Sunday, April 11, 2010
The Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, Part I
(This is the first of four articles dealing with this scandal. The other parts are at the links: Part II, Part III and Part IV.)
I've been debating with myself for a long time whether or not to write about the Catholic Church and its recent problems with pedophile priests, monks and brothers (and, to a vastly lesser extent, a few nuns and sisters). You see, I was a Catholic priest, and saw this scandal erupt from the inside. I've not made any public comment until now, because I didn't want to say or write anything that might damage the faith of Catholics, of whom the vast majority have nothing to do with this problem and only want to serve God to the best of their ability, according to the light that's been given them.
Unfortunately, the scandal appears to have expanded, in that allegations of pedophilia have surfaced in Ireland, and more recently in Germany, Norway and other nations. It seems the hierarchy in those countries (and perhaps others) learned nothing from the experience of the church in the USA over the past couple of decades. They appear to have tried to evade personal responsibility for the crisis, just like many US bishops. Some of them have now tendered their resignations, which is appropriate: but they did so only after being implicated in the scandal. Many had demonstrated a lack of due care and diligence by not addressing the situation as quickly and/or as seriously as it required. The Church in those countries is now even more damaged than it would have been if the bishops concerned had confronted the problem more openly, or accepted their personal responsibility and resigned their positions more quickly.
These reports have brought back to me all the enormous mental and spiritual anguish of the long-drawn-out crisis over clergy sex abuse in the USA. I've therefore decided to describe how I experienced that crisis. Call it a personal catharsis, if you like. I hope my words will help more people to understand the nature and scope of the problem. There'll be those who won't understand, or agree with, or approve of my perspective and actions; but I hope there'll be others who do. It's been an enormously painful decision to write this, and it remains deeply painful even as I format the results on this blog. I hope it proves to have been worth it.
In a series of four articles, of which this is the first, I'd like to address the following issues:
1. Background information on the structure of the Catholic Church and the environment within which this crisis developed.
2. How I and fellow priests experienced the unfolding of the crisis, and a critical perspective on the steps agreed to by the US bishops to deal with it.
3. Priestly celibacy, and the formation and training of priests, in the light of the crisis.
4. How such crises might be better handled in future.
These articles will, of course, reflect my personal perspective on the crisis, based on the information available to me. That information is quite extensive. Having participated in Mission Co-operation Plan tours for two years, I developed friendships with priests in over 20 US dioceses. I've discussed this issue at length with many of them. They've provided inside information about what was happening in their dioceses, which helped to clarify many things. Furthermore, I've participated in private Internet forums and e-mail discussion groups, set up by priests and others who were deeply concerned about this situation and wanted to discuss it privately. I'll not quote any material directly from those sources, since a condition of membership was (and remains) that all discussions were to be held in the strictest confidence, for fear of retaliation; but the insights gained through my participation in those forums has helped to shape and form my opinions.
Of course, I can make mistakes as easily as anyone else. It may be that my perspectives on this problem are defective (although I wouldn't have acted on them if I hadn't believed them to be true). I certainly can't guarantee that my interpretation of events is factually correct in every particular. I can only set out for you what I experienced, how I interpreted it, and the actions I took in response. If I was wrong about anything, I'll have to answer for that to God one day – and that's a fearful thought.
Furthermore, let me acknowledge at once that I'm as much of a sinner as any other human being. In all that I say here, I don't seek to judge any individual's soul (as opposed to their actions, or the lack thereof). I have far too many sins, faults and failings of my own (although none, thank God, involve pedophilia or anything related to it!) to judge anyone else for his or her own moral baggage. That right belongs to God alone. Far be it from me to usurp it, because I'm going to need His mercy as much as anyone else when the time comes for me to give an account of my life. I pray for His mercy upon all those involved in this catastrophe; the victims, the perpetrators, and those in authority who for so long failed to live up to their responsibilities.
To begin with, for the benefit of readers who aren't familiar with the structure of the Catholic Church, let me explain the role of the bishop. He's regarded as a successor to the Apostles, and (along with all bishops in the Church) is subject to the Pope, who as Bishop of Rome is seen as the successor to St. Peter and 'keeper of the keys'. His authority is absolute within his diocese, just as the Pope's authority is absolute within the Church as a whole.
There's no such thing as a separation of powers within the Church. The bishop of a see is its ultimate legislative, executive and judicial authority and arbiter, within the framework of the Church's doctrine, dogma and Canon Law. He may appoint lawyers and judges in cases of Canon Law; he may appoint commissions, committees and boards to investigate, arbitrate and adjudicate various issues; he may have counselors and experts to advise him on issues; but he's free to override or ignore or countermand any and all of their input and decisions if he so wishes. Those affected may appeal to Rome, but only in exceptional cases will the Vatican overrule a bishop's local authority.
