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.



Brad J (Kazrak) said...

Thank you for this. As someone who has never been involved with the Catholic church, I've been having trouble finding perspective on these things from "inside" that didn't immediately flip into full-on shields-up defensive mode.

I look forward to the rest of the series.

Anonymous said...

I can only second what Brad said.


Ian said...

And I second Jim and Brad; I'm really looking forward to this. Could you, in some future article, also address the distinction between a priest as celebrant and a priest as a man (or in my Scottish Episcopal Church, woman)? And the Church transcendent and the church as an all too human group of people?

Anonymous said...

Where do cardinals fit into the chain of command?


Anonymous said...

Not being Catholic, don't really have a dog in this particular hunt, but I'd like to point out that somewhere (on the web) I recently read that someone did a study on who the child abusers are. It turned out that Catholic priests are abusers in about the same percentage as the rest of the population.
It's just that Church abuse gets written up more; I wonder why?

Carvin' Joe said...

I am an active Catholic that attended 12 years of Catholic School. I have never had anything but a wonderfully rewarding, positive experience with the Church. I am very interested in reading the rest of your article because the Sex/Pedophilia scandal is so far beyond my experience, I have difficulty comprehending it.

Kansas Scout said...

As a former Protestant Minister, I can relate to the difficulty of going into this.
bureaucracy is universal and not restricted to the Catholic Church.
I saw similar processes in the Presbyterian Church and in the Southern Baptist Church before that. Institutional forces always serve to distort human behavior in ways you described so well.
I look forward to reading more.

Crucis said...

Not to disparage the actual horrible acts that were done, but I find it astonishing that our State Media are reviling the Catholic Church and demanding that all homosexuals be purged while at the same time demanding that the Boy Scouts of America accept them. (That statement was made on a blog whose name I've forgotten about the NYT attacks on the Pope.)

Hypocrisy abounds in Journalism.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if the shortage of priests is the result of the same seminary experience you cite as a potential cause of the abuse increase?

Mary Stack said...

It is complete nonsense to blame the seminary changes for the abuse scandal. My understanding is that most pedophiles are not homosexual. I have always understood it was a great free education for a gay man. "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" Interesting that the abuse has taken place all over the world and not just in the US. My view is that this rise in reporting has to do with the Oprah effect. Victims are no longer ashamed to speak out about past abuse and the trend of therapy and counseling have encouraged discussions. The Vatican didn't know about abuse is total nonsense. I can remember knowing about these issues as a child in the 60's. I am a lifelong Catholic, who is happy to hear the criticism of our neglect. My children attend Catholic school and alter serve in our church. The light that has shone on this issue, has resulted in rules that protect all children. Pedophiles are no longer easily able to find victims in our church. The questions remains: where are they hiding now?

Anonymous said...

Peter, thanks. As a practicing, painfully orthodox, Catholic, this seems like a pretty good summation so far. I’d only like to point out that the bishop’s failures go a little deeper. In trying to entertain the “Spirit of Vatican II”, oh how I hate that term, it is my understanding that many bishops simply abdicated their authority on many occasions by putting on the modern “Administrator/CEO” hat and letting lay councils, advisors, and committees deal with important issues.

That trend, sadly, is still in evidence today at the parish level where music ministers, liturgical ministers, and DREs (for those who are non-Catholic, those are essentially the religious education principals) ride rough shot over the priests who are afraid to challenge them or are down right happy to let them run amok.

Thankfully, the younger priests allowed into seminary (many are still encouraged to “go out and experience the world” and are turned away or have to go elsewhere to study) are very orthodox and spoiling for a fight.

Anonymous said...

Oh... And someone asked about Cardinals. For all intents and purposes, that is purely an honorific for those who can vote on the next pope (If they are under a certain age. I can’t remember the age limit now). They are Bishops or Archbishops with the same powers. They do get cooler hats and a better coat of arms. And a cardinal’s call to the Pope will probably be returned a little faster than a bishop’s.

Example; Galveston-Houston is an Arch-Diocese and Joseph Cardinal DiNardo is its Archbishop. When he passes or retires, his successor will be an Archbishop ONLY, unless specifically elevated to a cardinal.

Think of bishops as professors, archbishops as deans, and Cardinals as members of the faculty that get to vote on who the school's next president will be.

Anonymous said...

Interesting article. I look forward to the next parts. Thank you for your time and thought in writing it.

LabRat said...

Second anon: I imagine it's because pedophiles use positions of trust and closed circles both to groom their victims and to protect themselves. A church is just such a position of trust, but people are quicker to speak up when it's their priest abusing their child than when it's say, their own father, or brother, or other relative- and abuse by family constitutes a high proportion of child molestations. Not least because the predator isn't just grooming his victims in that case, but the people who would be in a position to protect them.

Old NFO said...

Thanks for opening the veil of secrecy Peter, I think this can only benefit your readers!

Anonymous said...

Earlier articles reported the rate of pedophilia was something like to 20 or 25% of the general population. Later this was revised up to rough parity. Any such abuse is horrifying but the church is fair game while the pedophilia rate among teachers is reportedly about 400% of the general population. The only thing one will hear from the collective media about this is the sound of crickets.

Anonymous said...

I am a protestant. Always have been and always will be. But I appreciate the honesty that went into this article, Peter.

For those who think we protestants don't have sexual hijinks going on, you're wrong. I can say that in my experience, when they come to light, they are dealt with QUICKLY and openly. The offender is put out with the tag of a bad recommendation from the church, so any future ministry/job/whatever would be ever so closed to him. That goes from Sunday School teachers all the way up. Police records are checked and updated every year.

