Danneels latest symbol of a culture in need of reform

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Some will be surprised at the revelation that Cardinal Godfried Danneels of Belgium urged a victim who was abused by his uncle, a bishop, to remain quiet, accept a private apology and allow the bishop to retire and not “drag his name through the mud.”

Secretly made recordings of meetings among the cardinal, the victim and the perpetrator leave little room for Danneels to explain his way out of his own words. He didn’t call the police, he didn’t immediately seek removal of the bishop, he didn’t act immediately to find out whether there had been other victims.

One press report termed the leaked recordings “ some of the most damaging documents to emerge in the scandal rocking the Roman Catholic Church.” That may be a bit of overstatement. But what the recordings underline is the fact that when church leaders are caught in their own words – in depositions, letters, memos, directives, in the tens of thousands of pages, for instance, archived at bishopaccountability.com – the true nature of the scandal is bared. The deepest part of it, that part which refuses to go away with countless pro-forma apologies and programs, has little to do with sex and much to do with a culture that sees itself above accountability.

That’s why analyzing the scandal requires seeing it as much broader than a referendum on a certain ecclesiology or a particular view of reform or orthodoxy. And that’s why some of the recent thinking and comments by church leaders in different parts of the world becomes important. Whether the questions that are being raised in other countries have any “legs” is itself an open questions. Who knows whether those raising the questions have the stomach for pursuing them beyond their own diocesan borders.

Danneels was generally seen as one of the last of the Vatican II generation who knew that council intimately and supported its reforms. He would be, for lack of a better term, a liberal by many of today’s ecclesiastical measures. But it doesn’t matter. So was Archbishop Rembert Weakland, and his handling of some abuse cases was notoriously callous, and in his own attempt to hide a homosexual liaison he saw fit to lift nearly a half million dollars from archdiocesan coffers without telling anyone.

By contrast, Cardinal Anthony Bevelacqua of Philadelphia was a noted conservative, one of those who could be described as leading the reversal on Vatican II reforms. The Philadelphia Grand Jury report on his role in hiding sexual predators and using the law to avoid accountability is deeply disturbing reading. So are the documents in which Cardinals Bernard Law and Edward Egan are depicted overseeing the handling of abuse cases in their respective dioceses. Both are staunch conservatives and would be considered by many as protectors of a traditionalist approach to ecclesiology and church teaching.

Wherever members of the hierarchy are on the political, theological or ecclesiological spectrums, they meet first as brothers in a unique culture of celibate men who have sworn oaths of allegiance to the papacy and who have repeatedly acted to protect the institution while shunning the plight of thousands of child victims of abusive priests.

“I came to think that the problem was in some way cultural,” wrote Australian Bishop Mark Coleridge of the sex abuse crisis. “But that prompted the further question of how; what was it that allowed this canker to grow in the body of the Catholic church, not just here and there but more broadly?”

Coleridge does not provide a magic answer in that pastoral letter prepared last spring for Pentecost. However, he raises a number of issues – inadequat seminary training, the church’s “culture of discretion,” seminary training that creates “a kind of institutional immaturity, “a certain church triumphalism,” and the church’s tendence to see things in the light of sin and forgiveness rather than crime and punishment – that deserve far wider discussion and examination.

He includes in that list “clericalism understood as a hierarchy of power, not service.” It is one of many influences that caused so many in the hierarchy to confront the abuse crisis in ways they now say they regret. Perhaps it ought to be at the top of the list. Danneels is merely the latest sorry example, though a current one, demonstrating that for so long the actions of many of the community’s leaders were drastically out of step with what they were preaching.

An English translation of parts of the transcripts of the audio recording are here: Belgium cardinal tried to keep abuse victim quiet

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