Bishops come together in national or regional conferences to discuss matters of mutual concern. In this country it's known as the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, or USCCB. Their joint decisions are usually implemented in all member dioceses (although a bishop may elect not to do so, as he retains absolute local authority). Some conferences in countries where the Church is well established, such as those of Europe and North America, are semi-autonomous, conducting many of their own affairs without reference to the Vatican. Others, in what are termed 'mission territories', are subject to closer scrutiny from Rome and must refer many of their decisions to the Vatican for approval. The latter also maintains embassies and consulates in most countries and regions. They monitor developments (both ecclesiastical and secular) and report directly to Rome. This structure allows the Vatican to set central doctrine and policy, but also allows bishops in different areas to take account of local conditions, problems and opportunities in their governance of more than a billion Catholics around the world.
Naturally, such a structure means that much depends on the qualities of individual bishops. There are some who are outstanding by any measure; holy men, efficient administrators, compassionate pastors, enjoying the confidence and respect (even love) of their priests and people. Most regrettably, there aren't enough of them. There are many more bishops who attained their rank by being good organization men, working within the system, loyal to it, allowing it to shape and form them, and in time coming to the attention of those responsible for the selection of new bishops (who are themselves mostly organization men, of course). Many bishops appear to have been selected primarily because they wouldn't 'rock the boat', challenge the system, or display characteristics inconsistent with a centuries-old bureaucracy that doesn't like surprises.
Why aren't there more men of outstanding holiness among the bishops? Such people are lauded by the Church – usually after they're safely dead – but a structure designed to keep things ticking over with the minimum of disturbance often finds them awfully tricky to deal with while they're alive. Holiness is hard to quantify, classify and control. The system is therefore usually uncomfortable with such people in positions of power or influence. Now and again, one slips through into such a position – and stands things on their head for a while, usually to the approval of the faithful, the joy of the holy and the apoplectic dismay of the bureaucrats.
The late Pope John XXIII (1881-1963) (currently beatified, and probably soon to be canonized) was such a man. He was initially regarded as an 'interim Pope'. The Cardinals could not decide on a strong candidate, and are therefore presumed to have elected John, an old man, to keep the seat warm until they could reach a decision next time round. Somewhere on high, the Holy Spirit was laughing like mad . . . because in his short reign, John proceeded to gleefully upset all sorts of ecclesiastical apple-carts. His greatest achievement was convening the Second Vatican Council in the 1960's, to, as he put it, "throw open the windows of the Church so that we can see out and the people can see in". This rattled the Roman Curia, perhaps the ultimate bastion of bureaucrats and organization men. They deluged him with reasons why the Council could not possibly be convened as early as 1963, as he wished. His response? “Very well, it will begin in 1962!” (It did.) When someone once asked him how many people worked in the Vatican, he replied ruefully, “About half!” The system never did succeed in managing this deeply spiritual, marvelously good-humored man, who became beloved of almost all who met him. The late, great Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) was another outstandingly holy man, who's currently on the fast track to sainthood.
I mentioned the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). This was a seminal event in the history of the Catholic Church. The last ecumenical council (Vatican I) had closed almost a century before. There was a growing sense among many clergy and laity that the Church was out of step with the times; not in terms of the Gospel message, which is eternal and unchanging, but the way in which that message was conveyed. Vatican II did not produce any new doctrines or dogmas. Rather, it re-stated the core teachings of the Church in more modern terms for greater clarity, and approved a number of reforms and innovations (e.g. services in vernacular languages rather than Latin, greater recognition of the role of the laity in the Church, etc.).
Pope John XXIII's dream of opening the windows of the Church had succeeded . . . but in the following years, the wind howling through those open windows was often brutally uncomfortable. Some radical elements in the Church sought to use Vatican II as a lever, going far beyond its innovations in an attempt to derail centuries of tradition and jettison a vast treasury of accumulated knowledge and experience. Liturgical changes and innovations (often unauthorized) caused confusion among many Catholics as to whether they were celebrating Mass or attending some avant-garde theatrical performance. Dissident theologians called into question, even directly opposed, many of the Church's doctrines and dogmas. Some invented new approaches to theology which reinterpreted Church teaching in the light of secular philosophies and ideologies (e.g. liberation theology, black theology, etc.). Pope John Paul II (who had attended Vatican II as a bishop) applied the brakes to extremism and restored sanity to the reform and renewal process during his papacy (1978-2005), to the relief of orthodox Catholics and the teeth-gnashing outrage of many radicals.
