Wednesday, April 14, 2010
The Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal, Part IV
(This is the fourth and final article in this series. The first three parts may be found at these links: Part I, Part II and Part III.)
Today I'd like to examine how future scandals such as the clergy sex abuse crisis might be better handled by the Catholic Church, specifically in the USA but with implications worldwide. To do so, a number of issues will have to be addressed.
1. The Church's ministers and leaders are too insular.
Put yourself in the position of the average priest. He went to Seminary in his late teens or early twenties, before gaining much life experience. After seven years of training he was ordained, then spent several years as an assistant pastor or administrator, learning his job from older, more experienced priests. He then became a pastor in his own right, usually of a smaller parish to begin with, graduating to a larger parish in due course. Alternatively, he might have been selected for further education in one of the areas needed by the Church, and studied either in the US or in Rome for a Licentiate (equivalent to a Masters degree) and/or Doctorate in his field (which might include any of a number of branches of theology, scripture, Canon Law, and so on). He'd then either lectured in a seminary or university, or worked in a diocese (its court of Canon Law, for example), and probably at least assisted with pastoral work as well, if not actually served as a pastor. Another career path might have been in Church administration, assisting the Chancellor or Vicar General of a diocese, and perhaps being assigned to the Vatican to serve in one of its departments. However, the vast majority of diocesan priests would have followed a pastoral career path.
Priests – and bishops – have to function within a tightly-regulated organization, based on structures originally developed in feudal times or even earlier. They become accustomed to the absolute authority of bishops, and must work within that system if they wish to accomplish anything, either personally or pastorally. A limited degree of discretion is usually extended to experienced priests, who are trusted by the system to do the right thing without needing constant supervision; but even this is conditional upon their not making what the system would regard as a mistake. Bishops are usually selected from those who are most invested in the system, having demonstrated their loyalty to it. Mavericks are not welcome or tolerated in such an organization structure. There are always a few, but they'll usually be assigned to less important parishes or tasks and kept out of the mainstream, whether they like it or not.
Thus, clergy and bishops alike tend to become more insular over time. Their outlook upon their duties, their parishioners, and any problems they encounter, is colored by the environment within which they live and work. They're immersed in it to a far greater extent than the average lay person is invested in his or her career. As a result, many find it difficult (if not impossible) to see things from any point of view other than that of the 'system'. After all, they've never had to run a household; cope with the conflicting demands of spouse, children, work and leisure; and build an intimate, long-term relationship with a partner. (In many ways, celibacy is an easier state of life than marriage in that respect.) I've known priests who, in marriage counseling situations, insist that the sanctity and inviolability of marriage (as taught by the Church) is paramount, and who've therefore tried to keep a woman and her children in a relationship where the husband was daily inflicting violent injury upon them. This was insane, of course. When violence is present, as any competent, experienced counselor will tell you, there's virtually no hope of saving that marriage. The safety of its more vulnerable members must be paramount. However, this doesn't square with church teaching, so some priests will choose to put the latter first, even to the detriment of the former. From their perspective, doctrinal theory trumps practical reality – but it doesn't in the real world, as many of my readers will know from personal experience. Marriage counseling is one of many areas where doctrine and dogma, in all their black-and-white perfection, run headlong into the shades of gray that typify everyday life for most of us. Such collisions are frequently rather messy and difficult to handle.
To be sure, not all priests are so blind to reality; but a good many are, or feel constrained to 'follow the party line' rather than acknowledge that life is far more complex than theological or doctrinal theory might take into account. Those who, in the opinion of their superiors, make too many allowances for gray areas will be reined in by the system and forced to conform. If they object, they're likely to be transferred to positions where they can't offend any longer – and where their careers will stagnate. In particular, you may be sure that bishops will usually be selected from among those who go by the book and don't preach, practice or tolerate much in the way of deviation from the safely black-and-white world of the Church's teaching.
