The clergy's task is unfinished in confronting sex abuse


Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts to Letters to the Editor. Learn more

The story of Marie Collins, an Irish victim of clergy sex abuse and a witness of unimpeachable integrity, is a dual tale of how far the church has come in acknowledging and handling the scandal and of how wholly and demonstrably incapable the Catholic clerical culture is of dealing with its own sin.

Collins was one of two survivors of clergy sex abuse who were appointed in 2014 to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, an agency created by Pope Francis. She resigned the commission in March, providing NCR with a long explanatory statement.

Her decision to leave was not lightly taken. She had rejected the logic of some critics early on that any cooperation with church efforts was selling out to an institution that had generally ignored or re-victimized the abused for decades. She had later defended the work of the commission when its only other victim member, Peter Saunders, openly criticized the group for the slow pace of reform.

In March, however, three years after her appointment, she wrote: "I have come to the point where I can no longer be sustained by hope. As a survivor, I have watched events unfold with dismay."

Among the primary reasons for her despair, she listed "lack of resources, inadequate structures around support staff, slowness of forward movement and cultural resistance."

Those first three are easily remedied: more money, more staff, pick up the pace.

The last one — "cultural resistance" — is the impenetrable, if invisible, shield, a kind of carapace protecting the clergy culture. It prevents the disturbing, ugly reality of what experts have termed the "soul murder" of children from penetrating the deepest levels of the clerical culture. The awareness inside the encasement can expand only so far before it runs into the resistance of rigid boundaries.

There has been a psychic numbness at the heart of the clerical culture that has enabled it, speaking of it as a collective construct, to keep the most unsettling truths of the scandal at bay for more than three decades.

The danger here, of a sweeping assertion that rolls over examples that belie such an analysis, is acknowledged. Some of those examples will be addressed. But even those within the culture have found it increasingly acceptable to speak in collective terms of the Catholic priesthood's reaction to the scandal in those places where it has so far surfaced.

"The reluctance of some in the Vatican Curia to implement recommendations or cooperate with the work of a commission when the purpose is to improve the safety of children and vulnerable adults around the world is unacceptable," Collins wrote in her March 1 statement.

"Is this reluctance driven by internal politics, fear of change, clericalism which instills a belief that 'they know best' or a closed mindset which sees abuse as an inconvenience or a clinging to old institutional attitudes?

"I do not know the answer but it is devastating in 2017 to see that these men still can put other concerns before the safety of children and vulnerable adults."

She had maintained from the start that if what was being said in private did not match up with what was being said to the public, she would be forced to resign.

In the end, that's what happened. "I find it impossible to listen to public statements about the deep concern in the church for the care of those whose lives have been blighted by abuse, yet to watch privately as a congregation in the Vatican refuses to even acknowledge their letters!" she wrote. "It is a reflection of how this whole abuse crisis in the church has been handled: with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors."

Marie Collins's insight about the clerical culture cannot be permitted to disappear into some curial black hole. In the distance that she perceives between words and deeds lies the clergy's unfinished task: asking of themselves how they — a group of men tightly bound by spoken and unspoken loyalties, an otherworldly notion of their station in life, and centuries of layered protocols and accumulated privileges — reached a point where they could turn their backs on the child victims of ghastly sexual violence in order to protect those who harmed the children.

Warnings in 1985

Not long after the sex abuse crisis blew up anew in 2002, Arthur Jones, a former editor of NCR, was sitting in my office. We were discussing the implications of the new disclosures contained in the thousands of documents that a court in Boston had recently released.

I, then the NCR editor, was hopeful that this was a tipping-point moment, that the bishops, exposed as never before by their own words and actions, would be driven to a new level of true contrition for what the clergy culture had done to thousands of children in every corner of the country.

We would see, I was convinced, our sacramental tradition at work among the community's leaders and teachers. They would name the sin in unsparing terms. Bishops would appoint independent commissions to go through the books and do a full accounting of the breach of trust that had occurred with the community in their dioceses.

