Sexual Abuse and the Rotten Apple Theory


The press has been positive about Pope Benedict’s state visit to Britain this month. I found it revelatory in many ways.

The Bishop of Rome continues to re-make John Henry Newman in the image and likeness of Joseph Alois Ratzinger; and I think he is less interested in ecumenical dialogue with Canterbury than he is in converting conservative-minded-anti-woman-priest Anglicans and bringing them over to Rome.

What bothered me most about this papal visit, however, were Pope Benedict’s expressions of “great sadness” about revelations of widespread abuse of children by Roman Catholic priests and religious. He stressed that  ”authorities in the church have not been vigilant enough” in combating the problem.

What Pope Benedict meant of course is that the rotten apples were not dumped early enough.

The rotten apple theme song has become an all-time favorite among various national and international church leaders.

Yes it is the rotten apple theory of sexual abuse in the church: dump those rotten apples and we will be back to normal.

The rotten apple theory was originally generated to explain cases of police brutality: any police officer found to be corrupt must promptly be denounced as a rotten apple in an otherwise clean barrel. It must never be admitted that his or her  individual corruption could be symptomatic of an underlying institutional disease that condones, promotes, and trains law enforcement people to rely on brutal force, even when unjust, inhumane and illegal.

Many years ago an old friend, Father Tom Doyle, alerted me to the folly of the rotten apple theory about sexual abuse in the church. And Tom continues to speak out, inform and alert. On my desk I have a well underlined copy of some of his recent “reflections” about clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. Some observations that cry out from his text:

(1)   The institutional Catholic Church is truly a stratified society with the bishops as a powerful aristocracy at the top and the laity beneath them. This description is not merely metaphorical but accurately describes the Church’s socio-political structure. In spite of the profound inequity in their respective standing the laity provides one hundred percent of the material/financial support for the clerical sub-culture and the hierarchical government yet lay persons have no effective voice in Church government.

(2)   The laity has the potential to influence the course of the clergy sex abuse saga but thus far they have scarcely realized it. A small but very significant group of laity have been moved to the point of radical action in response to the continuous waves of abuse revelations.

(3)   The majority however are either removed and indifferent or angrily reactive to the revelations of internal Church corruption and the consequent demands for accountability. The complacency or negative reaction of the laity is perplexing in light of the harsh reality of what the clergy abuse “crisis” is all about.

(4)   There is an ideology that provides the basis for the way the papacy and hierarchy have reacted to clergy sexual abuse. This ideology is a combination of theological definitions about the nature of the Church, Canon Law and the theology of human sexuality. And this is where the rotten apple theory falls apart…. You can dump all the rotten apples but the ideology remains imbedded in the institution.

(5)   The completely inappropriate responses of the bishops and clergy to the horrific accounts of all manner of dysfunctional sexual exploitation and their excuses that they did not realize the serious effects of molestation and abuse can be partially explained by the traditional teaching on human sexuality and the impact of mandatory celibacy on the emotional and psycho-sexual formation of clerics. In other words this teaching so distorted the nature of human sexuality that clerics failed to comprehend the destructive nature of sexual exploitation.


3 thoughts on “Sexual Abuse and the Rotten Apple Theory

  1. These “leaders” of the Church are obsessed with sex!!! If anything has anything to do with sex, they want to control it and then forbid it because of their sick obsession with it.
    Better 30 million people should be without health insurance than have the government pay for “the pill”!!

    It’s too bad that they don’t speak out so unequivocally about taking care of the poor, war, capital punishment, etc.

  2. John,
    I would like to introduce you to a blog from a priest who has been falsely accused and is serving a 67-year sentence. To do a catch-up you may have to read a long, long “Case History” as well as “About” found on the front page. The man is conservative, but he is also a symbol/victim of “Church abuse!” – abandoned by the bishop, priests and the Church of your observation! cf.: http://www.thesestonewalls.com

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