This makes the position of so-called 'late vocations', those who come to the priesthood as older men after several years – even decades – in the world, rather awkward. Such men will have built careers, looked after themselves, and gained a great deal of experience of life. Some may have had long-term relationships with partners; even been married, and are now widowed or have had their marriages annulled. They tend to make very good pastors, because they can relate to their parishioners and their day-to-day struggles as one who's been in their shoes. They've never been sheltered from the real world by the insular environment of the Church and its institutions. On the other hand, they're often regarded with a certain suspicion by those who have. The authorities may make use of their secular expertise (for example, someone who was an accountant might end up in diocesan administration, or a former lawyer might help with legal issues), but there'll always be senior priests (even some bishops) who'll wonder why they took so long to answer God's call, 'wasting' so many years on 'fruitless' endeavor in the world before taking the cloth. Some organization men even give the impression of feeling threatened by late vocation clergy, because the latter's qualifications, real-world experience and professional competence are frequently more extensive than their own. That's unfortunate, because the broader perspective such men bring to their vocation is potentially of very great value to the church.
I noted that when the clergy sex abuse scandal broke wide open, it was frequently the 'late vocations' – among whom I'm included – who felt the greatest anger and disbelief at what they were hearing. We could identify far more closely with the ordinary parishioner than the average priest; after all, we'd spent large parts of our lives as parishioners! We could understand the shock, revulsion and real anger of the Catholic population, in a way that many of our clergy peers and superiors simply could not. Their reaction was to circle the wagons and defend the institution. Ours was to acknowledge that no defense was possible! The scandal was intolerable, and was made infinitely worse by the actions of those who tried to defend the offenders and make allowances for them. No parent could possibly condone such actions, as their priority was (naturally) the safety of their children. We late vocations could understand and accept that, but some organization men could not. They were baffled, bewildered and angered when their perspective was rejected. They interpreted that as an attack on the Church. How could they do otherwise? They didn't know any better. On the other hand, those of us with broader experience of life saw it as a wholly natural and understandable reaction, one with which we sympathized.
To cut to the chase, this is perhaps the single most important area where the bishops and the Church failed in their handling of this crisis. They persisted for years with an organization-centric view of the problem: and that, right there, says it all. As Stephen Covey pointed out, “the way we see the problem is the problem”. Many bishops could not (some still do not) understand that for the average Catholic parent, whose children are at risk of molestation by pedophiles, the needs and priorities of the organization are the very last thing on their minds! Those parents want offenders placed out of reach of their children right now, without argument or discussion. They want to know that their children are safe. Nothing else is important to them. By ignoring that reality, and talking about the need for a pastoral approach, and healing, and giving offenders an opportunity to repent, and waffling rather than acting immediately and decisively, many bishops instantly lost almost all their moral authority. Quite frankly, I don't think those involved will ever fully regain it. They've become, in the eyes of many Catholics, what Christ called the Pharisees in Matthew, Chapter 23: “blind guides” and “hypocrites”. That's not fair, of course, as I'm sure most (if not all) of them didn't mean their words and actions in that way, or expect them to be so received; but life isn't fair. That's the indelible impression they made, and it's stuck.
Therefore, as the very first step in handling such situations better, I submit that the Church needs to change the insular mold within which so many of her clergy (particularly her leaders) are formed and trained. I'd suggest that candidates for the priesthood should not begin their theology education until they've reached at least 25 years of age, and also lived on their own (not with their parents or in student accommodation at university), supporting themselves (not receiving financial aid from their families), for a minimum of two to three years. That would open their eyes to the realities of getting a job and working in the world. I'd also suggest that no priest should be ordained before the age of 30. Again, this gives time for the candidate to come to terms with celibacy by becoming more mature, learning for himself the realities of relationships with potential partners, and finding out whether or not he's comfortable living without that in his life. If not, better he discover that before committing himself to celibacy, rather than having to leave the priesthood later in life, with all the heartache that causes to so many.
I suggest that additional measures be taken to ensure that priests get out into the world periodically to see conditions through the eyes of others. This could be done by ensuring that for several weeks every couple of years, they're assigned to radically different environments, to jolt them out of their comfort zones and force them to look at the realities of life in new and unfamiliar ways. They could be sent to work (not as clergy, but as general volunteers) in hospitals, prisons, welfare bureaus, child protective services, the police, the fire department, and so on. It might not be a bad idea to establish relationships with the Salvation Army, the Red Cross, and similar organizations, and put priests into them as general assistants for a few weeks. Such experiences would force them to realize that the Church organization within which they function so much of the time exists to serve people who live in the far less organized, far more chaotic circumstances they see during such assignments. It should certainly broaden their outlook on life, and help them to be less insular.
