Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Trust has to be earned

If you haven't read the news from last week out of Philadelphia detailing the arrests of priests charged in connection with child sex abuse or with intentionally covering up these crimes--well, be warned. The horrific accounts, particularly as detailed in the grand jury indictment, are not for the faint of heart or weak of stomach--and, in the interest of full disclosure, I was not able to read through the indictment myself, so don't click the "grand jury" pdf link in the news article above if you're as likely as I am to be made sick by the charges.

John Mullane of the Bucks County Courier Times offers a measured and insightful commentary (hat tip: Deacon Kandra):
It was tough to read the latest grand jury report on resurgent child sex abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. Maybe Cardinal Justin Rigali should declare moral bankruptcy. [...]

Five years after a previous grand jury documented the molestation of hundreds of children by 63 archdiocesan priests, 37 clergy with "credible" allegations of abuse remain in active ministry.

His Eminence Rigali won't say who they are, or where they are, or what the allegations are.

This is a catastrophe. Since the priest sex scandals first broke in Boston in 2002, eight U.S. dioceses have declared bankruptcy from paying damages to victims. [...]

What took generations of Catholics to build is being destroyed at the hands of bishops who are the most inept, corrupt bunglers since Johann Tetzel sold indulgences on behalf of Pope Leo X.

In addition to "the media," our bishops have placed blame on gays, "liberal culture," the "breakdown of society," and the Jews.

In an address to the faithful via YouTube last weekend, Cardinal Rigali didn't bother to mention Bevilacqua's role in the scandal, or how the scandal was allowed to fester for decades, or why it continues on his watch.

At a time when the traditional family is under assault, marriage is threatened with redefinition, and we have reached the grim milestone of 50 million abortions since 1973, our bishops have shredded their moral credibility and left us, the people in the pews and the good priests and nuns who minister to us, feeling shamed, humiliated, angry and doubting. We are open to attack.

To read the grand jury report is to invite a crisis of faith.

Harsh words--and there are harsher in the piece, which I recommend. But Mullane doesn't leave it there:

But before heading to the exits, Catholics should consider this.

Judas was an apostle.

That is to say, the church from its earliest days, has been convulsed with heartbreaking scandal. [...]

That's where dispirited Catholics are now. Such ordeals serve to strengthen faith, John of the Cross said, but they are hellish to experience.

If only Rigali would preach that, instead of conferring with lawyers.

Read the whole thing--even my rather lengthy excerpts can't do the piece justice.

Why do I like Mullane's commentary so much? Because, to me, Mullane covers the two most basic--and yet paradoxical--aspects of the Scandal:

1. There is no excuse, none, for priestly abuse of children--and there is even less of an excuse for diocesan officials all the way up to the bishop's office to collude in a cover-up of such abuse, which must be called the evil that it was--and, perhaps, still is.

2. Despite the shattered trust Catholics may have in their bishops stemming from the Scandal and its aftermath, the Church remains the institution founded by Christ as the ordinary means of salvation for mankind.

How do we reconcile these two things? How can we possibly continue to respect the office of the bishop while losing trust in so many individual bishops? Where do we go from here?

One answer is the reminder, as Mullane points out, that whenever we put our trust in individual human beings we are liable to be shaken. All human beings are weak, fallible, sinful, liable to cowardice in the face of evil, untrustworthy, prone to dishonesty, capable of putting the best possible spin on our worst possible motives or actions--yes, all of us, myself very much included. To the extent that bishops are men they are no more exempt from these things than any of us; yet some of their failures have an impact on all of us, because certain of their failures tend to involve a betrayal of their offices and their callings.

Other answers point to the historical reality that while the Church is the Bride of Christ, she has often suffered from sinful leaders, sometimes all the way up to the papacy. That she has continued to teach the fullness of truth and offer sacramental grace is nothing short of miraculous, considered against that depressing history. Yet she has, and still does.

But though we may struggle to articulate these and other answers, the fact that many, many leaders in the Church, including bishops and archbishops, failed so miserably to treat the victims of abuse like the suffering children in Christ they were, instead seeing them as threats, problems, and liabilities, has to be faced. I wish I could say with certainty that the hard lessons of the Scandal have been learned at last, and that today's present members of the hierarchy would stand with the victims, refusing to act as though the victims themselves were really the trouble in any future situations--but I simply can't say that. Human beings are so slow to learn these kinds of lessons, and the instinct of preservation is strong enough in secular institutions--it should not surprise us that it is equally strong, or possibly at times even stronger, in religious ones.

What should we do? What can we do?

Pray, of course; that ought to go without saying. But there's something else, something that may surprise some of you--at least, that it's coming from me.

Trust has to be earned, and sadly, our bishops and church leaders have predominantly been untrustworthy in dealing with the crisis of the sexual abuse of minors by ordained clergy. I think that the biggest mistake any person can make in the present day and age is taking any allegations of abuse by a clergy member only to the Church. Certainly, in the horrible event that you or someone you love has experienced any such abuse, the diocese ought to be informed. But in my view of things, that call should be made with a copy of the police report in hand and one's lawyer at one's side.

Frankly, that's what I'd counsel people to do if they are the victims of abuse regardless of who the perpetrator is: clergy member, teacher, coach, family friend, etc. We don't report other crimes by going to the perpetrator's employer or place of business; we go, or should go, to the authorities. I think those Catholics who went to the Church first did so out of the sincerity of their trust in the Church, their appreciation for her, and their belief that her agents would always do what was morally right and good first and foremost, with considerations about what was good for the Church's image far, far removed from the moral imperative. Perhaps, someday, Church leaders will again be trustworthy in that regard--but that day is far away, and we've seen too many examples of grotesque failure to protect children to believe blindly that going straight to the diocese with a report of abuse is the first or best thing to do.


miliukov said...

I'm not catholic; and not even conservative. But this is good stuff, Red.

Anonymous said...

GREAT POST!!!! Bookmarked.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

This is a very forthright and impressive statement of faith, without any need to deny relevant and painful facts.

For myself, I find that the corruption which can infect any office, even the Papacy, strongly suggests that this sort of hierarchical governance is not, and cannot be, the representative of Christ on earth.

Every line of doctrine could be true (although I would have my differences), without the necessity for obedience to bishops and archbishops. One could always choose obedience to the canon, as a matter of faith and individual commitment. It is the chain of authority, not the faith, that has failed.

Protestant ministers also are prone so sin on a flagrant scale, but they are not God's representatives on earth. In some denominations, they are employees at will of the congregation. There are a number in the more trendy churches who are returning to the theme that God speaks through the pastor... which is dangerous, because it leads directly back to the sins that sparked the Reformation.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Red, you obviously "get it". Paul Pfaff