An 11th-Century Scandal
Anderson, C. Colt
America: The National Catholic Weekly, June 6 (2005)
Mark Twain said that history does not repeat itself, but it rhymes. The sexual abuse scandal that continues to echo throughout the church in America, as evidenced by the recent controversy over the decision to allow Cardinal Bernard Law to preside at one of the memorial Masses for Pope John Paul II in Rome after his death on April 2, bears a striking resemblance to a series of crises that roiled the church in the Middle Ages, particularly in the 11th century. Then, as now, the higher clergy seemed to be completely unaware of the damage that scandalous sexual behavior was causing to both the victims and the community as a whole.
Problems in the 11th century were much more widespread than in our own. Priests and bishops were unaccountable to secular law, and abusive behavior extended beyond children to include adults. Many had concubines, or live-in prostitutes, who were completely at the mercy of their clerical patrons. Some bishops used their authority over the clergy to compel priests into acts of sodomy, as well.
But one cardinal, Peter Damian, was willing to address the abuse publicly, and he legitimated initiatives on the part of the laity to punish clerical offenders. Much of Damian’s analysis of the root causes of sexual abuse by members of the clergy is applicable to our own situation.
Peter Damian (1007-72), later canonized and declared a doctor of the church, learned about the destructive power of evil early in his life. Because his mother thought her family could not support another child, she refused to feed him as an infant. Only the intervention of the concubine of the local priest saved the baby’s life.