Bishop Finn takes flight, but is the summer of Pope Francis upon us?

by Peter Isely

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Mindful of Aristotle's caution that one swallow does not a summer make, there is still good reason to celebrate that after years of intense activism, advocacy and grass-roots organizing from abuse survivors, advocates, Catholic clergy and parishioners, the Vatican has finally, formally and unceremoniously removed Bishop Robert Finn from the beleaguered diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Mo.

This is a kind of move the Vatican is always loath to make since it raises serious questions about the divine hand in episcopal promotions. Thus, there was only one paltry sentence in the statement about it from the Vatican. So much for a teaching moment.  

That Finn was convicted of child endangerment and was publicly exposed for breaking signed promises to victims of clergy sex crimes negotiated in civil settlements certainly helped, proving once again that when criminal and civil courts intervene in church cover-ups, it becomes increasingly difficult for the Vatican to feign neutrality.

Backing the efforts of the law in Kansas City: parishioners who spoke up, organized and signed petitions (it's easy to be cynical, but thousands of signatures made a difference); dedicated journalists who investigated and reported stories of priest sex abuse and institutional complicity; and innovative insiders/outsiders to the church system itself, like Milwaukee canon lawyer Fr. Jim Connell, co-founder of The Survivors and Clergy Leadership Alliance, who found ways to use the church's legal system to represent survivors and press for the rights of aggrieved parishioners.

Finally, credit goes to the longtime national director of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests, David Clohessy, and the survivor leaders in Kansas City. Clohessy fearlessly advocated and advanced the Kansas City story, his success resulting in a despicable and well-funded legal attack on him by Kansas City church lawyers and church officials.

But no one expects a wave of resignations of cardinals and bishops, some of them worse offenders than Finn, anytime soon. One of the frustrating mysteries of Pope Francis is his maddening "one step forward, one step back" response to child sex abuse. In its recent iteration, he promotes one cover-upper, Juan Barros Madrid in Chile, while he demotes another, Robert Finn in Kansas City. What gives?

Every group, it seems, including the Catholic hierarchy, is composed of at least two teams, the (currently perceived) winners and the (currently perceived) losers. It's a virtual law of man, the group animal. If you randomly take any number of people and discuss anything, no matter how trivial or serious the topic, eventually, one faction will form in disagreement or opposition to the other.

There is, however, always a common measure between the two sides. Like in two-party political systems, I may not like who's in office, but I agree that one side can eventually replace the other. If there is no common measure, then there can be no eventual substitution of sides. That is why most elections are usually decided by a small group of the hesitant who don't have a stable, consistent opinion. In American elections, we call the undecided "independents," which says a lot about our ideas about what freedom is. Of the two factions voting in the last papal election, it was probably the undecided, the hesitant, and the last-minute votes for opportune reasons that led to Pope Francis.

For argument's sake, let's call the two teams the "traditionalist tough-guy reactionaries," once led by Benedict XVI (and may be still, with Cardinal Raymond Burke as its chief current activist), versus the "nice-guy moderates" (or those who say, "Tone down the culture wars, people are starting to really not like us"), now led by Francis. Both teams share wanting things to be different (but in different ways) but not wanting to change the common system that has brought them together, nurtured their various ascents to power, and still dictates all their scrimmaging for importance and positioning.

In times of transition, seeming to switch sides is also not uncommon. As Hamlet tells Rosencrantz and Guildenstern: "It is not strange; for mine uncle is king of Denmark, and those that would make mouths at him while my father lived, give twenty, forty, fifty, an hundred ducats a-piece for his picture in little. 'Sblood, there is something in this more than natural, if philosophy could find it out."

Finn, unlike Barros, is on the losing team. By getting rid of Finn, you not only appear to be showing some sensitivity on child sex abuse and to Catholics in the diocese (and I am not saying this isn't a factor), but you also remove one of your enemies on the other team.

Finn's real problem is that he was on the wrong team. His crime is that he gave the other team enough rope to hang him. Indeed, it was Cardinal Sean O'Malley of Boston who signaled, in an unusual and certainly calculated comment during a "60 Minutes" interview, that Finn was on his way out. O'Malley can talk this way because he has replaced Cardinal Timothy Dolan of New York as the Vatican's go-to guy in the United States. He is the "sex-abuse fixer."

Dolan was promoted to New York in 2009 because he was on the previous winning team (Benedict's). But his team lost, so you're not hearing much from him, which speaks volumes. One can be pretty confident that Dolan's team is plotting to try to make sure their guy gets elected when Francis goes. In the meantime, they have all purchased Francis' photo, and it's hanging prominently in their offices.

Justice is something altogether different from this kind of two-party politics. Justice doesn't have teams. It doesn't take the side of the exploited, the oppressed and the dispossessed because justice is the exploited, the oppressed and the dispossessed. They are not a team. They are those without a team. Any true social change originates in them. They are the part of the system that has no part in the system. They occupy the empty place of the system, the social and political space where the law has been annulled, vacated or subverted. That is why childhood survivors of clergy sex crimes and cover-ups who represent no one, no faction, and no particular interest are, paradoxically, occupying the place of the true church while the actually existing church has no place for them and does not know what do with them.

But victories, whatever their cause, need to be acknowledged, and forcing the resignation of a Catholic bishop is no small accomplishment. The desire for some semblance of justice in Kansas City made things happen, had an effect, created a difference. For the survivors of Finn's former diocese, that desire, I am sure, has seemed over many long years infinitely small and insignificant. It was the grain of the mustard seed. And it deserves a lot more than one swallow of a sentence taking flight from the Vatican's communications office.

[Peter Isely is the Midwest director of Survivors Network for those Abused by Priests.]

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