06/21/2012 05:47 EDT | Updated 08/21/2012 05:12 EDT

Hardly the Mysterious Hand of God, Your Holiness


On Sunday, June 17, Pope Benedict XVI told Irish Catholics that it is a "mystery" to him why priests and other church officials have been abusing children entrusted to their care for at least the past several decades.

In a pre-recorded video message for an outdoor mass in Ireland's largest sports stadium, attended by 75,000 Irish Catholics including the Prime Minister and president of Ireland, the Pope asked, "How are we to explain the fact that people who regularly received the Lord's body and confessed their sins in the sacrament of Penance have offended in this way? ... It remains a mystery."

To me, the mystery here is the fact that he finds it such a mystery. If he's being truthful, then one must assume that he doesn't want to know. After all, this is a man who -- along with millions of believers of Catholicism and many other religions as well -- enjoys the comfort of believing that he holds the solution to much greater mysteries than this, such as the origins of existence, our purpose in living, and what happens to us after we die.

In addition, he has presumably spent much of his life in the study of moral issues; he is leader of the very institution in which this abuse has been taking place; and, uniquely, he is believed by millions to have, under certain conditions, infallible judgment on matters of faith and morals. And yet he is stymied by this comparatively transparent sociological phenomenon. Though I am not a Catholic, a clergyman, a child abuser or a victim of one, I may be able to help clear up the mystery.

First, you raise several generations of boys and young men in sexist, sexually repressive and homophobic societies, with little or no sex education besides the teaching that all sexual feeling is sinful and shameful and to be stifled. (Of course, this does not apply to all Catholics and is not exclusive to Catholics. I am merely speculating on the probable backgrounds of some of the people whose behaviour so baffles the Pope.) A special word should be said about homosexuals among these men, who are taught that their feelings are even more iniquitous than those of their fellows.

Then, at an age when these kids are dealing with sexual feelings at their strongest and most troublesome, you offer them a career in which sexual celibacy is a respectable component rather than a sign of failure to maintain a relationship. Indeed, you teach them that not only is abstention respectable, it is absolutely required, and accords with the will of God.

Then you give these guys extraordinary status -- "holy fathers," directly consecrated, believed to be acting in the person of Christ Himself -- and put them in charge of large numbers of children who have been taught that these young men are God's representatives and must be obeyed in all matters. As mentioned above, you have given these men so little in the way of sex education that they might not draw as strong a distinction as some of us, between normal, adult sex and the abuse of children: after all, it's all sinful outside of marriage, even including masturbation, porn and contraception.

Finally, you let them know, by example, that if they get caught, they belong to a global organization of enormous wealth and power that will not turn them over to the secular authorities, but is likely to cover up their crimes and quietly transfer them to another diocese, with a fresh supply of children.

Of course, I am certainly not the first or only observer to make such comments. Barbara Dorris, an official with Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP), says, in the same news story, "The pontiff's wrong: there's little mystery here," and points to priests' "sometimes almost absolute power, over devout and defenseless kids."

In any case, mystery solved, Your Holiness.