Related: Sister finds that faith sustains when institutions fail (Global Sisters Report, July 17, 2017)

We would finally get the details — how many child victims over how many years; how many abusive priests had been transferred without the recipient parish or diocese informed of the risk; how much money was given out secretly to procure silence and continue a cover-up of the crimes. How many times cardinals and bishops had lied about the dimensions of the problem and their knowledge of it. Dioceses would feel compelled, as Boston was by the courts, to release the documentation that contained the long and painful narrative.

And then, I thought, the Catholic community, fully informed and hearing sincere requests for mercy, would respond with an abundance of forgiveness. In the aftermath of that pain, we could get on with life in the Catholic community wiser and perhaps even stronger.

Jones, normally an ebullient, self-contained energy source, drooped, his face pained. He said I was naive, that the bishops would seek to ride it out. They'd make whatever gesture the politics and public pressure of the moment demanded. But that was it.

"Tom," he said, in not-so-genteel phrasing, "they don't care about anyone but themselves. That's why we've got the scandal still today."

The cover of the June 7, 1985, issue of the National Catholic ReporterJones had good reason for pessimism. Seventeen years earlier, he had helped put together the first national story on the sex abuse crisis, based on the detailed reporting of Jason Berry, that ran over four pages of the National Catholic Reporter.

The decision to go with the story had not been an easy one in 1985. NCR was alone. At the time, none of the major papers would get near it. Tom Fox, the editor who decided to publish it, faced a threat to his job by a priest board member who unsuccessfully sought a vote of no confidence in his leadership after the story was published.

In an editor's note that ran with that June 1985 story, the paper warned of long-term consequences if the bishops failed to get out in front of the scandal; it warned of the possibility of class-action suits, possible criminal liability of bishops; and cases that would test the statutes of limitations at the state level.

In one of the most prescient paragraphs written anywhere and nearly two decades before The Boston Globe detailed the horrendous legacy of abuse and cover-up in that archdiocese, the NCR editors concluded the note preceding that first story with these words:

The tragedy, and scandal, as NCR sees it, is not only with the actions of the individual priests — these are serious enough — but with church structures in which bishops, chanceries and seminaries fail to respond to complaints, or even engage in cover-ups; sadly, keeping the affair quiet has usually assumed greater importance than any possible effect on the victims themselves.

The editor's note was unsigned but had been composed by Jones.

Notwithstanding all of the episcopal equivocating, excuse-making, sidestepping and fogging up of reality in subsequent years, a group of lay Catholic journalists, more familiar than most with Catholic clerical realities, appear to have had a quite clear and substantial understanding of the budding scandal.

The bishops, individually and as a body, faced a stark choice in that moment. They could either call on their most profound reserves of pastoral compassion and wisdom and reach out to child victims of sexual molestation and rape, or they could take the route of secular titans and strategize ways to beat the rap and save their clerical brothers, criminals by most standards, including those of federal statutes. As more cases and disclosures surfaced, the bishops lawyered up.

It was the strategy advanced by the national conference at the advice of its legal counsel and it was the strategy employed, at the behest of lawyers, in diocese after diocese. The late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia, for instance, who often told whomever was in earshot that he was both a civil and canon lawyer, knew precisely what he was doing in beating the statutes of limitations on charges outlined in files locked up on a floor of the downtown chancery office.

By the time The Boston Globe's reporting, a cellular-level look at a cancer that had spread across the body Catholic, hit the streets, the file drawers at NCR were heavy with clips accumulated during 17 years of grinding overage of the worst scandal in modern church history. Jones and Fox had been there at the beginning. Neither was terribly optimistic that more revelations would cause a moment of metanoia on the part of the bishops.

The costs of clericalism

I feel compelled here to insert a personal point of clarification. I am not anti-clerical. I have known many priests during my life as a Catholic and over the course of my long career in religion journalism. Some have been close friends. More than a few, at different periods, have had a profound effect on my life and my faith.

