In the Vineyard :: September 9, 2010 :: Volume 9, Issue 17

Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church

Reflections 1984-2010 (first in a series)
By Tom Doyle (continued)

But this is essentially not about any of the issues that have caused the most heat and triggered the intense emotional reactions.  This is about an unknown number of innocent, trusting and vulnerable girls and boys, men and women who have been sexually, emotionally and spiritually violated by persons in whom they had placed unqualified trust….deacons and priests, nuns and religious brothers, bishops, archbishops and even cardinals.  This is about decent, devout Catholics whose innocence was turned into a living nightmare, a prison of shame, guilt, fear and pain from which they could not break free. 
This painful, shocking and sad story is about the men and women in positions of power who not only looked the other way but enabled the shameful predators to continue on their path of destruction.   It is about men and women who were twice and three times victimized by the very shepherds to whom they appealed for help and who did nothing or worse, re-victimized them by treating them as a threat to their security.
This story is not about a challenge to orthodoxy or the preservation of an institution.  It is about people….people who decided to stand up and take back the dignity that had been stolen from them. 

The First Years: Crisis and Beyond
The sex abuse “crisis” is a misnomer even though it is often the most convenient descriptive word for what has happened.  A crisis is a temporary event that threatens personal or societal tranquility.  The clergy abuse “happening” is anything but temporary and it is clearly not a case of a miniscule number of moral misfits in a population of otherwise stellar professional Church men and women.  It did not begin in Lafayette Louisiana in 1984 or in Boston in 2002.  These were peak moments or spikes in the gradual information shift from hidden to open.  Credible historical sources tell us that deviant and harmful sexual behavior by clergy has been part of the Catholic Church’s culture from its earliest years.  I distinguish between deviant and harmful for a reason.  By deviant I refer to sexual behavior that is classified as pathological or sick, such as pedophilia, ephebophilia, rape or ritual molestations.  Harmful sexual behavior may not be officially classified as deviant yet it can be seriously harmful and even destructive to others.  Here I refer to the use of one’s power and position to engage in unwanted sex with age-appropriate persons.  In less convoluted or politically correct language I’m speaking of priests or bishops who use their power to seduce adults and use them as sex toys.  Most of these are women but there are instances where the victims are men.  The gender doesn’t matter.  What does matter is that trusted clerics used the power given to them to do good and perverted it to hurt others while satisfying their selfish needs.
The remote origins can be found in the gradual evolution of the clergy as a privileged and powerful sub-culture.  By the 12th century the major distinguishing mark of the Catholic clerical world was mandatory celibacy and it has remained thus even to the present.  My purpose is not to focus on the causal relationship between celibacy and sexual deviance by clerics even though there definitely is such a connection.  In short, accurate historical evidence leaves no doubt that celibacy is anything but the “jewel in the crown of the priesthood” as Pope Paul VI referred to it.
Shortly after the initial revelations in the mid eighties, scholars from a variety of disciplines began studying the seemingly new problem.  A rash of reports of sexual molestation of children by Catholic clerics and even worse, an apparent systematic cover-up by their superiors, the bishops, was not something that could be easily ignored or successfully minimized.  While an increasing number of people sought answers to the basic question, “WHY,” the Vatican appeared to ignore what was happening and the bishops back home concentrated on damage control.  Between 1984 and 1986 there was a steady flow of detailed information to the Vatican with no response but silence.  The pope’s first public utterance was not until June 1993.  During this period the Vatican’s spin was that this was an American problem caused primarily by our materialism, media sensationalism and lax morals. 
Some U.S. bishops saw in the early revelations the beginning of a wider problem.  Several bishops and religious superiors held mandatory training sessions for their priests and asked Ray Mouton, Mike Peterson and I to present lectures.  In spite of the few bishops who showed a sincere interest the bishops’ conference (NCCB, later USCCB) as a whole reacted in an arrogant and defensive manner.  In response to the “manual” prepared by Mouton, Peterson and I, they dismissed the offering and claimed they knew everything that was in it and already had protocols and procedures in place.  Around this time the NCCB general counsel told the media that the “manual” and the suggested action proposals were really an effort by the three of us to sell the bishops a “costly” program in order to profit from the crisis.
