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Clerical Culture and the Abuse Crisis

The sex abuse crisis has brought many in the Church to a painful awareness that there is something very wrong in the way our clerical system operates.Many haveasked: Are we treating the problem at the systemic level, i.e. addressing the institutional culture that enabled abuse?The need for deeper reflection on questions of institutional culture was brought home to me recently as I read a feature in the Irish Times in July not long after the release of the Cloyne Reportthat asked Where were the good priests? The story captured some of the fear, sadness, anger, and even despair that such priests feel. Built into their very lives are features of a clerical culture that defeated or at least impeded the moral force that ought to have been exercised.

There are two difficulties, [Father Brendan] Hoban says. The first is the mistaken belief that a diocese is run by the bishop and the priests together. The fact is we are totally excluded from any say . . . Priests are effectively disenfranchised.The other difficulty is loyalty. Priests live isolated lives. The dynamic of our ministry is that friends are very few and far between, but there is extraordinarily strong loyalty among the clergy, Hoban says. As well as that, we were not people who would challenge the status quo. Those who would were weeded out in the seminary. Then there is the perennial problem of being at the bishops mercy in relation to transfers and advancement. And thus the silence. Does it all sound a bit self-serving? Yes, its fair to say that it was self-serving. That lack of moral courage.To illustrate this, he describes how a bishop and liturgists have been traversing the Irish dioceses, giving seminars to priests on the controversial new missal translations. Despite the huge unease there was little or no reaction from audiences. Then the bishop came to Knock, where he overran his speaking time, leaving no time for the pre-lunch question-and-answer session. After lunch he launched straight into speaking mode again, whereupon one brave soul stood up and stated that a discussion was needed. It sounds like the scene where Oliver Twist asks for more food. Slowly, amazingly, the courageous priest was followed by several more.The liturgists were amazed because they presumed there was no opposition, as they hadnt seen it before, says Hoban. . . .It demonstrates what a cold place the church can be for a dissident, says Hoban. And we have reaped the whirlwind . . .

Cover art: The Cardinal's Portrait, by Toby E. Rosenthal; 1952Thinking about the systemic dimension of the abuse crisis led me in turn to revisit a book which I first read in 2005, but which has not, I think, gotten the attention it deserves: Clerical Culture, by Michael Papesh.[Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation / Michael L. Papesh / Liturgical Press, $16.95]The basic thesis of the book is the culture of Catholic clergy, from seminary through ministry, stands in need of reform from within to make it more open, honest, responsible, mutually supportive, and better integrated with the whole people of God in service to the gospel mission. If we are serious about changing the conditions which enabled sexual abuse, we must lookat clerical culture.Papesh is pastor of a parish in Minnesota. This book grew out of an article he wrote for America magazine, followed by a series of talks he was asked to deliver to the clergy of the Cleveland Archdiocese. Papesh tells his own story in the book, one which includes being a priestan insideras well as a victim of sexual abuse himself. What he has to say is the fruit of life experience, study, and spiritual wrestling. Moreover, it is offered with compassion, and a good dose of humility. The book is not sensational;it does, however,face up to somehard truths.

[A]s a pastor, I have become aware that the people with and among whom I serve know very little -- next to nothing -- about the clerical culture. They were deeply shaken by what became public in 2002, even as they remained faithful. They seek assurance that the institutional Church will do everything in its power to see to it that sexual exploitation never happens again. Adequate assurance has not been forthcoming, however. Moreover, because many parish ministry staff peopleand laity have become newly conscious of how much they do not know about how the Church operates day by day, they are frustrated and vaguely alarmed by the suspicion that they have even less power than they thought. I know they are right. (p. 10)

He first identifies the layers of the problem that are rolled into one in the sex abuse crisis: pathology, moral culpability, lack of knowledge, paternalism, protection of the church, cowardice, taking advantage of trust, and more. He then offers a solid, though necessarily brief, introduction to the history and theology of clerical culture in Part I.The main portion of the book, however, is in Part II, which is devoted to diagnosing the contradictions embedded in that culture. Finally, in Part III, he explains and describes directions for future transformation, i.e. reform.His analysis of the contradictions that shape the particular world that Catholic clergy inhabit is incisive. He explores eleven such contradictions:

  1. Formed Inside Clerical Culture for Responsibility Outside It
  2. Promised to Celibacy but Ill-Equipped to Live It
  3. Accountable Within Clerical Culture for Ministry Outside It
  4. Priests Are Dependent and Independent
  5. Shepherd of the Flock and Corporate CEO
  6. Priests Are Highly Circumscribed in Ministry Yet Broadly Trusted
  7. Wanting Relationships in Ministry But Obliged to Caution
  8. A Community Leader But Personally Lonely
  9. Ministers of Unity in a Fractured Clerical Culture
  10. Called to Simplicity But Living in Privilege
  11. Moral Authorities in Public But Privately Winking

The book open windows onto how the culture works, and where its critical tensions lie. It is not about blaming, but about honest appraisal. As an outsider to that culture, I found his observations illuminating.The section about winking alone is worth the price of the whole book. It notes that not only priests and bishops, but also the laity on parish pastoral councils and in parishes look the other way at sexual misconduct, mismanagement of parish funds, and putting forward false reasons for decisions that are made, even when theyre known to be false.

While cold, judgmental attitudes on the part of priests are out of order, so, too, is the failure to draw proper moral boundaries or laughing about it. [P]riests winking signals a certain decay in the clerical culture as a whole. It suggests that, at some level, the members of the culture think that their convenience is more important than the Gospel, that their discomfort about engaging one another to think again outweighs moral virtue, that sustaining the illusion of warm feelings toward one another is more critical than ill-using or scandalizing the faithful. (p. 116-117)

The book presents the clerical cultureaccurately, I thinkas a closed system. Men are formed in it through seminary training that sets them apart, and they form relationships within it that are separate from and more important than their relationships with the people they serve. The culture reinforces itself, and its closed nature is reinforced by laity who romanticize the mystique of clerical difference. It is hard to change.Because of the closed-system nature of clerical culture, he concludes that reform must come from within the systemfrom priests themselves.

Changing clerical culture cannot be, foremost, the work of the laity. Lay people know far less than they realize about what the clerical culture is and how it works, and no matter how much they write, picket, publicize or withhold money, their influence, unfortunately, will be limited in a closed culture. Nor will changing clerical culture be the work of the bishops, who are deeply entrenched in many of its patterns and have a vested interest in keeping it as it is. Though the popes make a difference the Vatican is an inward-preoccupied bureaucracy It listens to those with whom it sympathizes, or, better who sympathize with it.

He argues that transformation is possible, but it must be led by priests who have been galvanized to seek a better way, and who have the courage to articulate a different vision and press for it. It is in the end an optimistic book, because he believes priests themselves can change their culture for the better.

The point persons for clerical cultural change are the priests. When diocesan priests see that clerical cultural change is in their interest, in the interest of the people, in the interest of the universal Church and the gospel mission, then they will apply their energies, begin to transform their own lives spiritually, drum up sufficient support from the laity, and then place enough pressure on bishops to bring about wide cultural change. (p. 171)

They wont be able to do this without partnership with the laity, he goes on to explain, but the impulse has to come from within their own ranks. As he wrote at the outset of the book, "Perhaps exposing the spiritual malaise of the clerical culture openly, publically, for church-wide reflection will help them focus their desires and motivate them -- us -- to act." (p. 10)My concern about the book is that hes probably rightand that this is a tall order. Time will tell. Since theyear this book was written, a lot has happened that no one would have predicted. Reform-minded priests have been banding together in Austria, Ireland, and the United States. Each group is different, buteach bears witness to a fermentfor change arising within the ranks of the Catholic presbyterate.Papeshs arguments are anchored in a vision of the gospel and ministry that aspires to a high ideal and standard. His book is well worth reading for anyone who finds the status quo revealed by the abuse scandal bewildering and angering, and who desires something better for the Church.

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"May you live in interesting times," is an old Chinese saying, and I think right now is a most interesting time in the Catholic church. Here in a country where so much is made of our democratic freedoms, many Catholics live their parish lives as second-class citizens. Well, maybe the priests are second-class citizens and the laity are third-class. But the abuse scandal, along with occasional embezzlements, has --I hope-- lit a fire that will not go out. As you note, the clerical culture needs to be addressed. Many "closed" cultures such as police departments and athletic organizations suffer from the same mentality: ignore it, bury it, stick together. How many times do we have to read the same headlines?

Thank you, Rita for that informative and timely column . Thanks also for drawing my attention to the book, "Clerical Culture", which I will order today. You may find of similar interest the excellent new article by the leading worldwide Catholic clinician on the relationship of clerical culture to the high incidence of abusive priests and bishops. It is accessible by clicking on at:: http://www.richardsipe.com/Miscl/2011-10-15-mother_church.htm

I was in a comment conversation elsewhere today and I wish I had this link at the time; you say so much, so clearly. Thank you.

Good work, Rita, as always!