I'd also suggest that the training of seminarians, and the ongoing education of those already ordained, should be broadened to include input from the real world. How about asking survivors of clergy sex abuse to speak to priests and seminarians about their experiences, so they could see the crisis through victims' eyes? I'm sure SNAP would be happy to facilitate such sessions. How about teams of families addressing seminarians every year about the day-to-day problems they experience, and how they cope with them? How about other families doing the same at annual gatherings for clergy, telling them how they balance the theological and doctrinal requirements of Church teaching with the reality of their daily lives?
I hope such steps would help priests to appreciate the tension between the black-and-white theological and doctrinal teachings of the Church and their application in the real world. For example, it's all very well for the Church to insist that artificial birth control is sinful; but how does this impact a mother who's trying to raise three or four kids on a limited budget, and simply can't bear to face the prospect of another one? What will she and/or her husband say about the prospect of dividing their already heavily-committed salaries to cover another mouth? It's a very real practical issue, and one that theology doesn't take into account. It's no wonder to me that the Church's teaching on that subject is honored far more in the breach than in the observance – but priests are still expected to admonish such parishioners, and encourage them to adhere to rules established within the theoretical, insular, black-and-white purity of the system. That's just one example of the tension between theory and practice with which priests have to contend.
2. Intellectual versus reality-based problem-solving.
There are two aspects to this. Firstly, in centuries past, the average Catholic parishioner (like everyone else) wasn't well educated. In the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, most ordinary men and women were illiterate. It was during those eras that the structure of the Church was established. Clergy were frequently the only literate people in a town or village, and the majority of them in larger cities. As such, they came to exercise a disproportionate intellectual influence over society as a whole.
Over the last hundred and fifty years or so, literacy become near-universal in the First World. Today, in countries like the USA, a great many parishioners are better and more widely educated than their pastors. Post-graduate degrees, even doctorates, are not uncommon. Such parishioners rightly resent having their pastors 'talk down' to them, assuming not only a religious, but also an intellectual authority that isn't rightfully theirs any longer. Educated people expect to enter into dialog, to be given reasons for the Church's position and response to a problem, and to be treated as adults. In refusing to face the clergy sex abuse crisis head-on, and waiting to formulate a joint response, and waffling about all sorts of issues that are extraneous to the concerns of the average Catholic, the US bishops did themselves no good at all. They came across as condescending, expecting the faithful to blindly believe and accept their assurances even as more cases of abuse were being revealed on an almost daily basis. Needless to say, the faithful didn't believe them. Furthermore, many Catholics were better qualified and/or had more experience in relevant areas than did the bishops; and they weren't afraid to speak out, on the basis of their superior knowledge. This rattled some bishops, who weren't accustomed to being treated with less than awed respect by the laity. It did them no good to try to insist on their authority being respected. Their people were too angry, and felt too betrayed, to listen to such nonsense.
Secondly, the Church should recognize that some problems, such as the sexual abuse of children, aren't susceptible to an intellectual approach. It does no good to point out that the number of sex offenders in the priesthood is vanishingly small, particularly as a percentage of the whole. That's true: but it's also irrelevant. Even one such offender is too many. A single incident causes such massive damage, such destruction of trust, that its impact far outweighs its rarity. A hundred priests can embezzle funds from their churches without causing the anguish among the faithful that one molested child will produce.
I've had all too much personal experience of this. In my country of origin, South Africa, I worked for many years with an inter-faith group helping the victims of political and tribal violence. One of the most tragic aspects of African culture is the widespread myth that sex with a virgin will cure any venereal disease, even AIDS. In a promiscuous culture, the only targets men can be reasonably sure will be virgins are children – and so they're targeted for rape. I've driven a mother and her abused child to hospital on more than one occasion. I've seen the child flinch away from me, screaming in panic, as he or she (the rapists were indiscriminate) realized that I was a man. The child's only perspective, in the agony and fear of the aftermath of the abuse, was that a man (or men) had done these unspeakable things to him or her, and therefore any man was now an object of fear and loathing. There are no words adequate to describe the fury towards the abuser that such an experience produced in me.
The bishops of the Church (if any of them read these words) need to understand this. Any parent would feel an irrepressible, burning fury towards a potential abuser of his or her child. If they didn't feel that way, they wouldn't be fit to be parents at all! I don't blame them for a moment for such attitudes, and I therefore understand viscerally why many Catholics were (and remain) livid at the Church's attempts to 'rehabilitate' sex offenders and put them back into pastoral positions where they could endanger other children. The laity's attitudes are totally understandable, but the bishops – approaching the problem from a theological and intellectual and organizational perspective – didn't (perhaps couldn't) get it. Lacking families and children of their own, I fear many bishops still don't get it; and that undermines (perhaps fatally) their credibility in the eyes of their people.