It saddens me that some pervs have messed up something that was meant to be so good, but that is the way of the serpent, no?

Bob Perrow

Anonymous said...

Without attempting to create rancor, I find I must post this.

When the Catholic Church decides to get back to actually preaching and living the Word of GOD as written, These issues might begin to clear up. Until then, its just chasing shadows. Rome has forsaken the Bible. The toll is starting to show.

Miguel said...

Thank you very much for the articles. I am lapsed Catholic who has not taken the sacrament of Communion in over 30+ years because I felt that the Church deviated so much from the Message of Our Lord and became a tool of social engineering and outright communism. When I saw priests openly taking arms and becoming part of terrorist groups like the Colombian guerrillas and not a single priest rising in protestbut just nodding along and even doing their own little fashionable left wing stuff, I had to stop attending Mass. I wanted spiritual guidance, I was getting Marxism under the guise of Christianity.

Rorschach said...

Mary, your understanding is unfortunately quite flawed. The incidence of pedophilia in connection with male homosexuality is quite high. I don't have the numbers in front of me but my recollection is somewhere north of 25%. Additionally, homosexuals of both genders self-report a shockingly high rate of childhood molestation, compared with the general population (north of 30% by my recollection). Additionally, the only group that reports a higher incidence of childhood molestation are child molesters themselves (well over 50%). Now that is not to say that all homosexuals were molested as a child, but a great many were. That is also not to say that all homosexuals are pedophiles, but again, a great many are. And it is also not to say that all children molested as a child will become molesters themselves, but again a great many do. It would appear that at least one major developmental pathway to homosexuality AND child molestation is sexual trauma during the formative years when a child is integrating his or her sexuality into his personality, stunting their emotional and sexual growth and locking them into an altered pattern of behavior. the fact that child molestation is a major common denominator with both homosexuality as well as child molestation would strongly indicate that both operate on similar developmental pathways.

BubbaDave said...

The late, great Pope John Paul II (1920-2005) was another outstandingly holy man, who's currently on the fast track to sainthood.

How do you reconcile that with his protection of Fr. Maciel (founder of the Legion of Christ and a priest who had a secret wife and children as well as preying upon seminarians, but brought in a great deal of money to the Church) and the lack of any consequences for Cardinal Law?

Peter said...

BubbaDave, I don't know that Pope John Paul II did protect Fr. Maciel. Certainly, his flaws were noted by the hierarchy, and any attempt to boost his reputation is dead before it starts. On the other hand, I don't know that he did have a secret wife and children - your source for that information, please? As for 'preying on seminarians', I don't know of any substantiated charges, only allegations. They may well be true - I can't say - but their very existence has served to tarnish his memory.

I don't think the Fr. Maciel case takes anything away from Pope John Paul II's holiness. It may be a negative reflection on one case out of the tens of thousands of administrative problems he handled during his 27 years as Pope; but there are many positives to balance that one negative. One has to look at the whole picture. I personally regard him as a saint, and I have no doubt he'll be officially canonized in due course.

Anonymous said...

We're talking about some seriously sick criiminal conduct, here, couched in "religion." My mind burns when I'm forced to recollect what went on during my school years. 16 + years in catholic schools...every phase was a new trip through the flame thrower.. No guidance, no warnings, no protection from these carnivors, other than the few bits of critical information one could glean on the street or the ball field. "What happened to Father Paul?" "Another cart accident?" "Yeah, he grabbed the wrong gusto this time and this guy beat the living hell outta him."
Grade school found us being slapped silly by a frenzied nun. I watched my younger brother staggering down a tiled hallway, his hands over his face as he cried, blood pouring through his fingers. "Of course HE was at fault." He was 7 years old. High school saw us dodging an entrenched cadre of pedophile priests (and an administrator or two?) My youngest brother was raped at an early age and hounded by these vampires all throughout high school. Some even tracked to his home on the west coast after college, Who knew they networked amongst themselves? College was a stranger trip. Male clergy pursuing young women, others cultivating male students. Seminarians had their own groups, ther own schtick. All of it very underground, but the camouflage nets grew thin at times and these goings on became more apparent. Again, your individual radar had better be tuned in and working, or you might get blind sided. The stories are myraid and then pain goes deep. Part of the problem is that this crap has worked itself into the grain of these institutions over generations. It's insidious and it's dangerous. Did Moses miss one? "Honor and protect thy children."

Anonymous said...

What you had to say about Cardinal Roncolli, Pope John XXIII, was righ on the mark. I was only a kid when he was elected and had little to measure him by. But as the years passed and other Popes came and went, his legacy stood out much more clearly. I think his papacy really stands out when it is contrasted to the one before his. Pacelli, Pope Pius XII, was a brillian elitist, pro German, some say nambi-pambi mama's boy. He did not want the job initially and found it increasingly nore difficult as the Nazis occupied Italy. He was no war-time 'consulierri'. His defacto papal secretary of state was a little (Austrian) Nun, Pascalina. She literally ran the Vatican, at times, when Pacelli felt inclined to 'hibernate'. Where he was sensitve and reticent, she was bold and decisive. She ran a huge underground network, in the Vatican and in Rome, to protect and extricate Jews from the clutches of the SS death squads. Roncalli, who was a Cardinal at this time, was less than enthused with Pacelli's handling of the Office. Where Pacelli was aloof and insular, Roncalli would be genuine and accessible. It is said that Roncalli often gave Papal Audiences to peasant farmers, where Pacelli would see no one who did not serve a purpose for him. Ever read "La Popessa"? It's a start even though I am a bit skeptical of its content in places.

John XXIII was (and is) the real deal, and I think history will only prove him more so.