What Pope Francis wants fathers to know

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The universal word “father” points to a fundamental relationship that is as old as human history. Yet, Pope Francis says we have reached a point in history in which many would claim our society is a “society without fathers,” characterized not so much by the hostile presence of the father, but by his “absence” and “inaction.”

In the hope of fighting the many negative consequences in children and society that a negligence of this responsibility causes, the pope has often preached on the importance of being holy fathers and husbands, helping men strive for the type of holiness they are called to live out.

These are some of the key elements the Holy Father has highlighted:

Be present

Pope Francis insists that being present in the family doesn’t simply mean being or living in the same place. Rather, it means that a father must “share everything” with his wife and children: joy and sorrow, hope and hardship. He must be close to his children in the different stages of life: “when they play and when they strive, when they are carefree and when they are distressed, when they are talkative and when they are silent, when they are daring and when they are afraid, when they take a wrong step and when they find their path again.”

Hand down what really matters

What really matters is that a father hand down a wise heart to his son, the pope says. The Father should not say to his child, “I am prof of you because you are the same as me, because you repeat the things I say and do.” Instead, he should say, “I will be happy every time I see you act with wisdom, and I will be moved every time that I hear you speak with rectitude.” A father should teach his children the attitude to feel, act, speak and judge with wisdom and rectitude, the pope says.

Your example is a priority

In order to hand down what really matters, the pope assures that the father must be just that which he is trying to convey to his children. A wise and mature father should be able to say to his child: “I gave you a testimony of rigor and steadfastness that perhaps you didn’t understand, when you would have liked only complicity and protection. I had first to test myself in the wisdom of my heart, be vigilant of my excesses of sentiment and resentment, in order to carry the weight of the inevitable misunderstandings, to find the right words to make myself understood.” This will make it possible for his children to pass down the message to the following generation. It’s a legacy that his children will honor and that will bring abundant joy and consolation to a father, Pope Francis says.

Be a companion and a father

Be both, the Holy Father says, but don’t abuse. Sometimes fathers err on just being one or the other. When they want to be fathers by being present but without closeness, they run the risk of being controlling. “Fathers who are too controlling overshadow their children, they don’t let them develop,” the Holy Father says. On the other hand, when fathers only treat their children as peers, they are likely to retreat and neglect their responsibilities. “It’s true that you’re a ‘companion’ to your child, but without forgetting that you are the father! If you behave only as a peer to your child, it will do him or her no good” Pope Francis says.

Correct with charity

A child needs an authoritative figure, and so it is important that the father knows how to correct with firmness: “he is not a weak father, submissive and sentimental,” Pope Francis points out. Knowing how to correct, however, implies doing so without causing great damage. In other words, a father must learn to discipline with a sense of dignity.  “The father who knows how to correct without humiliating is the one who knows how to protect without sparing himself… He must punish, but he does it in a just way, and moves on,” the pontiff states. To do this, a father must learn how to wait and how to forgive from the depths of his heart, he adds.

You matter

Pope Francis understands fathers can feel “useless” or “unnecessary” at times. Yet, he insists that the father plays a key role simply by the “gift of his masculinity,” which compliments the gift of femininity, and allows him to be present to his wife and children in a unique way. He has the capacity of leading his children to God in a special way: “If, then, there is someone who can fully explain the prayer of the ‘Our Father,’ taught by Jesus, it is the one who lives out paternity in the first person. [Yet] without the grace that comes from the Father who is in Heaven, fathers loose courage, and abandon camp,” the pope says.

COMING UP: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]