The roots of the clergy sex abuse crisis

by Michael Sean Winters

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The fact that we, as a church, are still wrestling with how to confront the crime of clergy sexual abuse of minors invites all manner of emotional and programmatic responses. This weekend’s release of a new motu proprio on episcopal accountability makes those invitations clamant.

Some people, as we know, have left the church: The rise of the "nones" among Catholics in the Northeastern part of the United States is largely attributable to the clergy sex abuse crisis, although this cause melded with the rise of the Religious Right and its involvement with politics. Others, including some leaders of victims' advocacy groups have become fatalistic about reform: Understandably suspicious, each additional revelation of clergy sex abuse and, even more, of bishops covering that abuse up, only feeds their suspicion that the leaders of the church will always be more concerned with institutional self-preservation than with protecting children. Still others think the crisis only confirms their suspicions about the hierarchic organization of the church more generally, that this issue, like all issues, is really only about power.

There is no doubt that the Vatican curia is a unique subculture. I recall many years ago a friend who worked there explaining to me that the curia did not exist to help the Holy Father govern the universal church, but to get red for the more talented among its employees, that is, be made a cardinal. I doubt there is more ambition there than one finds at the summit of any large organization, but ambition has less competition: For example, curial cardinals do not have to worry about the kids, as most members of Congress do, nor about advances in technology as captains of industry do.

The Vatican curia, and the episcopacy more generally, have also been operating at major cross-currents to the ambient culture for a couple of hundred years. The dominant fact of political life for the last two centuries has been democratization, while the Church has seen the burial of Gallicanism, the great ideological opponent of Roman centralization, and the separation of Church & State yielding yet more control over local churches by Rome than could have been imagined previously. While monarchies fell, the Church embraced the doctrine of papal infallibility.

Vatican officials are not the only ones with a heady job: Bishops everywhere are the vessels by which God himself comes down from heaven to become present in the sacrament of the altar, by which the baptized are given new life, by which sins are absolved in the confessional, and priests are ordained. "Thou art a priest forever, by the order of Melchizedek," sang the psalmist, and some clergy, especially higher clergy, took this to heart. Too many bishops forget that they are a mere vessel for God's grace, their relationship to the Lord is that between a wine glass and the wine: They did not make the wine, and they are not the wine, they are the glass and, like all glasses, their job is to be clean and translucent.

Finally, and I think most, the inability of the leaders of the church to discuss sexual matters frankly, and the virtual suppression of such discussion during the long pontificate of St. Pope John Paul II, led to a situation in which everyone more or less knew that people no longer believed what the church taught, but no one wanted to admit it. Pastors looked out at congregations and saw families with two or three children, and yet they could not draw the obvious conclusion or, if drawn, had nowhere to go with that conclusion. The leaders of the church knew the inhumane reality of the closet for gays, indeed they knew many gay leaders in the church, but they could not admit this, still less discuss it. We are only just now coming to terms with the needs of the divorced and remarried, not all of whom are morally culpable for the break up of their first marriage. In this environment, is it any wonder that coming to terms with the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy was unlikely to be dealt with in a forthright manner?

All of that said, many leaders in the church have confronted the sex abuse crisis and have done so with concern for the victims and a stern determination to protect children in the future. Many bishops do meet with victims and do try and find ways to compensate victims. In the matter of the motu proprio, I think all concur that it never would have happened without the leadership of Cardinal Sean O'Malley on this issue, leadership that first manifested itself back in 1992 in Fall River, when he confronted the Porter case, one of the first epic and public cases of sex abuse, and then in Boston, which became ground zero for the crisis in 2002. In my home diocese of Washington, cases were dealt with promptly and fairly. And, at Dallas, Archbishop Wilton Gregory steered the Dallas Charter to adoption over against the objections of many fine bishops.

In thinking about how the church has grappled with this crisis, however, I came back to the insights of a great psychologist whose work was recently called to my attention. The loss of confidence in the church has its secular counterparts: Most people have less trust in more institutions, from the church to government to the academy, than they did in previous times. Why? We can point to a Nixon here or a Cardinal Law there, but there is one place we do not like to point, and that is to ourselves. Here is a passage of a reading you may have come across recently, as I did, from this psychologist, whose insights shed light on why so many church leaders were reluctant, and still are reluctant, to get to the root of the problem:

Let us consider how it can happen so often that someone hears something unpleasant and goes away untroubled, as if he had not heard it; and yet sometimes he is disturbed and troubled as soon as he hears such words. What is the cause of this inconsistency? Is there one reason for it or many? I recognise several, but one in particular is the source of all the others. As someone has put it: it all comes from the person’s state of mind at the time.

If someone is engaged in prayer or contemplation, he can easily take a rebuke from his brother and be unmoved by it. Or again, his affection toward a brother may be a strong reason; love bears all things with the utmost patience. Yet another reason may be contempt: if a person despises the one who is trying to trouble him, and acts as if he is the vilest of all creatures and considers it beneath his dignity even to look at him, or to answer him, or to mention the affront and insults to anyone else, he will not be moved by his words.

All in all, then, no one is disturbed or troubled if he scorns and disregards what is said. But on the other hand, it is also possible for someone to be disturbed and troubled by his brother’s words, either because he is not in a good frame of mind, or because he hates his brother. There are a great number of other reasons as well.

Yet the reason for all disturbance, if we look to its roots, is that no one finds fault with himself. This is the reason why we become angry and upset, why we sometimes have no peace in our soul. We should not be surprised, since holy men have taught us that there is no other path to peace but this.

We see that this is true in so many other people; and yet we hope, in our laziness and desire for peace, we hope or even believe that we are on the right path even when we are irritated by everything and cannot bear to accept any blame ourselves.

This is the way things are. However many virtues a man may have -- they could be innumerable, they could be infinite -- if he has left the path of self-accusation he will never have peace: he will be afflicted by others or he will be an affliction to them, and all his efforts will be wasted.

Who is this insightful psychologist? The words were in the breviary last Monday, the Ninth Monday of Ordinary Time and they are from St. Dorotheus, a sixth-century monk who founded a monastery in Egypt. Don't they ring true?

Too many bishops came to believe that once they had that miter on the head, they were accountable to no one. And, if you are not accountable to anyone, you are never really responsible for anything that goes wrong. Loyalty descends into sycophancy and tyranny. These phenomena are not confined to bishops, to be sure. Do you think Senators Harry Reid or Mitch McConnell think they shoulder any of the blame for the fact that our politics are so dysfunctional? Do you think the captains of the extraction industry are anymore likely to assume some of the blame for climate change than the leaders of the cigarette industry accepted blame for rising cancer rates?

So, before we throw stones at the Vatican or your local bishop, think about the many ways you, dear reader, have left the "path of self-accusation" and become a source of affliction, to yourself and others. Of course, we should affirm that bishops are not only accountable to God, but to the people they serve. Of course, men of God should hold themselves to an even higher standard than they do the rest of us. Of course, covering up sex abuse, or being negligent in protecting children, is a grave sin, but its roots are in the same soil of original sin from which sprout all of our sinful thoughts, and words, and deeds done and not done. It should surprise none of us, but especially a bishop, that all of us are in need of a savior.

[Michael Sean Winters is a Visiting Fellow at Catholic University's Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies.]

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