My friend Dan Cere at McGill University got a error message when he tried to post his comment, so here it is: 

Comment on “The Priests We Deserve” 

Clare McGrath-Merkle’s comment on Leon Podles’s insightful post on Berullian conceptions of the priest provides a few more examples of the persistence of dangerously inflated theological visions of the clerical state.  According to McGrath-Merkle, Fr. Stephen Rossetti is a contemporary exponent of this majestic view of holy orders.  

Curiously Fr. Rossetti (Catholic University of America) is also a well-respected commentator on the clerical abuse crisis.  His publications include: Tragic Grace: The Catholic Church and Child Sexual Abuse, and Slayers of the Soul: Child Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church.  He served as president of St. Luke’s Institute for many years and claims to have an amazing success rate in the treatment of clerical child molesters (treated 150 clerical child abusers with only 2.7% recidivism) and success in returning them to priestly ministry (with some restraints on contacts with minors). 

While the priest may participate in the mysterious heights of the Christological mysteries, in Slayers of the Soul, Fr. Rossetti argues that the molester reveals the dark muddier depths of our ordinary humanity.  According to Fr. Rossetti,  the child molester reveals disturbing truths about the “inner darkness” that dwells within each one of us.  He stresses our common humanity with the molester and the unsettling ways in which our “inner darkness” is reflected in spectre of the “dirty old man” stalking his prey.    He writes:  

“As a society, we would like to believe that child molesters are different, perhaps even evil, and that they should be treated with contempt and removed from our midst.  Indeed, their crimes cannot be minimized, but neither can our common, broken humanity.  We must not forget that our own inner darkness which makes us resemble the “dirty old man” that stalks his prey in the night.  The existence of our private darkness frightens us just as much as the spectre of the active child molester.  Perhaps if we are afraid of this “dirty old man,” concoct unreal myths about him, and wish to banish him from our midst, it is because we are afraid of what he shows us about ourselves. But the truth is he is in our midst, and he looks a lot like us.” (Slayers, 17) 

Sexual abuse, he argues, is “merely…a symptom of an underlying problem in our society.” (Slayers, 186) It is not just the abuser, but “the entire system that is dysfunctional” and all “contribute, in some way, to the patient’s disorder…. pedophilia and ephebophilia might be seen as a symptom of an underlying disorder within our entire society.” (Slayers, 187)  He argues that “the seeds” of this disorder are found in the family: “pedophilia and ephebophilia can be thought of as illnesses that spring from the context of our family.  It is the entire family that is ill and is in need of healing.” (Slayers, 188-189) 

Fr. Rossetti encourages us to come to terms with  “an uncomfortable familiarity with the child molester…to identify with the child molester, because he or she is a member of our family” and “his or her struggles are much like ours” (Slayers, 198)  In his concluding words Fr. Rossetti affirms the liberating message that the child molester offers us: “This may be the hardest yet potentially the most liberating challenge the child molester places before us: to see within ourselves the seeds of this tragedy, and to recognize in the face of the perpetrator the features of our own countenance.” (198-199)   

In short, Fr. Rossetti might embrace a high inflated vision of the priesthood, but he seems to propose a deeply deflated view of our common humanity and the family.   The child molester, it seems, is everyman.  The molester reveals the ingrained slimy sinfulness of our ordinary common humanity.    

Awareness of the brokenness of our common humanity is a central gospel message.  But this did not prevent Jesus from reacting to those who would harm children with a severity (Matt 18) that Fr. Rossetti seems to repudiate.  In Slayers of the Soul Fr. Rossetti suggests that a critical path forward in the abuse crisis seems to be one of mutual recognition, fellow-feeling with molesters, and “general confession” of our common sinful humanity.  Jesus’ stern warnings about harm to children welcomed into the church, coupled with his threats of millstones and the severing of limbs, would appear to point in a somewhat different pastoral direction. 


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