By Laurence T. Beahan
“Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. My last confession was a month ago and these are my sins.” I’d run through my sins, receive my penance of Hail Marys and Our Fathers, and leave the confessional shriven of sin. Next month I’d be back with the same sins. But my sins hurt only my eternal soul; they did no great collateral damage.
Pedophilic priests must seek and receive forgiveness of sin in the confessional, and probably with much more struggle than me and my petty transgressions, go out and repeat their sins. But sexual and physical abuse of children in their charge does severe and lasting “collateral” damage to those children.
The Catholic doctrine of forgiveness of sin may work well in guiding us sinful human beings to a more righteous path, without overburdening us with guilt. But should it apply to serious offenses that pose dangers to others?
It may not be my place to tell the 2,000-year-old church how to attend to its “human resource” problems … but somebody must do it. So here goes:
As a psychiatrist, I know that pedophilia is a trait that cannot be easily, if ever, changed or controlled. No matter how forgiving is God or his church, pedophilia is not a sin that should be forgiven and simply atoned for with the hope that it will not be repeated. Nor can pedophilia be dismissed as adolescent exploration, not when it occurs in educated, adult priests.
Guiding a flock of adoring children is certain “near occasion of sin” for a person having difficulty controlling sexual urges toward children. It must be avoided at all cost. The cost to abused children, a life of anguish and guilt, is too great.
The Catholic Church does a responsible thing when it sends troubled priests for consultation and counseling. But to put the burden on that other agency to decide if such a man is fit for return to priesthood is relinquishing the church’s duty to protect the faithful.
Even recognizing that intelligent, willing men with a vocation are rare and that the ranks of priests have grown thin, the gamble that this trait can be controlled is far too unlikely to be worth the terrible risk.
The church must shake itself loose from centuries of denial, accept responsibility and atone for this sin. Priests who have acted on sexual impulses toward children should not be expected to reform and return to pastoral roles. The concept of confession, even combined with the best psychiatric treatment, is unlikely to change these poor afflicted souls. The worst thing that can be done for them is to return them to pastoral duties, the near occasion of their sin, their crime.
Pedophilic priests are in the wrong line of work.
Dr. Laurence T. Beahan, a retired psychiatrist, is former president of the Western New York District Branch of the American Psychiatric Association.