Shocking words from an elderly Catholic priest

Anyone who follows the Catholic blogosphere knows that there was a major explosion last week sparked by some controversial -- to say the least -- remarks by Father Benedict Groeschel, a figure who has been much revered among conservative Catholics as an author, spiritual director, television personality and pastoral counseling professor at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Yonkers.

At the heart of the media storm was the priest's statement that in some cases of clergy sexual abuse -- Groeschel said "a lot" of cases -- older teen-agers have been known to seduce weak priests and that priests who are first-time offenders may not need to be jailed. Here is what that looked like in the context of a New York Times report:

The comments were published ... by The National Catholic Register, which is owned by EWTN, a religious broadcaster based in Alabama.

“Suppose you have a man having a nervous breakdown, and a youngster comes after him,” Father Groeschel, now 79, said in the interview. “A lot of the cases, the youngster -- 14, 16, 18 -- is the seducer.” He added that he was “inclined to think” that priests who were first-time abusers should not be jailed because “their intention was not committing a crime.”

On Thursday, the comments were taken off the publication’s Web site after the controversy erupted, and the editors, Father Groeschel and his religious order apologized.

“I did not intend to blame the victim,” Father Groeschel wrote in a statement published on The Catholic Register’s site. “A priest (or anyone else) who abuses a minor is always wrong and is always responsible. My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be.”

This particular Times piece, quite frankly, deals with all of the crucial issues in this case quite clearly -- with one possible exception (more on that in a minute).

In fact, the only negative point I would like to make about what was published, in this case, is that the Times team was slow to follow up on a key element of the priest's apology, the part where he says, "My mind and my way of expressing myself are not as clear as they used to be." In this case, there is evidence that Groeschel was not simply making a quick and easy excuse. Toward the end of the story, readers learn:

But though he told The Catholic Register that he continued to teach at the seminary, the archdiocese said that the previous academic year had been his last because of what it described as advancing senility and other health problems. The Rev. Glenn Sudano, another founder of the Friars of the Renewal, whose adherents take vows of poverty and work extensively with the poor, said the remarks might have been the result of Father Groeschel’s advancing age and failing health, as well as the aftereffect of a near-fatal 2004 car accident in Orlando, Fla.

Thus the crucial question: Should journalists have cited this claim of senility higher in the story, not to excuse the priest's words but to have put them into some kind of context? In other words, in addition to calling him a "conservative," editors might have also noted that he is "elderly" and, according to church officials, in poor health.

Again, the words of the interview are what they are and that is bad enough. The apology is clearly stated and adds another layer to the controversy. If Groeschel wasn't blaming some of the victims, he certainly was implying that some of the victims are less innocent than others.

However, note the priest's emphasis on the ages of these victims that he claimed were somehow involved in their own seduction. Anyone who has covered cases involving clergy who are involved in improper relationships with adults -- often relationships formed during pastoral counseling -- knows that the actions of the clergy are always immoral and wrong, but that victims may reach out to the clergy in ways that are dangerous and often openly manipulative. These does not excuse the actions of the counselor, but the emotional reality of this "transference" tragedy is more complex.

For better and for worse, it appears that Groeschel was attempting to draw a line between two kinds of abuse, a line that is often blurred in mainstream news coverage throughout the three decades of these scandals in the Catholic Church (and other religious bodies, as well). The press often writes about the abuse of children without noting that the vast majority of the cases have involved “ephebophilia” -- sex with teens and under-aged children -- not “pedophilia,” with prepubescent children. In the past, Catholic officials have been tempted to believe that that priests involved in ephebophilia should be treated with more leniency than those wrestling with pedophilia.

Clearly that is part of what this priest was talking about, in that train wreck of a story. Should that have been part of this Times report, which is quite admirable in many ways? If there was room, and editors allowed the extra effort, then by all means "yes."

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