At its deepest level, the sexual abuse crisis, and most especially the manner in which the hierarchy has responded to it, entails profound cultural issues. Yesterday, I looked at two issues that were proximate to the crisis, but today I would like to look at a couple of issues that are more deeply ingrained in the culture of the Church and the habits of its leaders.
In his book The Difference God Makes, Cardinal Francis George writes of our contemporary American culture: "Everything is possible, but nothing can be forgiven." He contrasts this with what a faithful, Catholic culture would demand. "Faith, by contrast, says that many things cannot be done," Cardinal George writes. "But, in the end, everything can be forgiven." This profound difference between the ecclesiastical culture and the mainstream culture informed the sexual abuse crisis from start to finish. And, I should add, the Church owes no one an apology for believing that God’s mercy can reach to all man’s sins, even the sins of the pedophiles. But, the promise of God’s mercy became something to hide behind, instead of an invitation to repentance. The bishops imagined themselves in the role of the father in the story of the Prodigal, welcoming back their errant priests, getting them counseling and therapy, and returning them to their prior status, as if what the priests had done was only a sin and not also a crime.
But, what the leaders of the Church forgot (or neglected or failed to see at all) was that they needed to listen to the victims. They needed to hear how the abuse not only posed potential harm to the reputation of the Church but had already destroyed the innocence to which a young life is entitled. This dynamic runs through the hierarchy’s responses from the first intimations of the crisis until this morning. Some claimed, correctly, that experts told them the pedophiles could be cured, but those experts were not correct and, after repeated instances, shame on the bishops who continued to hope that the leopard would change its spots. Some listened too much to their lawyers who worried only about insulating the diocesan assets from seizure in a court of law. These bishops responded in an uncaring, legalistic way to the victims, which, given the circumstance, was really another instance of abuse. Very few bishops – and this is damning – responded with the kind of horror that I think your average man on the street would have when confronted with such depraved behavior. The one thing that could have kept the bishops from a misguided sense of what mercy and justice demanded was some consultation with the victims. The Prodigal confesses his sin not to a third party, but to the Father himself, whom he has sinned against. The victims, not just the bishops, needed to have some say in what happened to the criminal priests.
The culture of clericalism is partly to blame. Very few bishops have put in place men and women who have permission to challenge them. Very few bishops have dispensed with the perks of their office, the lavish homes, the chauffeur-driven cars, the priest secretary, the cleaning lady and the cook, the bowing and scraping of aides. Very few bishops encourage or even tolerate confrontation and questioning from their subordinates. Most bishops were vicars-general or bishops’ secretaries, and so they follow the pattern of their forbears without questioning if the system works. Even when a crisis happens, demanding non-routine responses. This must change. If the nuncio does not do another thing, he should find a way to determine if candidates for the episcopacy are the type of men to welcome questioning or to squash it, and he should only recommend those who understand that the Church is not an autocracy.
A very smart friend likened the situation the bishops, and increasingly the Vatican itself, face to the situation portrayed in the movie "The Queen" in which Helen Mirren played Queen Elizabeth II coping with the outpouring of grief after the death of the Princess of Wales. The Queen believed grief was a private emotion, and that her phlegmatic subjects would, soon enough, get over their public spasms of grief at the tragic, sudden loss of a woman who damn near brought the House of Windsor to its knees. The Queen was not wrong: Grief is private. The bishops are not wrong: God can and does forgive everything. But, the Queen needed to recognize that her preferred approach was failing her subjects who looked to her for leadership, and she needed to show her grief in public so that she could share with her subjects this critical moment. Ultimately, the reason the bishops and the Vatican cannot simply blame the latest crisis on the media – even though the media deserves much blame – is that such an approach fails the people of God who need to see leadership from Pope Benedict and the bishops, who need to feel that their pastors understand the revulsion most Catholics feel, not only at the behavior of the pedophiles but even more at the failure of the bishops to react with humane horror. In the movie, it is Tony Blair with the assistance of some palace staff who nudge the Queen in the right direction. Who will do this for the Pope? Who will remind Pope Benedict and the bishops that – pertaining to this ugly, ugly business of the sexual abuse of minors and its cover-up by prelates, around the world - the key moment in the story of the Prodigal is when he turns around.
Michael Sean Winters