Broadening our perspective on the scandal of clergy sexual abuse of children

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No one can read the horrific stories of sexual abuse of children by priests, ministers and others in authority and not be appalled. The betrayal of a sacred trust is unfathomable and repulsive. The Sun, my hometown of Baltimore’s newspaper, and the Washington Post have both provided extensive coverage of the April 2023 Attorney General’s Report on Child Sexual Abuse in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. carried. The Sunday, May 7, 2023 headline story in The Sun – “Church leaders identified in cover-ups” broadened the focus from the clergy abusers to those in power in the Archdiocese of Baltimore who minimized or covered up the abuse, allowing more children to be abused. I’d like to reflect on two missing pieces of this coverage and discussion –an acknowledgment that sexual addictions exist and do influence behavior and the need for compassion for all involved.

Our hearts go out to the thousands of children traumatized by this behavior which was callously and maliciously ignored and downplayed by too many in authority for too many years.

The steady drip of revelations across investigations in different states makes this an issue that is never off the front page for long. Baltimore is the most recent focus. Sadly, having studied in a Catholic seminary in the 1960s, I am familiar with both some of the abusers and some of those in authority. I am also familiar with men who were falsely accused, suspended from their life’s work, and then found to have been falsely accused after having their reputations and life’s work destroyed.

 For me, these abuses trigger a whole range of emotions. I have deep sadness for those whose lives have been negatively altered by these heinous crimes. And I feel outraged at the Catholic Church and its leaders who defended the perpetrators and gave priority to protecting the financial health of their institution. Slowly, and after great pressure and embarrassment, some Church leaders began to show compassion for the victims.

For me, a major missing ingredient in our collective reaction to this tragedy is that I have seen no discussion or acknowledgment, by the media or others, that this type of sexual abuse is often an addiction.  As with all addictions – whether alcohol, gambling, food, sex, or work – there is a physical compulsion and a mental obsession resulting in compulsive behavior. Willpower, moral beliefs and intellect are no defenses against addictions.

The founders of Alcoholics Anonymous made the powerlessness of the alcoholic compellingly clear in their basic text Alcoholics Anonymous, first published in 1939. It abounds with personal stories of people with problems with alcohol that make this powerlessness and lack of defense against the addiction crystal clear. Eventually, the American Medical Association declared alcoholism a disease.

As Alcoholics Anonymous proved effective in supporting alcohol abusers in finding sobriety, people with other addictions began to adapt the Twelve Step program to other forms of substance abuse and compulsive behaviors. Al-Anon Family Groups (for family members and friends of individuals who abused alcohol), Narcotics Anonymous, Gamblers Anonymous, and Overeaters Anonymous were among the early adaptors in the 1950s and 1960s. In the 1970s, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) and Sexual Compulsives Anonymous (SCA) were founded followed by Sexual Recovery Anonymous (SRA) in the 1990s.  

Acknowledging that a perpetrator is sick does not take away responsibility. Just as drunk drivers who kill people must face the consequences, people who abuse children as the Attorney General’s report argues need to face consequences.

While it is tempting to have compassion for the victims and disdain for those inflicting the abuse, and for those covering it up, I believe we owe compassion to all involved. Having grown up Catholic and attended the Catholic seminary in Baltimore for high school and college, I am painfully aware of how the Catholic Church’s teachings on sexuality and morality contributed to a lack of any education about sexuality and intimacy for too many Catholics, and most especially the clergy. When I started in the seminary in 1962, we were “protected “from the outside world by being denied access to newspapers (other than Sports pages), secular magazines like Time or Newsweek, and television.  And we were allowed to leave the grounds of the seminary only to celebrate major holidays with our families.

Fortunately, beginning in the late 60s and continuing to today, some seminaries have broadened their approach to education and often include attention to sexuality and emotional intelligence.

I mention this fear-based education because the long list of clergy abusers dates back 70 years ago to the 1940s. Any priest educated before 1970 most likely received an education long on the intellect, theology and spirituality and very short on emotional intelligence and loving and appreciating one’s body and sexuality.

For real change to occur, I am suggesting we need as individuals and society to broaden our compassion to include all involved in this tragedy and our attention to education about sexual addictions and their treatment. Without compassion for the complexity and for all involved and a willingness to look deeper at root causes both for the destructive behavior of perpetrators of abuse and the misuse of power by institutions, we will sadly continue to read stories about abuse of position and power.


  1. Mary O'Herron

    Pretty astounding piece of work! Thanks so much, Tom. As a cradle Catholic in my 80’s and having been educated for many years in Catholic schools, and with other influences, I had and still have to a degree, a skewed and scared view of sexuality. I’m glad that education is improving over the past several decades and appreciate reading your piece which I see as willingness to bring healing care to this deep and wide wound in our church and society.

    Also, I appreciate the idea of being compassionate to all involved, since all are hurting and need loving care.

    Again I believe you have hit the mark. Many thanks, Tom.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Mary, for your openness and humility. We are all indeed learning and compassion is definitely required! Tom

  2. sally mac

    Just as last week’s entry referenced immigration, I applaud Tom for tackling yet another thorny and complex issue. With Pentecost fast approaching, let’s hope the Holy Spirit will enlighten us and guide our steps.
    If we approach this topic with compassion for all involved, it may become easier for all of us.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sally for the reminder that there is a Power beyond us that can lead us to healing and compassion. Peace, Tom

  3. Shirin McArthur

    Amen, Tom, and thank you for treating this complex topic seriously.


    • Tom Adams

      Thanks, Shirin and be well,


  4. Sharon Klees

    My cousin headed to seminary in Parkersburg, WV after 8th grade. In the summer, he would come home and ask me: “Sherry, what songs are popular now?” He loved music so I wondered why he’d ask that, till he explained. How awful!!! I truly do feel compassion for the abused and the abusers, but I’m having one heck of a time finding compassion for those who moved the abusers from one parish to another. My idea is to rid the church of all Bishops and hierarchy who may have been part of that era.. They could be sent to parishes who don’t have enough priests to help out. They could learn Spanish and come to our parish to help out with our largely Latino population. This steady drip drip of abuse revelations has greatly contributed to the rising number of “nones”, who want no part of organized religion. Thanks, Tom.

    • Tom Adams

      Thanks Sharon for adding your thoughts on this difficult topic. There are indeed a lot of people seeking simple ministers and a Church more quick to admit its mistakes and change. Be well, Tom