Shock and Awe. The discovery of child abuse in any context is gut wrenching. As counseling has been my bread and butter for many years, I can tell you that I have been the “discoverer” of abuse more times than I can count. As a state mandated reporter, I must deal with it immediately. It is, of course, the legal and moral thing to do, but it is still never easy to pick up a phone to the hot line or the county sheriff and know that you are possibly sending an individual to prison for some years and turning a family upside down. I have given depositions, testified in trials, and attended sentencing hearings. I can say that in every instance the abuse was worse than what was originally stated to me, and I could at least take comfort in knowing I had not upset families in vain. I can easily imagine that many bishops, even today, are reluctant to end one of their men’s priestly life and sentence him to jail. We know that the needs of the victims are tantamount, but starting the execution process is disquieting, and I think that over the years bishops have avoided doing their duties for just this reason.
Misunderstanding of pedophilia. Over my lifetime bishops have tended to accept, grudgingly, that some of their priests have vices and faults, and to do nothing of an intervention nature unless absolutely forced into it. Alcoholism comes immediately to mind. In my years with the Franciscans my province achieved some measure of respect for its innovative treatment of alcoholic friars, contracting with Southdown for inpatient care of its men in need.
In fairness to bishops, the treatment of dysfunctional clerics was not fully understood. A frequently referenced source in documents and news coverage is the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete in Jimenez Springs, New Mexico, a community devoted to the care of priestly dysfunction. But as early as 1948 its director, Father Gerald Fitzgerald, became disturbed over the growing number of pedophiles and sex addicts assigned to his facility by bishops. He wrote a number of powerful letters to members of the hierarchy to the effect that pedophilia resisted treatment, and that for the good of the Church it was better to release and laicize such men from the priesthood.
Under pressure from many bishops, Servants of the Paracletes remained open. Typically, the institute would report negatively on the treatment of a priest, but his sponsoring bishop would receive him back into active ministry, probably for other reasons cited in this post. If this were not bad enough, many priests sent to New Mexico elected to stay in the area, receiving local priestly faculties and molesting New Mexico children. The Diocese of Santa Fe has been the object of many lawsuits, a good number related to priests treated at Jimenez Springs. The correspondence of Father Fitzgerald became public during one such suit in 2007.
Father Fitzgerald did not believe that medical and psychiatric expertise had a place in his spiritual twelve-step recovery schema. I believe he was mistaken on this point. However, when the center hired psychological experts against his advice, the hubris of psychology engendered more enthusiasm about the prospects of recovery than the facts warranted. More priests were declared “healed” to their sponsoring bishops, complicating matters further and strengthening the erroneous belief that abusers could safely return to ministry with minors. On a personal note, I was pursuing my counseling degree at Rollins College in the mid-1980’s and spend a summer researching the issue of child abuse in the clergy, and I recall the significant divisions within the discipline on the nature and treatment of child abuse.
Fear of blemish on the Bride of Christ. The theology of the perfection of the Church and its identification as the Bride of Christ or the Kingdom of God on earth is a reality that some bishops believe justifies the suppression of anything that might put the Church in a bad light, regardless of the cost or the need for damaging secrecy. Vatican II had attempted to instill a humbler ecclesial identity, preferring the term “the Pilgrim People of God” but the triumphalism of the nineteenth century, culminating in the declaration of infallibility in 1870, engendered a “Teflon attitude” that the Church even today struggles laboriously to maintain in many quarters.
Tu Es Sacerdos In Aeternum. (“You are a priest forever.”) The Catechism of the Catholic Church states as doctrine the effect of the sacrament of ordination as an ontological change, or a change in the very being of the candidate. This priestly character sets aside a man’s essence as a layman and creates a new priestly being, so to speak, that lasts forever. No subsequent sin or other action can undo this change. Consequently, the Vatican prohibited the laicization or release from priestly life of pedophiles until Bishop Wuerl won his argument against this policy in the 1990’s. However, it was widely suspected that the bishop’s extended stay in Pittsburgh (18 years) was punitive in nature on the part of the Vatican.
