The National Catholic Review
James Martin, SJ

“I make sure,” said my friend, “that I am never alone with my nephews and nieces.” That comment came from a priest. We were talking about the most sensitive topic imaginable: the fallout from the clerical sexual abuse scandals and the way that has affected our priesthood. It is something that many priests often discuss among themselves.

Before talking about sexual abuse, let me begin with a few comments to forestall any misunderstandings. First, sexual abuse of minors is a crime, and anyone found guilty of those crimes belongs in jail or a secure psychiatric facility. Second, anyone credibly accused of abuse—clergy or layperson—should be removed from his or her ministry (or job). Third, anyone in authority (bishops included) who willfully shielded abusers should be held accountable.

My friend said something I had never heard before. Even when he is among his family he takes care never to be alone with his nephews or nieces. He always ensures that there is another adult nearby so there will be no perception of anything untoward having happened. My friend is one of the healthiest people I know, is not attracted to children or adolescents and is someone I would trust wholeheartedly with anyone’s children.

By necessity, the sexual abuse crisis altered the ministry of many people, especially those who work in schools. Many changes you might expect—new windows in classroom doors allow visual access to meetings of teachers with students, bans on teachers’ driving students home and the end of weekend retreats unless parents are present. But some things you might not expect. One high school chaplain said that because the door has to be ajar when he meets with a minor, students are now far less likely to seek counsel about issues they brought to him before—family problems, trouble in school, difficulties with friends. Why? They are afraid of being overheard by others, so now they clam up. My friend now feels less able to help them.

Overall my reaction has been: This is what is needed for the church to regain credibility.

But I was surprised by what my friend said about his nephews and nieces. As it happened, we were walking with another priest at the time. To my surprise, he agreed. “That’s what I do, too,” he said. “I’m never alone with my nephews.”

I was, again, surprised. My own nephews are two of the great joys of my life; and I’m alone with them from time to time, say, when their parents are out of the house during a weekend visit. I thank God for them.

But I understood my friends’ caution. For when I’m with any other children I am hypervigilant—not because of any attraction but because of the fear of false accusations. When children not related to me hug me after Mass, I gently push them away—even when their parents are standing next to them. Until recently I thought that this state of affairs, while sad, was inevitable. I take delight in children as marvelous creations of God—especially infants. Still, I figured: Better safe than sorry.

Among priests and religious the truism is that since anything at all can be misinterpreted, and since it’s nearly impossible to defend yourself against an accusation, it’s best to have zero contact, zero physical contact especially, with any child or adolescent, even to the point of not touching an infant on the head. Zero affection should be shown.

So imagine my surprise when I saw Pope Francis one Sunday shortly after his election joyfully embracing and kissing children on their heads as they came out of a Roman church after Mass. Of course it was in full view of their parents (and about 50 cameras), but I would not have done this. Something changed for me when I saw this. I thought: How natural! The pope was expressing his love for those children—as Jesus did.

Much has been written about how Pope Francis has already changed the church. But his hugging of children helped me to see that in addition to zero tolerance, we need a little love. My post-Mass responses may have been too draconian, too cold, too fearful. So the next time little kids hug me after Mass, I’ll think of Pope Francis, and I may be less afraid to show them that the priest, and the church, wants to hug them back.

James Martin, S.J., is editor at large of America and author of the new e-book Together on Retreat: Meeting Jesus in Prayer.

Comments

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 5/1/2013 - 8:42am

Retrospectively, regarding my above post, 75% of adults sexually abusing their children seems incorrect. Maybe I misquoted what I read somewhere. I'd appreciate if someone would give a correct percentage.

BRUCE SNOWDEN | 4/30/2013 - 1:40pm

The sexual abuse of children by some clergy of his day and some non-clergy too, must have existed in Jesus’ time, a perversity that has always existed and unfortunately will continue to do so. Once I read somewhere that 75% of married people sexually abuse children, so obviously, it’s not a clergy thing, a “priest thing,” it’s a perverse “human thing” Also, I’ve never heard of the non-human animal population sexually abusing their “children” so yes, indeed, the sexual abuse of children by adults is a HUMAN thing!

Despite the probable experience of children of his day being sexually abused by some clergy and others, Jesus had no problem in showing affection towards children, something the Gospel makes clear. But priests today and others too, have stopped showing normal affection for children, for fear of being falsely accused, a fear that fuels litigators into action frenzied by the smell of the easy buck! It’s said, “Prudence governs the practice of all virtue” including the natural virtue of the expression of normal human affection to children, so priests and others who no longer hug children for example, are simply “playing it safe!”

How distressing is all of this! Are we witnessing another example among many in our culture of “love growing cold,” one of Scripture’s pre-signals of the approaching “End Times?” I am certainly no Bible thumping Fundamentalist eager to proclaim “the Rapture” whatever it is, but it does make me wonder if we may be actually seeing something scriptually important in “love growing cold” not only in the way mentioned, but also in the parental killing of its unborn and in the attempt to redefine the meaning of marriage. Let the more erudite handle that!

