Shame on SNAP's Lawyers

by Michael Sean Winters

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Let me stipulate that if you were sexually abused as a child, by a cleric or an uncle or a neighbor, you are allowed to be angry for the rest of your life. You are allowed to make inflammatory statements. You are allowed to pursue justice in whatever venue you wish. You are allowed to hate any institution that failed to take action against the perpetrator of the horrific crime. That is why this post is not entitled “Shame on SNAP.”

The lawyers for SNAP, however, have no such morally righteous indignation, nor does the press corps that covers them. The decision to seek the intervention of the International Criminal Court in the matter of clergy sex abuse in the Catholic Church is outrageous. It is an outrage against the Church. It is an outrage against the victims. And, it is an outrage against those victims the ICC was established to defend.

The ICC was established in 1998 in the wake of the genocide in Rwanda and the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Attorney Pam Spees of the Center for Constitutional Rights said yesterday, “What we are saying is that the crimes of sexual violence within the church context are widespread, certainly. But they are also being committed on a systematic basis, in the sense that it is the policies and practices of the church and church leadership which allow these things to continue.” Spees is undoubtedly correct that the leaders of the Church were slow to come to grips with the moral enormity in their midst. They were confronted with horrific deeds and they did not react with horror. But, she is playing a shell game. In Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, the crimes were ordered by political leaders. No one, so far as I know, has suggested that Pope Benedict XVI ordered any priest to rape a child. There is a difference, a moral difference, between a systematic attempt to slaughter a people and an effort to cover up the crimes of one’s subordinates. So far as I know, no one has been charged at the ICC with trying to cover up the genocide in Rwanda or the ethnic cleansing in Sarajevo. Those who have been charged perpetrated the crimes.

Clearly, Church leaders tried again and again to cover up the crimes and that is, in itself, outrageous. But, it is also a fairly common moral instinct. Teenagers hide dirty magazines under their beds. To cite a case that is more on point, Bill Clinton lied about his relationship with Monica Lewinsky. He was wrong to lie and I am sure his motives were mixed. Most men who cheat on their wives do not tell their wives about their affairs. In Clinton’s case, his pollster advised him that he would not be able to remain in office unless he lied. Clinton was, at that time, achieving much good for the country. Should he have risked throwing all that good away in order to come clean about his affair? The issue is at least a bit murky. I suspect, and more than suspect, that those bishops who covered up the crimes of their priests were motivated by similar concerns, which is not to excuse the cover-up. It is to put it into context and to conclude that the context is different from the context for ethnic cleansing or genocide.

Put differently, does anyone really believe the analogy between Pope Benedict and Slobodan Milosevic holds water? This legal effort to get the ICC involved not only holds out false hopes for the victims of clergy sex abuse, it is an offense against the thousands upon thousands of dead, maimed and raped victims of Milosevic’s crimes as well as the hundreds of thousands of victims of genocide in Rwanda. To treat other crimes like those crimes is to diminish the unique evil which considered rape and murder a means to an end.

On NPR, the report on All Things Considered did not, in fact, consider all things. The report was entirely biased. They quoted Ms. Spees and they quoted David Clohessy of SNAP. They did not quote a single scholar or historian to rebut the charges. (Dear NPR editors – you can contact me if you want someone to rebut these charges.) Clohessy lamented the fact that the Church lacks checks and balances. Well, I certainly believe the Church must institute procedures that assure accountability. But, forgive me for pointing out that we Catholics believe the office of bishop was instituted by Christ, eighteen hundred years before the idea of checks and balances was introduced at the time the U.S. Constitution was being framed. Models for civilian governance are not, prima facie, applicable to the constitution of the Church.

On that same program, Ms. Spees said: “You see, over periods of years, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger [now Pope Benedict] either refusing to defrock offending priests, even when the bishops are telling him over and over again this harm is being done, there is more risk of harm — and he’s leaving them there, or he is moving them.” Actually, I do not see that. I have looked at the documents that made their way into a New York Times story that alleged Pope Benedict’s personal involvement in the cover-up, but as I wrote at the time, the documents did not reveal what the Times thought they did. Does Ms. Spees have other documents she would like to share? Might NPR have thought to mention that the Times story had been challenged?

Of course, the Church must deal with sex abuse and with the cover-up of sex abuse differently from the way it is doing so. Cardinal Rigali should have had the decency to resign the day the second Grand Jury Report was issued in February. (This column called for his resignation.) Failing that, he should have been removed immediately. The revelations of financial payments from the Legionaries of Christ to Cardinal Angelo Sodano, reported by Jason Berry and published by this newspaper, should have been enough to cashier Sodano from all ecclesiastic offices and sinecures. It is shocking that Bishop Finn is still bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph, despite his failure to take appropriate action against one of his priests who was breaking the law. It is shocking, too, that Bishop Bruskewitz is still the Bishop of Lincoln and Bishop Vasa is the bishop of Santa Rosa despite the fact that these prelates refuse to participate in the audits of their compliance procedures. Until and unless the Church takes more vigorous actions against those bishops who cover up sex abuse, her leaders have no one to blame but themselves when others suspect that have still not grasped the horror of clergy sex abuse.

I hope the ICC will decline to take this case. Not all horrific deeds are like all other horrific deeds. Not all cover-ups are like all other cover-ups. Crimes against humanity should be a charge reserved for the likes of Milosevic. Still, the Church can expect more of the same so long as you have an in-coming archbishop saying that reading the reports of the deeds of his predecessors made him sick to his stomach. There is rot in the hierarchy that Pope Benedict needs to rip out. But, that does not get the lawyers at the Center for Constitutional Rights off the hook either. This suit is wrong-headed and reflects a morally skewed view of what constitutes a crime against humanity. The dead at Srebrenica did not live to tell their tale nor seek redress for the evil inflicted upon them. That fact alone should have made the lawyers think twice before leveling this outrageous charge against Pope Benedict.

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