Received by email, 4.1.2010.
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THE POPE, THE CHURCH AND SEXUAL ABUSE: A PERSPECTIVE
Thomas P. Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C.
Holy Thursday, April 1, 2010
The reports that Pope Benedict had mishandled a clergy sex abuse case when he was archbishop of Munich have sharpened the focus of international attention on the Pope, the Vatican and the seemingly perpetual problem of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church. This revelation coincided with what some believed might be the culmination of the furor in Ireland by the pope’s Pastoral Letter to the Irish People. Questions about the Munich case and the mixed reception of the papal letter have guaranteed that critical interest will intensify rather than recede.
First, a brief summary of what I suspect happened in Munich back in 1980. The priest in question was credibly accused of sexually molesting two minors. His bishop arranged for him to go from his home diocese, Essen, to Munich, to receive treatment. Treatment reports and a strong recommendation that he not be allowed contact with minors were submitted orally and in writing to an auxiliary bishop of Munich. Nevertheless the priest was assigned to parish work in Munich even while he was in therapy. The Munich archdiocese reported that the Vicar General, who was second in command in the archdiocese, decided to place the priest back in a parish. Although the former Vicar General claimed it was totally his responsibility and that then Archbishop Ratzinger had no part in this decision, this is highly unlikely in light of the Church’s own law as well as the unwritten yet equally powerful customary practices within church administration.
Archbishop Ratzinger’s direct involvement in the acceptance of the priest from another diocese and his assignment of the same priest to ministry in a Munich parish was mandatory according to Church regulations. The Catholic governmental system is such that the archbishop has full power and everyone under him functions on delegated authority or power. Only the head of a diocese or archdiocese, the bishop or archbishop, has the authority to accept an outside priest or to make an assignment. More important though is the fact that this priest was being sent for therapy resulting from his admission that he sexually abused two minors. Even if aspects of the bureaucratic process were handled by priests in inferior positions, it is improbable that the archbishop was not informed and involved in the dealings with a priest who admitted to such a serious transgression.
Then-archbishop Ratzinger probably handled this case the way similar cases were dealt with throughout the Church at that time. True, there were internal procedures in place to investigate and deal with reports of clergy abuse of minors, but these were very rarely used. The common approach was to maintain secrecy, insist on therapy in a few cases and re-assign without disclosing the priest’s background to the new assignment. This unofficial substitute process, common throughout the Catholic world, has been the reason for the criticism. Thousands of civil litigations have been initiated because this departure from the approved procedures constitutes negligence according to the secular courts.
The scandal, as it is commonly referred to, has finally found its way to the pope’s doorstep. This may have been his first direct contact with clergy sexual abuse but it was clearly not his last. After leaving Munich in 1982 Cardinal Ratzinger assumed leadership of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, ironically the present-day descendant of the Roman Inquisition. As Prefect, or head, he was responsible for processing the petitions of priests seeking release from priestly obligations. His office also handled cases of sexual abuse sent to the Vatican by the world’s bishops. Thus he had some idea of the nature and scope of clergy abuse. Since most cases never entered into the church’s administrative or judicial system, it is safe to assume that the prefect was not accurately aware of the full extent of cases throughout the world.
Since the first public revelation in the U.S. in 1984 Catholic officialdom has responded to questions and criticism with a variety of explanations. These have ranged from accusations of media Catholic bashing and a rejection of the Church’s traditional sexual morality to claims that the bishops just didn’t know much about sexual abuse or were led astray by their medical advisors. Those who have criticized the hierarchy have been accused of dissent, disloyalty or worse. Victims and their attorneys have been demonized or told to forgive and move on. None of this rhetoric has stemmed the continued revelation of more victims and more cover-ups. The Pope and the bishops have not been able to move from defense to offense or even to guarded neutrality. The public apologies and expressions of regret and shame that have come from bishops have been rejected by the victims as insincere and self-serving. In his letter to the Irish people, released on March 19, Pope Benedict expressed what certainly sounded like sincere sorrow and regret. Throughout his letter however, he injected references to the institutional Church and even put harm done to the victims on equal footing with the loss of respect and confidence in the Church. This adds to the conviction that at the end of the day this is not primarily about healing the victims or purging the Church of the source of the pain, but about power, papal and episcopal power, and the assurance that more of it won’t be relinquished.