Unfortunately, during the period of internal confusion and debate that immediately preceded and followed Vatican II, dissident elements in the Church were able to do a great deal of damage. In the USA, they sought to entrench themselves in the authority structures of the Catholic Church, subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) influencing the selection of bishops, administrators, bureaucrats and other authority figures, seeking to put 'their' candidates in positions of power. They also encouraged dissident theologians and others who were publicly questioning the doctrines and disciplines of the Catholic Church, particularly those involving priestly celibacy and sexual morality in general. Loyalty to the Church and her teachings was apparently not on their agenda.
In particular, these elements appear to have exercised a major and malignant influence over US seminaries since the early 1960's, including the selection of candidates for ordination. It's been alleged that candidates with orthodox beliefs (i.e. conforming to Church teaching and tradition) were actively discouraged from entering the seminaries and/or dismissed from them, whereas those with more radical ideas (up to and including many whose lifestyle was at odds with Church teaching) were encouraged to apply.
I have no personal experience of US seminaries, having received my training for the priesthood elsewhere; but many reports indicate that they were seriously affected by these machinations. In his book 'Goodbye, Good Men', Michael Rose provides a great deal of evidence that many US seminaries were effectively undermined by such influences. Some critics have accused Rose of exaggeration and sensationalism, but I've heard from many US priests that their experience of seminary formation closely corresponded with what he reports.
If Rose's allegations are true, I suggest we don't need to look much further for at least one major cause of the explosion in clergy sex abuse cases during and after the 1960's. I find it significant that in their 2006 Supplementary Report on 'The Nature and Scope of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests and Deacons in the United States 1950-2002' (commissioned by the USCCB), the John Jay College of Criminal Justice published the following two graphs, on pages 7 and 11 respectively:
The increase in the number of alleged offenders and reported incidents corresponds closely to the period when aberrations in seminaries in the USA were reportedly at their worst (as, presumably, was the quality of some – but surely not all – graduates ordained from those seminaries during that time). I can only assume that graduates influenced by such 'formation', as well as older clergy who abandoned sound teaching to latch on to the latest trends and fads, were probably behind much of the increase shown in the graphs above. The decrease from the early 1980's to the present may be accounted for by the dismissal of many offenders from the priesthood, as well as publicity about the scandal causing potential offenders to refrain from further crimes.
You'll remember what I said earlier about the authority of a bishop. In particular, any diocesan bishop has both the authority and the responsibility to supervise and regulate any and every Church institution within his jurisdiction. If it has a special charter or dispensation to exempt it from his control, he can appeal to the Vatican to have any problems investigated and dealt with. Many of the bishops of the US dioceses where seminaries are located appear to have failed dismally in their duty of oversight. Indeed, rather than investigate abuses and rectify the situation, some of them appear to have deliberately waited for the Pope to appoint a commission of inquiry, to conduct the investigation and impose remedies from outside. I believe at least some of the bishops chose that option so that they could remain on good terms with local radical elements, and avoid alienating them by fulfilling their responsibilities. Instead, they shuffled off those responsibilities on to Rome's shoulders – along with the opposition, resentment and resistance aroused among such elements in the process. I regard this as a catastrophic failure of leadership on the part of those bishops, and a searing indictment of their management of their dioceses. I don't think it's out of place to call it cowardice.
Also, it appears likely that the Vatican and the Pope weren't fully informed of how large or how serious the clergy sex abuse scandal had become until it was too late. A diocesan bishop reports to Rome annually in writing, and every five years in person during an ad limina visit, on the state of his diocese. The Vatican's knowledge of what's going on in his area comes largely from such reports, plus others submitted by its diplomatic representatives in every major nation and region. If the bishop doesn't report a problem, Rome will probably remain in ignorance of its existence – unless and until it explodes into a glare of publicity. This is precisely what appears to have happened with this scandal.
Some allege that because serious cases of clergy misconduct are reported to various Vatican offices, the Pope and his senior administrators have no excuse for not being aware of the escalation of the problem. That isn't necessarily a reasonable assumption. Remember that such cases usually involve the confessional privilege and priest-penitent privilege. They're therefore very strictly regulated to preserve confidentiality, and would not be discussed outside a narrow circle of officials. The Pope and senior administrators have (in the past) not normally dealt with the minutiae of such cases, so it's unlikely they would have discovered the extent of the problem from that source. (In the wake of the clergy sex abuse scandal, top officials now maintain a much closer scrutiny of such cases, for obvious reasons.)
Tomorrow I'll look at how the Church addressed the growing scandal; the measures taken taken by the US bishops collectively to respond to it, and whether or not these would – or could – prove effective; and how I and some other priests reacted to them.