The National Catholic Review

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


Comments

Anonymous | 4/1/2010 - 12:28am
"the key moment in the story of the Prodigal is when he turns around"

I find myself in the very rare position of agreeing with Mr. Winters. Of couse, grace does indeed triumph. Where sin abounded grace abounded all the more. We take this on faith.
JIM MCCREA | 3/31/2010 - 6:35pm
Jeff:  for once you and I are in total agreement re: clerical dress up as a symbol of a return to the mistakes of the bad old days.
Anonymous | 3/31/2010 - 10:55am
I do not object to the wearing of cassocks, habits, etc. per se.  What I object to is a culture (that I think also coincided with the highest incidents of sexual abuse) that leads people to be less wary of challenging Father if we perceive something amiss.  From my reading of the stories of abuse, it was common that when children complained, the complaints were dismissed because it was just something no one could imagine Father doing.   Thus if the cassock, habit, etc. signify a re-birth of that old "Father does no wrong" culture, then its a problem.  And in my diocese, our seminarians seem enamored of the idea.  
 
As for your assertion that the sexual abuse coincided with the 60s/70s "liberalization", I think your argument is tenuous at best, and factually wrong at worst.  First, almost all the abusers seemed to be trained/ordained in the 40s/50s, what some consider to be the "golden age" of American Catholicism.  Secondly, Ireland has never undergone the similar "liberalization" that you decry, i.e. losing habits, cassocks, etc.  Yet some of the most abusive and serial cases have occurred there.  So what explains that?
JIM MCCREA | 3/30/2010 - 8:27pm
The letter of the pope to the church in Ireland!!
 
You must be referring to the pious pablum that has been seen by the Irish for what it was:  avoid the blame and protect the guilty who protected the guilty.
 
That letter is the LAST thing that should by quoted by a Catholic with any sense of conscience.
JIM MCCREA | 3/30/2010 - 8:18pm
God can and does forgive anything.  However, the crimes against the helpless that are now laid at the feet of the worst aspect of clericalism are exactly that:  crimes.  Secular society has a right and obligation to exact secular punishment for these crimes. 
 
Bishops and others who have done what they could to ensure that secular society wasn't apprised of the crimes should be brought to trial for obstruction of justice and punished accordingly.  And I don't care HOW far up the clerical food chain these trials should go; they should go as far as necessary.
Peter Lakeonovich | 3/30/2010 - 2:59pm
Michael, what in the world are you talking about? Have you not seen the responses of the Holy Father and many bishops? Have you not seen that current statistics show there is little or no abuse going on in the Church today? Look at what you have written: "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." How can a putatively serious-minded person write this after reading the Pope's letter to the Church in Ireland? What do you want from the Church? Catholics who love the Church treat it as a family, and suffer when the Church suffers.
Anonymous | 3/30/2010 - 11:36am
Clericalism has to be considered one of the primary roots of the problem.  I fear, based on my interactions with the seminarians of my diocese, that clericalism is enjoying a revival under Benedict's inspiration.  I have never seen so many cassocks, birettas, lace, etc. all in the name of restoring a proper "priestly identity".  I always thought that the Jesuit approach of having seminarians study with lay people was best.
Michael Laing | 3/30/2010 - 11:18am
I fully agree that any sin can be forgiven by God.  On the other hand I do not think that "I had been bad and made poor decisions" in confession would bring forth absolution.  I am familiar enough with addictions and compulsions that I have no problem forgiving abusers when they ask for forgiveness.  This does not mean that I condone simply moving them to a new location.  One does not assign an alcoholic to work in a bar serving drinks and expect him to not repeat his drinking problems.
I think that a bishop who covered for an abusive priest has two grave actions to atone for.  The first and most obvious is to the victims that could have been protected.  But it was also a grave diservice to the abusive priest in stationing him "to serve drinks at a bar" instead of putting him in a place where he might have some chance of recovery.  And then, when this useless action failed, the priest was thrown under the bus, actually turned loose to prey on others with no control.
Forgiveness comes with the admission of sin, not some vapid "I made a grave mistake" but the admission of specific faults followed by atonements for the sin.  When this occurs there will be little left for the press to attack and we will have spiritual leaders in our Church.
 
Anonymous | 3/30/2010 - 11:08am
Having worked with 25 priests that were later creditably accused of abuse, too  many of them seemed to have had a sense of protection, The impunity stance they had was given to them by their status and their bishop, They had that same stance of impunity one would see in latin American military officers in a military dictaorship.  I'm un-touchable.. This stance of impunity  caused the numerosity of the abused cases. Just as Latin Officers caused the 'disappeared'   This condition of impunity ought and is being laid at the feet of the hierarchy,
Richard Borowski | 3/30/2010 - 10:51am
I agree that the culture of clericalism is part of the problem.  On issue after issue (abortion and health care come to mind), the bishops focus on narrow legalisms rather than on outcomes.  The church needs to stop the abuse - that objective is more important than celibacy or maintaining the heirarchy because the abuse threatens the church at an existential level.  In today's environment, church leadership cannot afford to think like fathers of the family - they must think like the best CEO's.  That doesn't mean perks and luxury - that means establishing clear objectives and coming up with actionable plans to achieve them.  It means being responsible to the shareholders - and starts with identifying the shareholders.  It means turning the establishment upside down - the leaders must be the servants.  Isn't that what Christ taught?
It is not sufficient to say that the church is no worse than the rest of society.  The whole idea of having a church is to be better.