Seeking a Sign

How will it end? Each day seems to bring more “revelations” of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and of bishops who covered up the crimes. Many of these stories are decades old, but some are not. Now the focus is on how the Vatican, and especially then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, dealt with requests made by bishops to defrock abusers. It seems clear that delay and inaction was the Vatican’s default mode until just a decade ago.

It is no secret that the moral credibility of the church, and especially of the hierarchy, has been gravely damaged by its failure to protect children placed under its care by trusting parents. Tens of thousands of lives have been blighted by these crimes, and the church will carry the stain of this failure for generations. Where do Catholics now look to be assured that children are safe and for certainty that the church will make a clean break with its past policies? Are Catholics who continue to support the church complicit in what critics characterize as an ongoing cover-up? In the London Tablet, Dominican theologian Timothy Radcliffe asks “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Novelist Mary Gordon has tried to explain “Why I Stay” to her secular friends at the Huffington Post. John Allen, NCR’s Vatican correspondent, plaintively wonders, “Is Middle Ground Possible on the Pope?

Middle ground is very hard to come by. Even those who have praised the good work Benedict has belatedly done to redress the abuse committed by priests are bewildered by the Vatican’s eagerness to cast itself as the victim of a belligerent media and rapacious lawyers. Without a full accounting, and a much better explanation from the Vatican of how the church has historically dealt with abusive priests, the crisis will not abate. At least in the United States, rigorous policies to protect children have been put in place, apparently with great success. Yet the bark of Peter appears rudderless, while onboard old enmities consume the bickering crew. Some Catholics are once again demanding the suppression of “dissent,” blaming the scandal on homosexuals and the allegedly permissive reforms of the 1960s and ’70s. Others see celibacy and clericalism as the culprits and call for wholesale institutional reform. The result is stalemate and alienation for all concerned.

So why stay? Timothy Radcliffe provides part of the answer. “Even if the church were obviously worse than other churches, I would not go. I am not a Catholic because our church is the best, or even because I like Catholicism,” he writes, “but because I believe that it embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.”

The visible unity of the church can show up in surprising places. You can find it, for example, in the essay “Sins of Admission: Why Wouldn’t Gay Parents Pick a Catholic School?” on page 10 of this issue. The author has chosen to write anonymously for fear that her essay could get her or her adopted children in trouble with church officials, but her Catholic identity, practice, and convictions remain unaffected by that prospect. In rich and amusing detail, she describes the “Catholic bubble” in which she grew up and where she thrived, both spiritually and intellectually. “I came across more permutations of Catholicity than I had ever imagined existed,” she writes of her undergraduate years at the University of Notre Dame, a place that nurtured and deepened her faith in ways that might surprise many bishops. It was there that she began to move away from a spirituality centered on self-discipline and toward one based on the austere gospel command “to love—really love—God and neighbor.” Condemned by many in the church for her sexuality, she is undeterred as a Catholic, determined to hold on to all she can hold on to in her faith.

Hers is a story that should give hope—even confidence—to Catholics reeling from the current crisis. This community of believers is capable of extraordinary things, among them a clear-eyed understanding that every Catholic—not just the clergy or the pope—is responsible for the church. When our neighbors or our leaders fail, we must not—and we need them to return the favor when we falter. The gospel promises that the strength we so often lack will be given to us when we most need it, and no one would deny the need is great now.

April 13, 2010

Related: "Benedict in the Dock" by the Editors



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"Tens of thousands of lives have been blighted by these crimes.... the Vatican’s eagerness to cast itself as the victim of a belligerent media and rapacious lawyers "


Where is the evidence of blighting "tens of thousands of lives"?   I agree the Catholic hierarchy should account for these crimes, but these numbers seem exaggerated.

Catholic bashers (including some in the media) are delighted with the scandal, to the extent that some are seeking the Pope's arrest for "crimes against humanity", and condemning the entire Catholic Church, priests, nuns, and members.  In my view, this is discrimination, and it should be taken seriously. 

