Monday, May 30, 2011

Excuses, excuses

Years ago, I attended a parish mission with my family. One of the talks given by a priest whose name I can't remember--I was, I think, a young teen at the time--struck me so forcefully that I still ponder it on occasion.

This priest spoke of a time when, as a small child, he'd visited his aunt and uncle's farm. He'd been warned to stay away from the pigs--but there were piglets, he said, and they were so cute and small, that he began to rationalize and make excuses. Sure, he was supposed to be careful around the pigs--but it must be okay to just get near them and look at them. Sure, he had to remember that the new moms were skittish about having their children handled. Sure, his uncle didn't want him doing anything dangerous--but he knew he could be careful. He'd just open the gate a tiny bit, and...

...and, of course, all the pigs got out, and he got in huge trouble, and was lucky not to have been seriously injured in the process.

Excuses, said this priest, were the clear danger sign that a soul is contemplating sin or trying to diminish it. Whether that sin is the sin of childish disobedience, or whether it's something else, the minute we start rationalizing and excusing and explaining away something dubious we know we're not really on the side of the angels. When our conduct is forthright and honorable we don't need to trump up reasons for it: our actions will speak loud and clear on their own. And if we're not terribly proud of something we've done, we should admit it heroically, accept the consequences, and move on.

I've started to realize that this same sort of thing is true, albeit to a lesser extent, even beyond our own selves. How often do we excoriate conduct in someone we don't know well and make excuses for the exact same conduct in someone we do know well--a friend, a family member, someone we love? How often--and here I speak to my fellow moms--are we harshly critical about what someone else's kids do or say or wear or get involved in--and yet we'll make excuses for those same things, major, minor, and everywhere in between, for our own? How often do we nod our heads at talk radio or snarky blogs or emails about those terrible politicians on the other side of the aisle, and ignore the indiscretions, multiple marriages, or criminal offenses among the politicians on our own side? We don't just focus on the specks in our neighbors' eyes: we hold "Adopt-a-Plank" rallies for our favorite celebrities, politicians, family members, and friends.

I've been thinking over the three-day weekend about the situation involving Fr. Shawn Ratigan and the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph. I've read a few news articles and blog posts about it, and seen a few comments at these places discussing the matter. And, perhaps because I've been involved in these discussions for a while now, I've started to cringe every time I come across the various ways we Catholics will become defensive and trot out well-worn excuses every time a situation like this one comes up, instead of trying to do what we can to help clear up the mess, even if it's not a mess of our own making.

At one point I used to make a lot of the excuses, too. I'm not holding myself up as blameless. I've probably used one or more of the following items in conversations before, as a way of trying to deflect the reflected shame of the Scandal. But I'm done with that, and have been for some time now, which is why I think it's time to talk about:

Seven excuses brought up by Catholics in discussions about clergy scandals:

1. There's more child sexual abuse in schools. Statistically this is true. It is also a red herring. What is an acceptable rate of child sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests? If you didn't answer "Zero!" then you may want to reconsider. Priests are not, statistically, just anybody. They're supposed to go through intensive seminary formation and education. They're supposed to embrace chastity in a way that is heroic and prophetic. Granted that a truly clever and intelligent pedophile might conduct himself in such a way that he is able to be ordained without ever showing in any way his twisted proclivities--and that's a big thing to grant, because quite frankly any seminary program that isn't utterly useless should be able to weed out most people with kinky desires for sexual contact with children--there are also supposed to be significant protections already in place to identify a pedophile should one get ordained and wind up in active ministry. Other places where pedophiles gain access to children--schools, day care centers, sports activities, etc.--have much lower standards and a much shorter entry process for prospective employees. If even one pedophile gets ordained, let alone if even one pedophile actually manages to abuse children (and, yes, taking "upskirt" photos of seven-year-old girls is abuse), the Church is failing miserably to do something that it is vital that she do well: train and ordain good men to the priesthood.

2. It's the media's fault. In other words, sure, some things have happened, but the evil media hates the Church and will always blow stories of clerical sexual abuse out of proportion. Again, this isn't something that is entirely false: our media reflects our culture, and our culture is opposed to truth, virtue, and morality, especially as expressed by ancient Christianity and by the Church in continuum with that ancient expression. If you hand the news media a stick with which to beat the Church, you might as well have handed them a club. The problem here is that the sex abuse scandal exists quite independently of the reporting of it. If anything is true, it is that there are cases that the media will never learn about, because all the parties agreed long ago to silence, or because the victims are too traumatized or too deeply hurt by what was done to them to come forward publicly. The Scandal does not exist because it is being reported; it is being reported because it exists and is so egregious, so wicked, so perfidious, so contrary to the Gospel which Christ gave us and which His Church is supposed to be dedicated to that the contrast alone is newsworthy. We may not like that, but the way to change the headlines is to change the behavior of those who commit these crimes and those who participate in cover-ups; it is not to blame the headline-writers for doing what is, after all, their job. Individual cases of media bias--outrageous, in the case of the New York Times, for one example--have occasionally surfaced; but those are usually opinion pieces, not factual reporting. Incorrect facts or biased opinions should be addressed--but we do ourselves no service to pretend that all of the coverage is incorrect or biased by definition, and that the evil media jackals are just attacking the holy Church as they are wont to do, instead of dealing with the ugly realities that are indeed sometimes much worse than the papers say they are.

