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A timely reminder on power

In his new book, In the Name of All That's Holy, sociologist Anson Shupe contends that sexual abuse by the clergy is not the result of compulsions, addictions or twisted emotions.

Rather, it is the result of the power structure of the churches. Some of those who have power over others will abuse that power.

"Seminaries can screen candidates more rigorously, parishes can monitor functionaries better and districts or denominations can fine-tune policy definitions of abuse," Shupe writes. "However, religious groups need to recognize that the potential abuse of congregants is organizational, "built' into their power structures just as mortar is built into their walls."

Wherever there is power, there is potential abuse of power, whether it be by bosses, professors, superior officers or clergy.

Arguably, clerics have even more power because of their sacred role. Shupe, conceding that clerical abuse may be horrible for the victim, doubts that abuse rates are any higher for clerics than for the rest of the population. Referring to studies of reported abuse by college students, he suggests that it might be as prevalent on campuses as it is in the churches.

His book deals mostly with sexual abuse and financial malfeasance. But once one recognizes the skewed power relations in a church, one can see that clerical abuse of power can extend to other areas: autocratic administration, interpersonal insensitivity, lack of respect for women, unfairness to lay employees, failure to provide expected services such as preaching, and denial of sacramental rites.

When one person has all the power _ spiritual power at that _ and the other has practically none, the possibility of abuse of one kind or another is enormous. The question is not whether it will happen but when and how often.

Lord Acton, the Catholic political philosopher, said in the last century that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. (He was, incidentally, speaking of the papacy.)

Not everyone in a power structure _ clerical or academic _ is corrupt, though many may feel the temptation of corruption. Misconduct will occur because not everyone will resist the temptations.

Shupe does not believe that there is any great variation by denomination in the amount of sexual abuse. He does suggest that hierarchical bodies may cover up longer than more democratic ones.

There are two very important conclusions one can draw from Shupe's often brilliant book, recently published by Praeger:

_ Sexual abuse is part of a continuum of power abuse. It can happen readily in an institution where a cleric can refuse to administer the sacraments (such as Baptism) against the requirements of church law on mere whim. If the rights of a lay person to a sacrament cannot be protected against an abuse of power, so too can the rights of a lay person to sexual integrity be violated. The ultimate issue is unfettered spiritual power, not sexual deviance.

_ To be effective, institutional reform must extend to every abuse of power and not merely sexual abuse. The churches must develop mechanisms to defend all the rights of the laity and not merely their right to sexual integrity. Moreover, the culture of the clergy must be transformed so that they internalize norms against abusing their power in any of their relationships with the laity.

I wish I could say that I think that such reform has begun. But until my own denomination's clergy are restrained from setting up their own rules for the administration of the sacraments, I won't believe that there is even a hint of effective reform of the clergy.

Andrew M. Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, best-selling novelist and sociologist at the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center.