Compromised bishops. There is conjecture that some bishops are fearful of taking stronger disciplinary actions in their diocese because they themselves have skeletons in their closets. A bishop who has been or is a sexually active homosexual is hamstrung, as would be a bishop with a mistress, for an accused priest can “out” his superior to higher church officials or just appear on a local TV show to make his accusations against his bishop. I do not believe that a large percentage of bishops would fall into this category, but Cardinal McCarrick’s reluctance to clean up his own seminary makes sense in this context. Last week’s accusations against Pope Francis by a Vatican official—that the pope had failed to act upon the reports of Cardinal McCarrick’s history of coercive sexual behavior with his seminarians—was an effort to fatally undermine Francis’ authority as an effective pope.
The Monarchical Bishop: An old pastor friend of mine shared this tidbit of wisdom: “When you become a bishop, you never have a bad meal and you never hear the truth again.” This was true until well into my lifetime and in a number of chanceries and cathedrals today there are still bishops who see themselves as kings, not servants. Regrettably, there are pastors who operate in the same fashion, and I fear that some seminarians are attracted to priestly life for its perceived power.
There are bishops who believe they are accountable to no one, and they tend to surround themselves with advisors who can be surmounted as the bishop sees fit. One area where such behavior is particularly notable is in a bishop’s relationship with the media. I will not deny that animus can rear its ugly head on the part of the print or electronic media, but this adversarial stance is often the fruit of years of evasion, avoidance, or outright lying by a diocese and/or its bishop. Since some bishops do not believe that their policies or behaviors are subject to anyone’s second guessing, they are loathe to acknowledge a pack of hardened reporters. The relationship need not be adversarial, as Cardinal Dolan in New York has shown. Truth be told, secular reporters end up asking the questions that Catholics in the pews have no forum to ask.
In my home town of Buffalo, WKBW-TV (ABC) is undertaking excellent reporting of the Diocese of Buffalo’s management of current priests with credible allegation who remain on the rolls of active clerics. Bishop Malone has dug in his heels and refused to resign, or even to give any inkling of his thinking to justify what seems to be very serious violations of the USCCB Dallas Charter of 2002. At the end of the day bishops err and make their leadership positions untenable; too late do they come to the realization that their control of events is finite.
Nobody wants an abusive priest in their parish. This is so obvious that I am hesitating to even raise the point. And yet one of the most serious aspects of the scandal, from day one, has been rage that priests with credible abuse allegations are rotated among parishes without any warnings or heads up given to parishes, schools, and other Catholic institutions. The obvious reason for the secrecy is that no pastor, principal, or administrator would countenance taking responsibility for the priest’s conduct and the safety of the community. Bishops have compelling reasons for wanting to assign such priests; under the personnel procedures of all dioceses, a bishop is financially responsible for all his priests, and who wants to pay someone for doing nothing? Second, the accused priest himself generally wants to return to ministry, and some claim that prolonged non-assignment reflects poorly on their characters. Third, bishops do not know what else to do with them.
The “parking” of dysfunctional priests has long been a problem, and for much of the twentieth century priests in the Pacific Northwest (particularly troubled Jesuits) were assigned to Alaska. The number of abuse victims in our northernmost state was first reported nationally by Newsweek in 2008 but remains one of the unpublicized chapters of the crisis.
Money. The $120,000,000 in lawsuit awards to victims in Texas and Louisiana in the late 1980’s sent shock waves across chanceries in the United States. My own diocese moved in the direction of better safety and protection of minors and vulnerable populations, a full decade before Boston and the Dallas Charter. ther dioceses apparently focused upon monetary risk and developed strategies to isolate the diocesan corporation from high-end claims for damages. An important part of this game plan is denial of guilt or any conceivable appearance of responsibility. Lawyers advised bishops against meetings with victims, and particularly against any chancery official saying, “I’m sorry.” In cases where settlements were inevitable, the agreements contained non-disclosure forms such that victims could not communicate about their ordeals in a way that would alert more Catholics to the problem priests in their own dioceses.
There are, to be sure, other reasons and considerations. But in the final analysis, we all find ourselves in the position of bar patron Norm Peterson in Cheers. “If it doesn’t affect the price of beer, I’m good.” I will continue this stream with how the general Catholic population can respond more crisply to our pastoral circumstances. The next post will summarize the most thorough analysis of child abuse in the church through 2011, the study from the John Jay College of Criminology on the causes of priestly abuse from 1950 forward.