Doing 'Penance' For The Church's Sins

Host Scott Simon speaks with Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest, about the ongoing sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church. Father Martin argues some of the causes associated with sexual abuse in the church have nothing to do with the problem.

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SCOTT SIMON, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

This week, Pope Benedict said that the Catholic Church needed to do penance for its sins, a reference to the ongoing scandal over sexual abuse committed by priests. Although the pope and other church leaders have had to speak out, it is local parish priests who are left to discuss this explosive and sensitive issue with their congregations.

Father James Martin, the Jesuit author and cultural editor of America magazine, has been posting his thoughts recently on HuffingtonPost.com, and he joins us from the studios of Carnegie Hall.

Father Martin, thanks very much for being back with us.

Father JAMES MARTIN (America Magazine): Good to be with you.

SIMON: When the pope says the church needs to do penance, how do you translate that?

Father MARTIN: Well, I think it's entirely appropriate. I think one of the things that's been missing in this whole conversation is the notion of penance for not only priests - you know, those who have done criminal actions belong in jail - but also for bishops who moved them from parish to parish. And I think in terms of the sacrament of reconciliation, which is our model in this thing, part of that is doing penance, doing real penance, and showing people that you are truly sorry for your actions.

SIMON: You didn't like it when, I guess over the past week or 10 days, church officials have characterized homosexuality as being at the root of priestly abuse.

Father MARTIN: Yeah, I don't think that makes any sense. Being gay does not make you a pedophile, first of all, and second of all, there are plenty of healthy, celibate, gay priests and brothers in the Catholic Church. Something - I think it was something like 4 percent of priests were accused between 1950 and 2000, which means that, you know, 96 percent were leading healthy lives, and among those are gay priests.

And so to conflate homosexuality with pedophilia not only flies in the face of psychiatrists and psychologists but also the lived experience of thousands of healthy, productive, dedicated, and in many cases wholly celibate gay priests.

SIMON: You - as I don't have to tell you, Father James, there are millions of people who believe that celibacy has to be at the root of the problem. How do you handle that one?

Father MARTIN: Celibacy per se does not lead one to become a pedophile. I mean, bluntly put, I'm celibate; I'm not a pedophile. And you know, there are plenty of people outside the priesthood - you think of widows and widowers, and people who are living single lives, who are living celibate lifestyles, and people don't suspect them of pedophilia. Now, that's one thing.

However, you know, when you have a sort of closed, all-male, sort of hermetically sealed institution that doesn't let other voices in - women's voices, married men, those kinds of things - into the discussion - you know, I think, for example, parents would have taken, you know, a much stronger view about pedophilia - then I think you run the risk of group-think.

So you could say that, you know, the sort of all-male, closed, celibate clergy, you know, created a culture in which the institution was privileged over the needs of the most vulnerable. So I think we really need to distinguish between celibacy per se and clerical culture.

SIMON: If it's not about celibacy, if it's not about homosexuality, what is this? What is at the root of this crisis, do you think?

Father MARTIN: Well, simply put, you had some psychologically unhealthy men, priests, who preyed on boys and adolescents, and whose crimes were sometimes ignored by bishops because they weren't listening to victims and victims' families, and they were sometimes moved from one parish to the other. So primarily, it's an issue of the culture of the church, the clerical culture that had privileged the concerns of priests over the need to care, the pastoral need to care for the most vulnerable.

So that's what I think it's about. And that's what we need to address, you know, boldly and, I think, quickly. I think the United States bishops have done a good job in terms of their zero-tolerance policy, and I think that's what's needed in the universal church.

SIMON: Well, Father James, always good to talk to you. Thanks so much.

Father MARTIN: My pleasure.

SIMON: Father James Martin, editor at America magazine and the author of several books, including his most recent, "The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything."

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