3. It's Vatican II's fault. I've seen this one over and over: the notion that the Second Vatican Council let the "smoke of Satan" into the Church and is therefore the true reason why priests commit crimes against children, or bishops fail to do what must be done in these cases. In vain does the observer of the Scandal point to the number of men ordained before Vatican II who went on to be credibly accused of wicked crimes; the person who blames Vatican II for the Scandal has already decided that Vatican II is responsible for most of the evils which exist in the world today (and particularly in the Christian world). The logic goes something like this: Vatican II downplayed sin and tapped into an "anything goes" spirit; therefore, the acceptance of sin and the notion that chastity is really impossible for anyone are the direct causes of clerical pedophilia or other crimes against little ones. A corollary to this excuse is the idea that Vatican II opened the doors to let homosexuals be ordained, and thus created an atmosphere in the seminaries and elsewhere of sexual libertinism, making it possible for pedophiles and ephebophiles to flourish and become ordained. The problem with blaming any of this on Vatican II (other than the reality I've already pointed out, namely, that there were men ordained long before VII that committed crimes against children) is that the Council itself certainly didn't call for downplaying sin, for libertinism, or for widespread sexual misconduct in seminaries. To the extent that these things happened, the fault lies squarely on the shoulders of the bishops under which they happened--and as some of these bishops are now deceased, we should probably offer prayers for their souls, in fear and trembling, and bearing in mind the warning of our Lord given in Matthew 18:6.

4. It's society's fault. The argument here is that society is so sex-saturated that we're being unrealistic to think that anyone, even ordained priests, can really avoid sexual temptation. Society is, indeed, deeply dysfunctional when it comes to sex, and as every Christian parent knows, assaults on the chastity and innocence of children--and of adults--are everywhere in our culture, especially in the entertainment industry's products. But blaming society for the decline in morals isn't an answer when we're talking about the Church, is it? The Church is supposed to be transforming society, not being held a prisoner to it. If the Church doesn't have the power to challenge the culture enough to be able to identify and remove child predators from ordained ministry, then how is the Church supposed to help the rest of us repent and live by the Gospel?

5. The devil made them do it. I hear or read this one a lot, and it goes like this: the Church isn't really failing to identify pedophiles or other sexual predators in the seminary. In fact, these are good, holy men who have been ordained--but the devil hates priests so much that he preys upon them, tempting them ceaselessly with twisted images and lewd desires in a way that we lay people just never experience. Sadly, some of them fall into sin--but it's because of the devil and his hatred for priests and for the Church, not because there was ever anything wrong with them or because various superiors closed their eyes to red flags and warning signs that any decent parent would find deeply suspicious. In case you haven't guessed, I really dislike this particular excuse. It's not that I don't think that the devil tempts us, or that he may target some clergy members specifically--but I have a firm belief that we ought never to blame the devil for the evils that the world and the flesh tempt us to quite unaided. And even if the devil is tempting a priest to abuse children--it's not as though that temptation equals the cancellation of free will! Regardless of the source of our temptations, we all retain the will to say "no," except in cases where the will really is compromised (such as invincible ignorance, or habit, or coercion, or mental illness, etc.). Blaming the devil for the Scandal is like saying that the abusers weren't really responsible owing to diabolic influence, and unless there is proof that this is actually the case in some specific incident, it is a weak excuse.

6. It's the celibate male priesthood's fault (e.g.if only priests could marry/women could be priests/etc...). I hear and read this one more on the "progressive Catholic" side of things, where the speaker or writer believes that the Scandal could be fixed or wouldn't have happened in the first place if married men or women had been ordained. Mark Shea does a good job of showing the inadequacy of this one, by illustrating incidents of child sexual abuse involving women, married people, etc. The thing to remember here is that pedophiles go where there are children, and this includes the Church. Some of them may be drawn to the priesthood because they believe that ordination will help them tame their illicit desires; others may want to be priests simply because of the level of access to children this vocation may give them. If the priesthood were opened up to married men (let alone women, which isn't going to happen and shouldn't happen), all that would change is that some of those accused of child abuse would be married men.

7. It's the laity's fault. This is sort of the "flip side" to the "The devil made them do it" excuse. In this version, though, it's because the laity are contracepting, aborting, fornicating, cohabitating, committing sins of adultery and homosexual activity, while also failing to pray and make acts of sacrifice and self-denial specifically for holy priests that priests fall into sin. Both the sinfulness of the laity and the laity's failure to support the priesthood through greater acts of prayer, penance and sacrifice leads inexorably, in this view, to clergy sins and to the Scandal of child sexual abuse by priests. A slightly different take on this blames the victims of abuse, parents of victims, and other lay people for failing to stop abuse or for trusting clergy members around children. In the case involving Father Ratigan, we've seen this as people have blamed the school principle who wrote a lengthy memo detailing Fr. Ratigan's behavior around children for not following up, for not contacting the police, etc. when it's not at all clear that she could have done so (she was not the one, for instance, who saw the nude image of the child from Father's computer, and the behavior she details in the memo were red flags, not criminal activities). Yet there have been plenty of people willing to blame this principal for Fr. Ratigan's continuation in ministry until his arrest, instead of being critical of the bishop, the vicar general, etc.

