Back in the winter of 2004, when I was still a newly ordained priest, I asked my pastor if I could offer an “adult forum” on sexual abuse by priests. It had been two years since the Boston Globe had investigated and exposed the abominable shamblings of the Archdiocesan authorities there. As we recall, this managed to work practically everyone in the United States up into a state of righteous outrage over the fact that a priest could do such terrible things and basically get away with it, and then do it over and over again. I, too, was moved with rage and disgust.
I tried to put myself in the place of an ecclesiastical authority who had learned that one of his charges had sexually abused a minor. I came to a conclusion about what I would do, and I waited for someone to propose such a solution, but no one ever did.
I did not offer my proposal at the time. I had ministered as a deacon and then as a priest through the heat of the national outrage, and with just about every journalist, bishop, and armchair ecclesiastical authority talking about nothing but sexual abuse by priests for all of 2002 and most of 2003, I figured I could just stick to announcing the Gospel and teaching the Catholic faith.
But in the winter of 2004, the heated and widespread discussion of the subject had died down, so I resolved to ask the pastor if I could offer a “forum.” The idea was to clarify facts, propose theological teaching about the Church (an institution both human and divine) and offer to address any questions. My hope was to help the people “put things back together,” so to speak.
My pastor was brave enough to allow me to do this, and everything went fine. The one unsolved argument was over the question of why a priest who had sexually abused a minor could not be made back into a layman, so that Holy Orders would not be besmirched by his continuing to be in them. I tried to emphasize that a priest who abuses a minor should be and would be denied any further opportunity to minister as a priest, but that God Himself makes a man a priest by permanently marking his soul, and no human power can unmark him.
This was a pointless distinction for me to make (even though it is true), and it only made everyone mad. I could sympathize. It took me back to my original idea about what ought to be done when Church authority concludes that a priest is guilty of abusing a minor.
The fact is that when someone does something really bad, we are not satisfied unless there is retributive justice. It is not enough to take steps to ensure that the offense is not repeated—though obviously that needs to be done. When someone commits a terrible crime, the harmony of the world is disturbed, and only a fitting punishment can restore order.
The law of the state can and must punish a priest like any other sex offender with proportionate jail time. But those of us who think of a priest as someone called to a higher standard than other men (it seems like just about everyone in America thinks this)—we long for a fitting punishment by the Church Herself, a punishment delivered over and above the boom that the state lowers. Such a punishment is necessary in order to restore the order of justice within the human institution of the Church.
Ecclesiastical authority cannot erase the priesthood from a priest’s soul. It wouldn’t serve the cause of severity in punishment even if it could: God will certainly be more severe in condemning an impenitent wicked priest than he would a layman who had committed the same crimes.
So what should ecclesiastical authority do? If I were a bishop or religious superior who judged after careful investigation that one of my priests had abused a minor, I hope and pray that I would be man enough to call the priest into my office and beat him up right then and there, before I turned him over to the police.
The beat down would involve a barrage of punches to the stomach, chest, and shoulders, raining pain down on the criminal, without breaking anything or hitting him in the head or below the belt. What happened to Fr. Shanley—killed by another inmate after being incarcerated for sexual abuse of children—is wrong; I am not talking about a vigilante execution. I am talking about the controlled corporal punishment of an adult. (I am not opining about the corporal punishment of children; I will leave that to parents.)
I haven’t been in a fistfight since I was coming up on 14 and my brother was 12 and he beat me up because I mercilessly mocked the Washington Capitals for choking in the Stanley Cup Finals. I am not exactly a bruiser. But I am 6′ 3″ and broad-shouldered, and I do my pushups just about every day. I am ready and willing to administer these beat-downs. I would be glad to be called into to administer them if the bishop judged himself to be physically incompetent to do so.
The Code of Canon Law prohibits striking a cleric under penalty of excommunication, but I think that in this case another cleric could administer corporal punishment on a brother without violating the spirit of this law, just like the state can execute a criminal without violating the Fifth Commandment. (I will come back to substantiate this assertion—I promise.)
The thing here is that I am not kidding. If every bishop who received an allegation had investigated it, and if he had, finding a priest guilty, administered a beat-down before turning the priest over to the police—if this had happened, there would be no scandal, and there would have been a great deal fewer crimes of this kind committed by priests.
I am ready to come to the Pastoral Center to do what needs to be done, if necessary. (Please God that it would never be necessary in our humble Archdiocese.)