I've no idea who drew the cartoon below, or where it was published. It was sent to me via e-mail by someone who read an earlier article in this series. I think it sums up the situation very concisely.
I submit that in the light of the previous two points, bishops need to be more open to and have more two-way communication with their people. At present, this is largely achieved by annual visits to each parish, where the bishop will say Mass, then mingle with the congregation over tea and finger food. He doesn't stay long, and there isn't much opportunity for dialog, particularly in so structured a setting. However, modern communications can completely change that picture. How about a 'bishop's blog' in each diocese? What if all Catholics could read their bishop's daily thoughts on a wide range of issues, and be free to comment on his posts, as readers can do on this blog? Wouldn't that open up a whole new two-way channel of communication? He could also do a podcast at regular intervals; set up a Twitter channel or Facebook page; have 'open house' days once a month at the diocesan offices, where any Catholic could attend and talk with him and/or his senior officials about anything at all; and so on. Sure, such measures would take up quite a lot of the bishop's time, but as the supreme Pastor of a diocese, he's supposed to be available to his people. He could always set ground rules that allowed him to concentrate on really important issues, and have some of his priests handle more routine questions and queries.
It would also help greatly, in my opinion, if bishops were more open with their clergy. During this crisis, a constant complaint from priests in many dioceses was that they didn't know what was going on, and therefore couldn't answer the increasingly urgent and pointed questions of their people. Again, there are many ways to improve communication. There could be a restricted version of the bishop's blog, open only to his clergy, to allow the same sort of responses as he can receive from lay persons on his general blog. He can establish clearer, more detailed and more regular communication with his clergy via e-mail or an online forum. There are many possibilities. This would require the bishop to treat his priests more as co-ministers of the Gospel, and – most important of all – as thinking, adult human beings. At present many treat their priests warily, seeming to regard them as headstrong children who might get out of control unless kept in their place. That simply won't do in today's world, particularly with late vocations whose qualifications, real-world experience and expertise in many areas might surpass those of the diocese's leaders and administrators!
The Vatican might also wish to consider an online forum (closed to outsiders) where all clergy throughout the world could send questions, read news of the latest developments in the Church, and learn from one another. I believe that greater communication between priests couldn't help but strengthen the Church and make dealing with problems, such as this scandal, much easier.
4. Selection and training of candidates for the priesthood and episcopate.
I believe that the standards for selection and training of future priests are in serious need of revision. There are many ways to approach this, into which we can't go for reasons of space; but scientific and medical disciplines, spiritual formation and a whole range of other tools should be used to inculcate a right attitude in seminarians, right from the start. In earlier articles in this series, I mentioned certain factors and proposals that might also be considered. If as many potential pedophiles as possible can be eliminated before ordination, that will contribute greatly towards minimizing any recurrence of the crisis. Seminary education as a whole might benefit from thorough re-evaluation, and could perhaps be broadened along the lines of some of these suggestions. The Vatican would have to take the lead in this endeavor, so as to ensure consistent standards around the world.
This applies even more powerfully to the criteria for selection of future bishops. One of the most distressing aspects of the current crisis is that some bishops (admittedly few) have been found to have committed sexual sins and/or offenses prior to (or even after) being raised to the episcopate. When the truth has eventually been discovered, this has caused immense harm to the Church. (The most recent example of which I'm aware occurred in Norway.) Apart from a much more thorough scrutiny of candidates for the episcopate, I would suggest that anyone under consideration for this office should be required to swear under oath, and under pain of immediate latae sententiae excommunication if he lies, to the effect that he has not violated his promise of celibacy or vow of chastity since making it. This won't deter an inveterate liar, but given that in terms of Church teaching their immortal souls will be seriously endangered by any falsehood, it should be a meaningful deterrent to many.
I could go on, but I think the above are the most important areas needing study and reform right now. If the lessons learned from this crisis can be applied to them, and to the wider activities of the Church, all her members will benefit.
Do readers have suggestions of their own as to how the Catholic Church might better handle such scandals in future - in particular, how they might be avoided altogether, or at least minimized in their effect? If so, please post your ideas in Comments. Let's see whether we can come up with worthwhile ideas that might be of interest to the powers that be.