I know there are more than these seven excuses, but these are the ones I've encountered time and time again (and some of them, alas, I used to use myself). What prompts this sort of thing? Is it tribalism, the need to defend one's own tribe at all costs? Is it unwillingness to confront the reality of the evil of clergy sex abuse of children? Is it defeatism--the notion that as we can't do anything to change the culture inside the chanceries, the bubble and see-no-evil and protect the clergy mindset that has allowed these situations to flourish we might as well pretend that things aren't that bad?

Whatever the case might be, these excuses started to fall apart for me when I truly considered the victims of abuse. When you see or read about an innocent child who has been exploited or violated or otherwise harmed spiritually, sexually, physically, emotionally by the predations of the very person who is supposed to be an alter Christus to them--you can't brush away the Scandal by blaming the media or Vatican II or lay teachers who abuse other kids. All you can do is acknowledge the evil, and pledge to do whatever you can, even if it is very little and seems very small, to make the kinds of changes that will protect children from these dreadful crimes.


Nzie (theRosyGardener) said...

I usually read in my RSS feeder but I had to click the link to comment today. SPOT ON. Yes, yes, yes. I hope this gets re-blogged or re-tweeted or what have you. Will probably post a link to my facebook. There are no excuses, but these are so tempting and insidious. Thank you.

John E. said...

Darn fine post, Red. Darn fine...

Molly Roach said...

Thanks for this very thoughtful reflection. Great summary of the recurring temptations.

Anonymous said...

How often--and here I speak to my fellow moms--are we harshly critical about what someone else's kids do or say or wear or get involved in--and yet we'll make excuses for those same things, major, minor, and everywhere in between, for our own?

We had to kick a kid out of our Youth retreat for drug posession. When we got home we were interrogated by a mom (not related to the kid) about whether we made sure it was the right kid, we followed explicit protocol for removing him (there wasn't one just fyi), etc. She took a personal interest in it because she felt she and her son were arbitrarily mistreated when her son was suspended for cheating once. She literally told us to our faces that "My son is a good kid, and rules were made for the bad kids." It was all I could do to keep my jaw from dropping to the floor.

I've noticed when addressing the abuse scandal, the faithful Catholic has to pepper his responses with many a disclaimer precisely so he can not be white-washing or making excuses while at the same time not letting others sneak in falsehoods. We see this especially with #6. I can't begin to count the number of indignant articles about the scandal that just can't resist the urge to imply or directly state that the abuse is uniquely Catholic or that some Catholic practice or doctrine causes or contributes to either abuse instances, or to coverups. Once one does that, then looking at segments of society outside the Church becomes fair game. However, I still feel the need for the disclaimer: "Ok, you just asserted that Catholic teaching caused this. I think that can be disproven by looking at similar instances in public schools; but just to be clear, remember that you opened that door, not me."

In any case, my new campaign bumper-sticker against child abuse reads: Call the cops, don't leave it to chanceries.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

I could quibble about #6, but the entire post is so well written I won't. I am reminded a little of the priest who said he favored making the vow of celibacy optional, because it was a sacrifice he wanted to make, and there wasn't much of a sacrifice when he didn't have any choice.

Deirdre Mundy said...

Siarlys-- so should we make fidelity to one's spouse optional, because it would be so much more meaningful if it WASN'T in the vows?

Priests do have a choice about celibacy---they take a vows appropriate to their vocation (as married people do) and then every day have the choice to remain faithful to the vows or to break them.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

To all practical purposes Deirdre, fidelity to one's spouse IS optional. I believe that such vows should only be made with the intention of keeping them, but I have known people who claimed they had an "open marriage." I can't think of one that didn't end in divorce either.

Applying that to priests... celibacy is not the ESSENCE of priesthood, in the same manner that fidelity is the ESSENCE of marriage. That is, unless you are one of those who believe that each of us is entitled to "marry" whoever or whatever we wish... another man, another woman, my car, dog, horse, my favorite tree...

Tony said...

I never defend child abuse. But the media seems to want to tar the whole church for the actions of a few. I trot out many of those reasons to:

1. Show the blatant media bias when reporting child abuse.

2. Try and find the root causes so we can reform the Church in an effective and holy way.

So why did these sorts of abuses start in the 60's, peak in the 70's and drop off in the 80's? What happened during that time that might have contributed to the problem? Vatican II? Hippies? Free love? General permissiveness of society? Breakdown of morals in the family? The increase in the use of birth control?

Lots of things happened that might cause the problem. If we can identify them, we can take steps to help solve them.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Tony, what makes you think these sorts of abuses started in the 60s? How about the 19th, 16th, 13th, and 11th centuries? And earlier? When there was little or no secular police jurisdiction, there was nothing to stop it, or to tabulate it.

(Some of those 60s kids did think they had invented sex or something. All they invented was flaunting it.)