honor these ideals, one principle cannot exist without the other. As a father, I can’t say that providing for basic needs justifies abusive behavior. As a husband, I can’t say that providing my wife with repeated gifts justifies harsh, demeaning words. And as a Church, we can’t focus on all the good that we do and look away from the wrong. One of the sad, and often lost realities, of this whole scandal is the fact that I believe so many of the abusive priests did many great things throughout their tenure, acts that certainly helped so many people. Yet, as we see the pain and mistrust unfold, it is clear that no level of goodness justifies the badness being done. In our families and in the Church, we must remind ourselves that sometimes the best thing we can do is that which was not done at all.

6. Image should never trump reality. The final lesson learned from all of this is that image never trumps reality. Over the years, I have personally come to know of so many situations in which the foremost goal was to preserve a particular image, and not to pursue a better reality. Whether it is a wife and kids who present a “happy, quiet face” in the midst of an abusive household, or a man who acts as if nothing is wrong when he is preparing to take his own life, it is clear that we all pay when what appears to be is not really so. If there is any lesson that we should all take from this awful situation, it is this: We are all people in need of growth and repair, and that is okay. One of the great luxuries of being a psychologist is that I have come to realize that, no matter how different we think we are from each other, we are remarkably the same. When it comes to emotions of fear, anger, anxiety or mistrust, there is a unified struggle that quietly runs through the hallways and streets each day. When we free ourselves to get past embarrassment and shame, a new world of hope emerges. But this never happens until we address our reality first, and relegate image to where it should be.

Ultimately, there is much to be done before the Church can begin to heal the scars from the current crisis. Yet I would argue that even more important than specific actions taken for this scandal, the most important work to be done is what we all do with these lessons. We can work to weed out the unhealthy practices from the Church. But unless we address the broader societal roots, the weeds will keep returning for generations to come.