Before the end of the eighties the lines were drawn.  The victims for the most part were on their own.  The Vatican remained aloof and let the word out that this was an American problem.  A few diocesan bishops responded to individual victims with kindness but the majority either ignored pleas for help or limited their pastoral contact to either lame excuses trying to convince the victims that they were mistaken about what had happened to them, or they concentrated on convincing them to remain silent.  The bishops’ conference (NCCB) discussed the issue in executive sessions at their annual meetings but their over-riding concern was avoiding or at least minimizing liability and negative publicity.  Throughout this period (1984 to 1990) no one in Church leadership from the pope down to parish priests publicly expressed even a passing concern for the emotional and spiritual welfare of the victims. 
Priests’ reactions have been mixed.  Some reacted defensively, upset that the criminal actions of a few tainted the image of all.  Others were in denial, adamantly proclaiming that this was nothing more than a few isolated incidents that were multiplied and exploited by the anti-Catholic media.  A few priests here and there courageously spoke out publicly, most in a respectful tone, simply asking for answers from their bishops.  None of these were encouraged by their bishops and all were urged to back down lest they get in trouble.  The majority of the priests remained silent, avoiding involvement.  The National Federation of Priests Councils, an independent organization, said nothing until the bishops passed their ‘zero tolerance” measures in 2002.  The NFPC suddenly found its voice, not in support of the innocent victims but to express concern that accused priests’ rights to due process might be compromised.
By the end of the first decade it was becoming clear that what was unfolding was far more than the discovery of a few seriously disturbed clerics previously hidden in the clerical world.  The true nature of what was unfolding before us could not be limited by describing it as a “problem,” a “crisis” or a “scandal.”  It was all of those and more. We were not seeing the revelation of a shameful aberration but the uncovering of a dimension of the clerical subculture, a complex pattern of thought and behavior that was a deeply embedded aspect of the “institutional Church.”  In other words, this was not some disgusting parasite that had come from the outside and attached itself to the Church.   This was a dark and destructive force that had its roots deep in the essence of the institution itself.  What was becoming clear was that the clergy abuse phenomenon consisted of one entity, one problem so to speak, with two sides:  the aberrant and destructive sexual behavior itself which targeted children, adolescents and adults and the integration of this behavior in the institutional Church.  The primary focus has been on the papacy and the bishops because their responses have been so dramatically contrary to what is expected of the trusted consecrated office-holders whom we have been taught to believe acted in Christ’s stead.  But the rest of the Church community also reflected this unique aspect of Church culture.  A significant number of lay people either adamantly refused to believe that the plague of sex abuse was even happening or worse, many reacted with angry and often irrational attacks on the victims and their supporters, inflicting even more pain.  They had been betrayed by the perpetrators, by the bishops and now by their peers among the lay faithful.
Reports of sexual abuse came from dioceses and religious orders throughout the United States.  The bishops’ responses revealed a pattern of behavior by individual bishops and by the hierarchical corporate body that was consistent and systemic in nature.  It was neither haphazard nor random nor did it appear to be the result of a conspiracy to respond in a manner that was opposed to the norm.  The cover-ups, the secret re-assignments, the failure to report crimes to civil authorities and attempts to coerce victims into silence have not been exceptional reactive behaviors but evidence of pattern and policy that was and is part of the clerical culture…not the exception but the norm.  The bishops made it clear by the divergence between their public expressions of regret, sorrow and apology and the way they were actually treating victims that whatever the response to the growing problem was to be, it had to be on their terms.  Their public utterances and the consistent refusal to accept any true responsibility (“If mistakes were made…”) made it obvious that they were entrenched in their belief that the institutional Church was willed by God and entrusted to them.  Their fundamental mandate was to protect and defend this institution and their role in it at all costs.  The salvation of humankind depended on the Church and its bishops.  Joined to this core belief about the nature of the institution is the conviction that the priesthood, also of divine origin, alters the very nature of a man once he is ordained.  This ontological change raises the man to another level of being because he is, to quote Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, “configured to Christ.”  Both of these beliefs influenced the popes’ and bishops’ attitudes towards the victims in a way that was detrimental to them.  These beliefs have been instilled in the laity and have a profound impact on the severity of the traumatic effects suffered by victims, especially the effects of a spiritual nature.   

End of Part I


Page One

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