The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse, and the Challenges of Leadership
Joseph P. Chinnici
Orbis, $25, 236 pp.
Joseph P. Chinnici is a Franciscan priest, historian (doctorate from Oxford in modern church history), teacher (Berkeley’s Graduate Theological Union since 1975), author-editor (Franciscan Heritage Series), and administrator (nearly twenty years on the governing board of the St. Barbara Province of Franciscans; from 1988 to 1997 as minister provincial). It was in this last capacity that he had to respond to the explosive revelation of decades of sexual abuse committed by some of his fellow friars. When Values Collide recounts aspects of this searing experience, its effect on the victims and their families, on Chinnici and his fellow friars, and on the U.S. church and Catholicism in general. Chinnici looks at this “watershed in the history of American Catholicism” in historical, theological, and sociological terms, and examines his own experience in light of Franciscan spirituality.
I was a class ahead of Chinnici in the seminary at one point, but did not persevere. Though I have not seen him in forty years, I recall his intellectual gifts, dedication, and personal probity. It was clear that he was destined to hold positions of responsibility in the Franciscan community.
When Values Collide consists of an introduction, nine chapters, and a hefty thirty-eight pages of endnotes, none of which are extraneous. Chinnici gives a succinct overview of the history of clerical sexual abuse in the U.S. Catholic Church, and tells the story of how the St. Barbara Franciscans dealt with the particular scandal that broke in their midst in 1989—their initial bewilderment, their subsequent attempts at outreach and repair—and how these efforts were later overwhelmed by the tsunami that swept the U.S. church and the church abroad. The conflicting values of the title (protection of the innocent vs. the need for public disclosure; pastoral solicitude for victims, families, and fellow Franciscans vs. perceived legal and financial jeopardy; etc.) ended up straitjacketing some church leaders and deepening the crisis.
Chinnici places blame for the crimes on the perfidy of the human heart, but also faults the church’s clerical culture (from which he does not exempt the Franciscans) and a reflexive tendency to shield the institution. Furthermore, he sees the materialist and litigious strains of American society infecting not only individuals but religious communities and church bureaucracies.
In a recent pastoral letter, Archbishop Mark Coleridge of Canberra and Goulburn, Australia, described how the culture of the Catholic Church contributed to the sexual-abuse crisis in his country (see Origins, June 3, 2010). He pointed specifically to the church’s rigorist attitude to the body and sexuality (in the case of Australia, its tradition of Irish Jansenism); to forms of seminary training that institutionalized immaturity; and to a triumphalism that reinforced a hierarchy of power rather than one of service. This culture also emphasized discretion, confidentiality, and a fear of giving scandal rather than public accountability. Finally, it succumbed to the subtle but pervasive divide separating hierarchy and the laity: “It is hard to believe,” Coleridge writes, “that the church’s response would have been so poor had laypeople been involved from the start in shaping a response.”
Chinnici touches on all these factors. He writes with humility about how steep he found the learning curve when dealing with the situation. He shows compassion for victims, but also for the perpetrators. And he is candid about the church’s need to do significant penance if it is to renew itself and regain people’s trust.
The second half of the book provides a spiritual foundation for doing so. Here Chinnici offers the insights of classical Franciscan spirituality as one means of understanding and redressing what happened. He wants others to rediscover their own particular heritage and spirituality as a source of insight and sustenance.
The book’s catechesis builds on four sources: the Jewish-Christian Scriptures and the writings of Saints Augustine, Francis of Assisi, and Bonaventure (sometimes called the “second founder” of the Franciscan order). For many readers, the Franciscan emphasis is likely to be unfamiliar. Here Chinnici proves a sure and helpful guide. Yet for some, specifically laypersons, this may be the least compelling section of the book. Not all are likely to share Bonaventure’s view that religious and priests occupy a higher state than the other baptized. Nor are they apt to be drawn to his emphasis on dispossession (that is, the practice of voluntary poverty) in managing their family responsibilities, let alone Francis’s remarkable identification with lepers. Chinnici gives examples of how the St. Barbara friars dispossessed themselves of property to settle financial claims in the wake of the scandal, and how some were treated as pariahs, simply by association. Still, not all are called to live as the early Franciscans, and there is an inherent difficulty in appealing to texts composed for a different time and setting.
Another difficulty becomes apparent as When Values Collide develops. When the book recommends St. Francis’s experience with the lepers and commends his challenging insights into the suffering of Christ, it is not entirely clear for whom Chinnici is writing. Certainly he wishes to address himself and his fellow friars, but is he also speaking to the victims and their families? To others estranged from the church as a result of this calamity? I wish he had been more concrete in detailing how the Franciscans responded to victims, for their voices are not often enough heard here.
Then again, perhaps the author is calling us to be more forgiving of the perpetrators. If so, how did the Franciscans relate to the offenders? Although Chinnici doesn’t mention it, one convicted abuser committed suicide after completing his prison term and probation. And how did the Franciscans deal with those friars not prosecuted because the statute of limitations had expired? Are there compelling models of penitence and reconciliation that might serve the wider church?
Chinnici writes that the Franciscans established “appropriate disciplinary measures” for the offending friars and discusses Fraternity-in-Mission, a three-year process carried out among the Franciscans to deal with their traumatic personal and communal experiences following the crisis. How did this play out in the wider community, particularly among the victims?
Chinnici is right to lament the loss of the mediating spaces and structures that he and the Franciscans attempted to create before the wider scandal overwhelmed their efforts in 2002. As a historian, he knows we can’t return to those earlier days. Still, when he writes “the crisis over the sexual abuse of minors has begun to fade,” the reader is pulled up short. It must not be allowed to fade. What of Ireland, Belgium, Germany, Mexico, Chile, and Rome itself? But the author’s conclusion is on the mark. The challenge before the church, he argues, “is the complete elimination of the crime of sexual abuse among minors. There is also another task: To re-member the scandal, and by this re-membering, to insert into our public discourse and life a Gospel vision of God’s goodness and who we are called to be together.” When Values Collide gives evidence that one Catholic leader has attempted to do precisely that.