"Exaggerated"? I guess not. Remember that those "blighted" by the sex abuse crisis are not only the direct victims themselves. For every victim, there are many, many others who are affected because of the psychological murder that they love suffered at the hands of predator clergy. No, Ellie. This is not exaggerated at all. Now is not the time to cry, "Catholic bashing! Catholic discrimination." It is the time to bow our heads and say, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner" (Lk 18:13). And that applies most of all to the leaders of the church and the pope himself. 

But if you like hard statistics to support "tens of thousands" of victims, go to:

Tens of thousands? I have no doubt the number is in the hundreds of thousands. In my own immediate family there were six victims and three different Catholic priests. Six out of seven of us. I also know of one uncle and one cousin. I can only guess at the number I don’t know. My abuse as a child changed me irrevocably and it altered my ability to parent my sons when they were young. My oldest son suffered from depression. How much did I pass on to him physically from my own anxieties and fears? How much did he absorb from living with a depressed mother? I cannot guess.  He was the one who wanted to know my story, and our family therapist felt I should admit to the abuse because my son thought he was to blame for my depression. I didn’t write anything publically until my boys were in their late teens and twenties. I thought that was protective enough, but maybe I should never have published. My oldest son took his life at the age of 24. I know I am not to blame for a decision he made but I also know that my victimization by Catholic priests as a child was the cause of my depression and the cause of much of my son’s concern for me. He had had to “rescue” me on a couple of occasions. Add to that the fact that his anger towards the church robbed him of the faith that ironically had been my saving grace growing up.  My son was beloved by hundreds of people; his death caused pain and still causes pain to many, many people.  His facebook still receives messages each month from people who know he is dead but cannot stop “talking” to him even after three years.  Then there is the people I have impacted. Before I left teaching I had taught Catholic theology to about a thousand students.  I have heard many, many  times that I had a positive impact on my students. I feel  sad that my abuse revelations may have since caused them to question the church. All this, and I am just one victim.

In response to Julius Jewel:  A statement on the richardsipe website, "The U.S. bishops receiving allegations from 14,722 victims or 2.6 per priest", is an excellent example of the wide reaching indictment against the entire Catholic clergy  -- it implies all priests are guilty.   There's more than a hint of discrimination in that statement.  

Alegations do not prove guilt.  Consider the many allegations against public school teachers.  In some cases the abuse was instilled in children by neurotic parents, and though the teachers were eventually acquitted, their reputations and career were ruined.   Furthermore, I woulnd't put it past some people to invent the abuse so that they can cash in on the settlement. 

Children must be protected and abusers must be punished, but blaming the entire clergy and Church is indeed discrimination. 

Here's an example of why I doubt some allegatons againt the clergy.  According to the Denver Post -  "Denver man files suit against Catholic religious order", by Kirk Mitchell, 4/21/10 -   a John Doe has filed a law suit against a religious order for the abuse he suffered in 9th grade.  Matson, the accused priest was convicted of another incident, and is in prison, where he apparently belongs,   And I had no reason to doubt part of John Doe's story.


But then I read the following:  "Eventually, Matson raped the man while he was unconscious, the suit says....... The alleged victim is seeking more than $1 million in compensation, according to the lawsuit."  ------   I doubt anyone could remain sleeping while being raped. The only exception might be if someone is given a "date rape drug", but the article doesn't say that.  And I don't know if this drug was even available in the 1970s. 


Catholics can begin to face this problem by realizing that the Vatican is absolutely right when it claims it is this week's road kill in a world where journalism has gone nuts. It would be nice at least to see this defense analyzed on forums like Commonweal or America but I suppose that's dreaming. Think about it, there are 300 cases of "abuse" being investigated in Europe that took place over a period of 40 years. This is out of a number of how many tens of millions young people in Catholic schools in the Old World for two generations? Naturally by-line hungry reporters are egged on by American "advocacy groups" and attorneys well attuned to the Darwinian world of American civil justice. (Would you trust a similar combination involved in any other issue under the Lord's sun?) Nor does it help that by simply mentioning the issue of sexual orientation will bring down the wrath of exactly the same reporters making a little name for themselves at present. And, unless someone hasn't noticed, I might point out that the secular world, well represented in print journalism, finds the Church on the wrong side of every issue in the culture wars. And if anyone doesn't think that the entire culture in the West went on an odd binge of indulgence during the 1970s, they didn't live through the era. As for the representatives of the Church that have committed crimes against the weak they will be with us as long as the Church is represented by humans. And every institution protects its own even when it should not. Finally, I can think of no generation of the priesthood that has paid so dearly for their own sins and the sins of the colleagues then the poor men mocked and attacked at present from every corner of the media jungle. So perhaps the compassion owed by every Catholic toward mankind can be extended to those who spend their lives within the Church. And if anyone asks "should I stay?" over the sexual abuse issue has probably answered the question by posing it. The messengers have always been flawed - it is the message that comes from God. And it is the message that is important. 

