October 22, 2007

Reconciliation needs truth and justice, not damage control

Catherine of Siena Distinguished Lay Person Award
VOTF Convention, Providence, RI
October 20, 2007

Carolyn Disco, winner of the Catherine of Sienna Award, is the New Hampshire VOTF Survivor Support Chairperson.

I am both deeply moved and humbled even to be nominated, for this is an extraordinary honor. I just assumed someone of the national prominence of Justice Anne Burke would be selected. To follow in her footsteps as the second recipient of this Award was a stunning surprise. I thank the committee for naming me.

I am here because I have come to know survivors of clergy sexual abuse, both personally and through the documents from diocesan secret archives. Like many who joined Voice of the Faithful, I am repulsed by the betrayal of bishops who protected the institutional church at the expense of vulnerable children. So many survivors do not know God’s love, how precious they are in His eyes. That is what was stolen from them. The destruction of a child’s trusting relationship with God, his spiritual heritage, is especially cutting.

William D’Antonio and Anthony Pogorelc conclude accurately in their new book, Voices of the Faithful: Loyal Catholics Striving for Change that “revelations of the underbelly of the church were a surprise to (VOTF members, who) were not in possession of the ‘cynical knowledge’ of insiders who knew the church bureaucracy and of what it was capable.”

Catherine of Siena, in her day, had that cynical knowledge and set a course for doing something about it. Her voluminous letters to popes, kings, cardinals, clergy, and laity circulated widely, not being meant solely for the recipient. I believed they functioned as the medieval equivalent of op-eds, letters to the editor, commentaries, and press conferences. I imagine she might be a prominent blogger today.

Catherine’s writing largely focused on God’s love for us as the ultimate reality. So she reached out in love to those she rebuked. This did not restrain her sharp vocabulary about corruption in the Church, but it did leaven her appeals to show of what goodness her correspondents were capable – if only they opened their eyes.

Whether through inability or choice, the denial of reality, or refusal to see what is before us, is the source of inexhaustible evil. Perpetrators rationalize the true nature of their abuse; bishops deny their role in enabling it; and the laity too often turns a blind eye to the bishops’ denials. The danger though is to assume that everyone is blind except me, and so Christ’s admonition to remove the plank in one’s own eye is cautionary.

Nonetheless, the reality I see is that the scandal is not history, but history in the making. The removal of over 700 priests from ministry is a very significant step, however reluctantly bishops adopted zero tolerance. Yes, surveys, studies, policies, procedures, Review Boards, audits, background checks, training and financial settlements are ongoing, thank God. And the recognition of sexual abuse throughout society is a huge advance triggered by the Church’s exposure.

My concern though is that among the administrative measures, there are signs that damage control overrides transparency. Why did the bishops’ survey exclude mentally handicapped victims, if their abuse did not begin before their 18th birthdays? Is that not an offensive restriction? Why were the victims of seminarians who did not go on to ordination likewise excluded? Someone in my parish was apparently not counted under that limitation. Why in my state are there vastly divergent findings between truly independent attorney general audits, and the bishops’ audits? Ultimately, the spirit in which something is done determines the integrity of the outcome.

Justice Burke spoke at our conference in Indianapolis about her three years on the National Review Board. She said she learned to second-guess what bishops told her, to look for hidden agendas, and to count her fingers and toes after dealing with officialdom. As soon as the pressure was off, some bishops tried to neuter accountability. I find the same, after five years of prodigious research.

So, where does hope lie? As it must, in keeping our eyes on Christ. This is about the incomparable love of God, embraced in and through His Church, and to which we must respond with all our heart and soul and strength. Reform is hard work, but the symbol of the Church is the cross of redemption, not a happy face.

I have a vision for reconciliation among the People of God, a term that includes the hierarchy as well as the laity: 1) expeditious negotiation of settlements with survivors, 2), public release of documents about sexual abuse and 3) the admission by bishops of their true culpability in the scandal. Wishful thinking perhaps, but hopeful.