But at least we have a Pope who is not afraid to hug children and to show affection. Is Pope Francis giving a message to the Church that says, “Do not be afraid to show legitimate affectionate love to anyone, especially to children!” I hope so. In the name of Jesus, let’s do it!

Matthew Patterson | 4/29/2013 - 1:43pm

If laypersons had equal responsibility for the administrative affairs of the Church, this would all go away. Parents serving alongside clergy on committees deciding assignment of priests would put an end to the abuse rather quickly. Secrecy, transfer of abusers and the complicity of bishops in these heinous crimes would cease.
The same would occur in the financial arena.
Why do bishops, who should be our shepherds and who have no training in administration or finance, holding on to those offices - offices for which they are clearly not competent?

Thomas Shaw | 4/28/2013 - 11:53am

As a Sunday school teacher of five year olds in the early nineties it was not uncommon for the children to gather around me, one or two sitting on my lap. News stories were surfacing about child abuse. I remember the day when I became uncomfortable removing two children from my lap and placing them on the floor with the others. It was a sad day for me as the consequences for the slightest misperception was already permeating our society. A certain natural part of me could no longer be expressed. It was nice to see Francis express himself as he did.

Fernán Jaramillo | 4/27/2013 - 8:54pm

i know this doesn't cancel anything, but I want to say it. I went to a Benedictine school in Colombia from age 9 to 17 when i completed highschool. NEVER an inappropriate slip from the monks. ALWAYS kindness, love, and infinite patience. God bless the benedictines.

Paul Bowen | 4/27/2013 - 6:17pm

I am not a member of the clergy but I play baseball with special needs kids on Saturdays. And I used to coach youth sports. While I am never alone with someone else's kids, I do let them hug me when there are other adults around. And it would not occur to me to worry about appearances with my nephews. But I agree with the general tenor of the article that "ya can't be too careful."

John Donaghy | 4/27/2013 - 3:31pm

Here in Honduras the kids often come up during the Greeting of Peace to hug the priest. There are often long lines as the kids run up and there's often a straggler who comes up just before Communion. And the priest most often leans over to embrace or kiss the child.

I think Pope Francis' embraces are part of his Latin American heritage where not only are kids embraced but men often give women friends air kisses on the cheek when they meet. (I'm still trying to get used to that.)

When I first met the former bishop here in Santa Rosa de Copán, Honduras in 2006, I remember him remarking to a US sister working here how because of the scandals US priests would be most reluctant to do what is common here.

It is a shame that there is such reluctance of priests in the US to embrace or touch tenderly. It is one of the effects of the scandal. I don't know what can be done.

But a few gentle hugs, with a lot of love and respect, might help, as Father Martin suggests.

Cody Serra | 4/26/2013 - 6:13pm

This ripple effect of the sexual abuse saddens me greatly. I can't say, I put myself in your shoes: even if I try. It is not possible to feel the depth of the damage to the heart and soul of the majority of the healthy, loving priests.

It saddens me too the effect on children that may suddenly feel rejected by the before loving, warm and friendly image of priests. It cannot be healthy for the soul.

I'm happy Pope Francis shows openly his tenderness toward children, and adults too, without fear. Maybe his example may help. However, I feel the abuse scandal and hierarchical unaccountability have to be addressed appropriately and completely by the institutional Church. I pray Francis receives from the Spirit the grace and courage he needs to turn around the current fears and distrust dividing the church, as a result of the cover ups. May God help him to transform our hearts by his Love.

We need to be able to be ourselves, priests included, to show love for the other of any age without fear of people misinterpreting natural kindness, love and affection for something suspicious. I pray for loving blessings for you and for all priests who feel the same pain.

Thomas Ivory | 4/26/2013 - 3:08pm

Thank you, Jim, Todd and John, for your reflections on this issue. We need to minister with less fear and paranoia, and Pope Francis is certainly setting a good example!

John Feehily | 4/26/2013 - 12:37pm

I understand the feelings expressed in this article, but my response to the child abuse issue was different. Back in around 2003, after addressing the issue quite publicly in my homilies, the circus came to town. I announced that at my age it would be silly for me to go to a circus on my own and that I was looking for some kids to take me along. I think about 40 parents and children were very happy to accompany me to the circus and I was sure to wear my collar. I didn't get any stares and the parents and children and I had a delightful time. At Mass I have adopted the practice of offering all children high fives and thus have become known as one who loves the kids. I am never alone with children of any age, other than in the confessional and the parents are always just outside the room. Our confessional also has a window which allows people to see in. I don't have a problem with children which means I can enjoy the times I spend around my great nephews and nieces, but always with family members nearby. A false accusation is always a remote possibility, but I refuse to live my life with that kind of fear.

Todd Lovas | 4/25/2013 - 11:41am

I was trained that the difference is whose needs are being fulfilled. If a child comes to me and initiates a hug, I am to fulfill the child's need in an age appropriate manner. The other side of this is that I do not initiate physical contact beyond the handshake or high five.

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