Sexual abuse of the vulnerable by clergy has been a shameful aspect of Catholic culture for centuries. Church defenders claim it has always been a minuscule percentage of the clerical population, but the numbers are irrelevant. What is urgent and destructive has been the way the Church leadership, from the papacy on down to local bishops, have responded. “For the good of the Church” victims have been ignored, silenced and rebuffed, and criminal offenders have been quietly sent off to new assignments, often to offend again. “For the good of the Church” those harmed by the clergy have been led to cooperate in their own exploitation, convinced by their trusted leaders that the institution’s image and the exalted status of the priests is of greater value than healing or justice. Though other institutions, public and private, religious and secular, have all experienced sexual abuse and other forms of internal corruption, the Catholic Church is unique. It has used its immense spiritual power and its absolute authority to control victims to the extent of persuading them to be part of their own cover-up.
There will continue to be abuse by the clergy as long as the ecclesiastical environment that allowed it to flourish continues as a closed, hierarchical system enshrouded in secrecy and sustained by the power of fear. As sexual abuse cases surface in country after country the patterns of cover-up, collusion and denial are the same. This is not proof of an international conspiracy or a secret order sent to all bishops as some would have it, but of something more radical. The world-wide outrage, the seemingly countless lawsuits and the close examination by various academics are directed at the status quo in three areas: the essential role of the clerical sub-culture, hierarchical governance and the efficacy of the theological dogmas that support them. The most realistic response is also the most fearful to the hierarchy and to many clergy and laity as well: a thorough, fearless examination of the heretofore untouchable system of power and control and the closed, secretive and often privileged world at the heart of the institutional church. There is really only one vital question: why is this system and the men who sustain it more important than the emotional, physical and spiritual welfare of a single, innocent child?
Pope Benedict’s letter to Ireland was remarkable in that he confirmed what most had already known: that favoritism of the clergy and “misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal” are among the elements of the crisis. Clericalism, the belief that clerics, especially priests and bishops, are fundamentally different from ordinary people and entitled to deference, obedience and unquestioned respect because of their exalted state, is the source and support for these aspects of causality. Clericalism has many faces. It is the delusion that priests speak for the Almighty and therefore are entitled to special treatment and even immunity from accountability for criminal behavior. It is the source of the conviction held by many, including top-level Vatican officials, that the legal systems of secular society are subordinate to Canon law, the Catholic Church’s own system of governance.
It is unlikely that Pope Benedict would ever allow a close scrutiny of the clerical-hierarchical world. In his letter to the Irish he leveled unprecedented criticism directly at the bishops but stopped far short of demanding radical accountability nor did he dismiss the most egregious architects of the cover-up. To undertake the unspeakable and allow an objective, fearless and radical examination into the causal relationship between the “scandal” and the system would lead to a risk that probably extends beyond the imagination of all bishops, namely the dismantling of the very structures that assure the existence of their world.
Although clergy sexual abuse has plagued the church for centuries, the current reaction from the body of believers, but especially the laity, has been significantly different from anything in the past. This reaction has had a seriously detrimental impact on the essential aspects of the church’s operations in the world.
The persistent question of where this will all lead does not end with radical or earth-shattering answers if one considers it with pragmatic realism. The pope will not resign and it is unlikely that there will be a widespread purge of every bishop who has engineered a cover-up. A few bishops will submit to pressure to resign, but it is unlikely that any will be submitted to any disciplinary measures or if they are it will not be made public. Catholics who have been sexually abused, encouraged by the current wave of publicity and assisted by survivor support groups, will continue to overcome the fear and shame that had paralyzed them in diocese after diocese. The Vatican and the bishops will continue to respond defensively, perhaps with more creative yet still unconvincing excuses.
The end result is already well underway. The image of pope and bishop is steadily shrinking because the deference, respect and credibility essential to this image has been severely damaged and continues to erode in spite of all efforts to regain or at least hold on to what is left of their former stature. Catholics are walking away in ever increasing numbers convinced that they don’t need the control of the institutional Church for spiritual sustenance. The sexual abuse scandal may not be the only reason but it certainly is the dominant reason for the diminishing role and influence of institutional Catholicism. The Church will survive but in the long run it won’t be in the form of a gilded monarchy with its stratified vision of humankind. In all likelihood it will be the Church as community and hopefully this Church will hold as its most important members those who are most vulnerable, most rejected and most in need…..not of control, but of love.