Years ago, a famous bumper sticker stated: “I’m not a dirty old man just a sexy senior citizen!” Former Vice-president Joe Biden gets kidded by some for being too tactile and “handsy” while he gets condemned by others for groping and violating proper social and sexual boundaries. This week, as I read names of priests from our diocese listed for credible and substantiated accusations of sexual malfeasance made against them, I am mindful of many other priests, politicians, and people in the world who have also been accused of boundary violations. Their names are not found on lists because the accusations are not substantiated and sometimes not credible; yet they reach out and touch others, some who are unsuspecting and some who simply don’t want to be touched.
I suppose most attitudes toward touching are subjective. Certain families and certain cultures are much more tactile than others and, therefore, those who come from them are more comfortable with physical expressions through touch. What is a common display for one might be considered too intimate for another; for a third, it might seem like being accosted. The norms for what is okay and what is not in our current times have become more clear. While we were children, most of us wrestled and tickled. We thought it funny and fun when adults would tickle us and a challenge when a few of us could gang up to wrestle an older, stronger family member or acquaintance. Today, these acts would often be considered boundary violations. Giving or receiving a shoulder massage from a co-worker, a kiss on the cheek at a social gathering, a farewell hug, or letting a little kid jump in our arms after Mass—all of these things have undergone scrutiny appropriate for our times.
Over the past twenty years or so, many priests fearful of being accused of crossing boundaries have withheld physical touch—other than an occasional handshake—and a few withdraw from social interactions altogether. Though it is an extreme response and none of us want robotic priests, we understand their concern for self-protection. Even the most well-meaning guys can be accused of being perverts or dirty old men. Many priests, however, more like Joe Biden, a fatherly figure in our political landscape, are less fearful; some of us even regularly imitate his notorious gaffes in word and action.
Priests, as spiritual or religious fatherly figures, bring different attitudes of engagement to our spiritual families. Shaped by personal, cultural, and familial experiences, some are very physically interactive with parishioners while others are not. I’ve met families where male members kiss each other on the lips and others that are embarrassed to shake hands at The Sign of Peace, team members that pat each other on the butt and others that would pop a guy in the mouth for looking at them more than two seconds. Though I wish we could always presume the good intentions of others, we can’t. Appropriateness should be our guiding principle. All people, but especially those with power or authority, must act appropriately according to circumstances and modern social mores while realizing that some things which were okay twenty years ago are not okay now.
Still, we should presume the goodness of other people most of the time. If they are dirty old men, it will soon become clear.