The church leadership is not helpful in this discusson when it hides under a cloack of secrecy and cover-up. Denial that later turns into admission does not do much to elicit subsequent reconciliation. Victims were in many cases handled very badly. No wonder they are loathe to come forward and those that do are very angry. What are the real numbers? We'll probably never know. But we do know it was enough to bring shame on us all, especially for not protecting them and/or believing them when they first told us something was wrong. And the current systems now in place seem to put more burden on kids and their parents than on the clergy and their far away supervisors.

There is the termporal aspect of the Church simply because humans have to man the tiller. Human organization is triangular but there is a big difference in an acute angle at the top, which is higher with a narrower base and a wide one, which is lower with a wider base or a regal structure and a democratic one. An informed and educated society will become a flattened triangular structure simply becuse of the amount of access to the same tools of control of the elite. Church structure has been elitist but change will come. Increase in the work of the laity will bring incrased transparency, which is another name for light. The real questions are what kind of change and when. The Church has been around for less than 2000 years but we humans havee been around for many times that. Humans survive because we are resilient and the Church will survive for that reason and, of course, because it is divinely inspired.  We should not assume that a decrease in religiousity is a decrease in the interest in Christ or that He is not present in our lives. Truth of the matter is that I believe that our secularity muzzles the believers, but believers out there, rest assued, are there and in goodly numbers.

Seeking A Sign

"How will it end?" the editors ask. Once they decide to honestly begin I would say. In two sexual offender groups I led over he course of six years, one composed of adjudicated adults from Concord state prison, and the other adjudicated adolescents, there was an entry protocol:upon the arrival of any new member, all members told why they were there: in straightforward language, what they had done. In six years and multiple changes, no group succeeded in that task. Either a member left out details he no longer wanted to say outloud, or a member slipped in a part of the story he hadn't ever felt necessary to say before. It never ended.

The Church hasn't begun to approach even the simple language. These are assaults born of power and control needs, and deliberately hidden by power and control needs. Adjudication is just the first step in being honest about the reality. The Church heirarchy astonishingly acts as though they have belatedly come to a clear understanding of the issue, and healing is only a graduating class of enlightened seminarians away. The Jesuit novice master who sexually abused me as a student certainly wasn't bereft of education when he wrote me after I confronted him,"You deserve a punch in the face for your ingratitude for my spiritual direction." (circa 1981).

As a Polish Catholic parochially and Jesuit educated father of five, I attend mass as a grateful member of the Church. But when driving with my young sons we heard Boston sports radio refer to "Bernie the Pimp", after explaining what a pimp was, the inevitable question came,"Should he be called that?" I paused and replied, "Yeah, you could call him that." As a parent, it is a safer for my children to be suspect of all priests, because as a church the truth of this particular subject is still willfully shrouded.  As adults they can weigh the truth of individual relationships.

Benedict loves the mystical and fallen Church. Mystically, we're right around the part where Caiaphas stands up and says ,"You know nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one child die for the priests than that the whole church perish." 

Tom Swiatek, Newmarket,NH

Seeking a sign!

Such a sign is already spreading on the web, but it won't please the religious or atheist for that matter, for it begins by questioning the very limits of human nature itself, questioning the hidden darkness within that nature made self evident by the pedophile priest crisis, commanding a deep and profound honesty never asked before, and a courage to think for oneself outside the cutural box of history. For those who can do so,  a sign is waiting to be experienced.

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