One impediment in settlement negotiations is bishops’ continuing use of the first amendment defense, an unnecessary, hurtful delay tactic. Since the guiding principle is to glorify God in all we do, bishops should forego them in response to survivor lawsuits. By distorting the church autonomy doctrine, bishops in effect claim the right to be negligent in supervising predator priests, and exempt themselves from neutral principles of law to protect children. Why? In order to freely exercise our Catholic faith. That twisting of reality does not advance the Kingdom.

Understand, survivors seek justice in the courts because the criminal statutes of limitation have run out. Filing a civil lawsuit is the only way to publicly identify their abusers, and learn the truth about what bishops knew, when – the basis of a just outcome, and of preventing future abuse. And, yes, compensation is long overdue.

But bishops have a precious opportunity here to reconcile with survivors. Instead, prelates often leave them bleeding, as they hand out checks. Survivors appreciate when it does not take the immediate threat – and I mean a day or so – of bishops being cross-examined in open court, before settlements are concluded. The impression, valid or not, is unavoidable: pay whatever is necessary to keep bishops off the stand and hide evidence. The many millions dioceses can really find when cornered reinforce this judgment.

Far better to follow the Gospel willingly, not under the legal gun. What is the profit really in putting survivors through the judicial meat grinder for four, five, or even 10 years as in Providence? Bishops can and should grant some measure of justice before their last legal maneuver expires. Engage the better angels of your nature and do so, in the Lord’s name; make it as much a pastoral as a business decision.

Settlements will be paid in the end anyhow. As to concerns about financial impact, sin and crime have consequences, and we all as the Body of Christ share in them. Jesus rejected notions like “it’s not my fault,” and so should we. Child sex abuse survivors stand as victims of the Church herself, and as such, have a special claim on our conscience. Let’s pay the price in justice, not in charity, and then move on together with heads held high.

Settlements have concentrated the minds of all institutions, not just the Catholic Church, to the penalties of failing to put children first. They are a powerful deterrent to future recklessness and negligence. Money is not an inconsequential concern.

My second wish, the public release of documents by dioceses and religious orders, holds an important key to healing and prevention: Documents offer survivors the validation they so desperately need. Surely, that is a grace in keeping with the Scriptural truth, that what is done in darkness will be revealed in the light. Moreover, with documents public, bishops have no excuse for scorched earth tactics just to keep secrets. Negotiations are free to proceed based on genuine transparency.

My last dream for reconciliation, the admission by bishops of their real culpability, finds resonance in the writing of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran theologian executed by the Nazis. He said, “Communicating truthfully means more than factual accuracy…There is a way of speaking which is…entirely correct and unexceptionable, but which is, nevertheless, a lie…When an apparently correct statement contains some deliberate ambiguity, or deliberately omits the essential part of the truth…it does not express the real as it exists in God.”

The reality that exists in God is honored when bishops own the truth of their conduct. It sets them free, even if it is incriminating. They must admit the particulars of what they did and did not do – not in passive euphemisms like “mistakes were made” or “some persons experienced harm.”

Reject the bleached generalities and spin of public relations – what Bonhoeffer calls lies. Embrace authentic humility, another word for truth, and acknowledge, “I lied to survivors, covered up sexual abuse and criminally endangered children.” That confession, that penance would be a gift to survivors and the Church of astounding proportions. Thousands of documents on provide all the evidence needed, what my attorney general called, for example, a “willful blindness…and conscious course of deliberate ignorance,” in criminal violation of child endangerment statutes.

Let me speak directly to survivors and their families as friends and fellow advocates: Will all of you who feel comfortable doing so, please stand for half a minute while I recognize you as our distinguished guests?

I thank you from my heart for coming forward. Because of your courage, innocent children are being protected, dangerous molesters are being removed, and negligent enablers are being exposed. What an extraordinary legacy you bring in forcing our Church to face the truth! As innocents yourselves, who suffered at the sinful hands of priests, bishops, cardinals, abbots, seminarians, deacons; religious sisters and brothers; lay volunteers, teachers, coaches, and employees; your experience is the impetus for reform and purification. Look what you are achieving by bringing us to a new day of truth. Thank you, thank you.

My time must be more than up, and as Catherine often plainly and directly ended her letters, “I say no more.”

Carolyn B. Disco

Survivor Support Chairman

NH Voice of the Faithful