Bad clergy are always problematic, but it's Catholic parents who are these days helping along a serious strain of sin.
What group is responsible for the biggest sex scandals regarding children today — priests, religious and bishops, or lay people?
When the tale of our time is told 100 years from now, I have no doubt that all of us will be in for our share of shame, but I think the answer will be: Lay people.
Sexual sin has gone from being one of a number of temptations people become susceptible to only as adults to a pervasive problem that begins in childhood.
Pope Benedict XVI was already making this case in his 2008 visit to America. He said to bishops: “What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?”
The late Cardinal Francis George told Chicago media how true that was: “Bishops haven’t felt free to say that because it looks like we’re letting ourselves off the hook,” he said. “But he’s free to say it. And he did.”
In the decade following, the lay scandal has only gotten worse.
The access to pornography that we have provided to children has tragic consequences. Children imitate what they see. They act out what they watch. That goes for pornography as much as anything else.
One study says children usually start sexual activity about a year after they begin looking at pornography in earnest — which, on average, is age 12.
Usually, the consequences of this are loneliness, anxiety and difficulty forming relationships. ABC’s 20/20 recently told the story of a child in California, Brooke, whose addiction to social media led her to begin sending compromising pictures of herself to men who then blackmailed her and drove her to alcohol and drug use.
But often it’s even worse.
News accounts this month are telling the story of a teen suicide that occurred in Chicago last January. An honor student was called to his public school’s disciplinary office and confronted with a cell-phone video he had made of himself having sex with a girl. School officials called his mother and while they waited, the boy slipped out of the room, walked to the top of a nearby five-story parking deck, and leaped to his death.
Statistics say pornography use in churchgoing populations is not much different from secular statistics.
The attendant problems of children imitating what they see are no different either.
“Sexting competition discovered, stopped at Catholic high school,” says one recent news report. Reports another: “Cathedral Catholic is one of seven schools where students are currently being investigated” for child pornography because of underage students “sexting” each other. In San Diego, Catholic schools are reportedly part of a citywide “sexting epidemic.”
At a time when Catholics need to be a beacon of hope in a dark culture, the Church is too often being implicated in the same sexual darkness the large culture suffers from. And it’s not priests breaking laws and dishonoring vows — problematic as that is — that are growing the strain. It is lay people failing to curtail sexual excesses in themselves and in their children.
“Children deserve to grow up with a healthy understanding of sexuality and its proper place in human relationships,” said Pope Benedict in America. “They should be spared the degrading manifestations and the crude manipulation of sexuality so prevalent today.”
We owe it to them to not just do a little to curtail pornography in their lives — but to do a lot.
– Filter your home internet with a service like Covenant Eyes. If your child has a Chromebook, make sure the parent is registered on the machine as “The Owner” and the child as a “Supervised User.” Then review their internet use regularly.
– Save smartphones for a much older age. Rod Dreher, in his book The Benedict Option, suggests 18, and secular experts are starting to agree.
– Talk frequently with your children about the dangers of pornography and strategies for avoiding it, particularly regarding visits to friends’ houses.
– Pray to Charles Lwanga and companions for help. That’s what Pope Francis suggested in Africa.
“What would the Uganda martyrs say about the misuse of our modern means of communication, where young people are exposed to images and distorted views of sexuality that degrade human dignity, leading to sadness and emptiness?” he asked.
They would call us to much more.