I have known fewer bishops, but more bishops than most Catholics get to know, and some of them I have openly admired. Some have provided profound examples of leadership at points in modern church history.

And while I desire far more collegiality in ecclesial processes, I am not one of those who think a democratic church is the answer. One need only look to Washington to understand the dangers in that ambition.

In my experience, I can frankly say that the overwhelming number of priests I've met are in pursuit of holiness and take on an extremely difficult ministry with the best of intentions.

But I also have found, in searching through those friendships and associations, few — and there are a very few — examples of priests and bishops who, made aware of the dimensions of the crisis, responded first with the heart of pastors. Those who did often became pariahs, shunned within the culture.

Nor did examples abound of the sort of courage one might expect of leaders who, in a theology they propound, consider themselves such an elite segment of humanity as to be ontologically different from the rest. They were, in the instance of the abuse crisis, dismally the same as much of humanity, especially those in power whose station was threatened. The hierarchy fought like crazy and spared no expense.

In fact, by 2015, according to calculations by experts writing for NCR, the church, which initially had hoped to preserve its treasure and its reputation by covering up the scandal, had spent just shy of $4 billion on sex abuse payouts. It had lost, by other calculations, as much as $2.3 billion a year during a 30-year period that saw such consequences of the sex abuse scandal as lost membership and diverted giving.

The church's credibility, as well as its treasury, was drained of a great deal of capital.

Despite the resistance, change occurred. Not admitting of the differences in how the scandal is handled now from, say, 20 or 30 years ago would be as mistaken as saying that those differences mean the problem is solved. After all, in past decades, church leaders as different in theological and ecclesial outlook as Bevilacqua and Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles, or as Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee and Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, all had the same initial instinct when it came to the abuse crisis: hide it and pay for silence.

4 cardinals.jpg
Clockwise from top left: Cardinals Anthony Bevilacqua, Roger Mahony and Bernard Law, and Archbishop Rembert Weakland (CNS photos)

This was not a liberal or conservative response; this was a matter of princes acting above the law and in contravention of what they knew as correct. The instinct to hide the activity was its own proof that something was terribly amiss. The fact that hiding it required treating the abused, and not the priests, as the problem, was the equivalent of deliberately causing a life-threatening wound to the community.

I confess I have no idea how I might have reacted in the same circumstance. I've never committed an act of public bravery, certainly none in defiance of a close culture that defined my life.

I can hope I would respond in the same way as Dominican Fr. Thomas Doyle, who back in the mid-1980s looked first at the victims, then at the damage the scandal would do to the church, and acted in a way that he knew would cost him his clerical career.

I wish I would have the presence of mind and the grounding in faith to respond as did Fr. James Connell of Milwaukee who, when confronted by an angry victim who accused him of complicity in hiding abusive priests, did not act defensively. Instead, he asked a question way outside the box of the clerical culture: What if I had been a victim of sexual abuse by a priest? He allowed the imponderables to enter his thinking. The answer to that question changed his life and his ministry. He's become an advocate for victims and for truth-telling within the church.

In more recent years, of course, the tide has turned. Once the façade was breached, the culture did a one-eighty in its treatment of abusers. Transparency became the new norm. Bevilaqua died in disgrace after the Philadelphia Grand Jury released a scathing report based on subpoenaed documents and testimony, much of it wrenching; his successor, Cardinal Justin Rigali, also ended his career as a figure widely criticized, even by some of high station within the culture, for his further mishandling of the crisis in that archdiocese. Archbishop John Neinstedt and his auxiliary, Bishop Lee Piché, of St. Paul-Minneapolis, resigned for not acting to discipline a pedophile priest. Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City-St. Joseph, Missouri, was also forced to resign after being convicted of a misdemeanor charge when he failed to report a priest who had taken pornographic pictures of a little girl.

Finn Rigali.jpg
From left: Bishop Robert Finn and Cardinal Justin Rigali (CNS photos)

20150615cnsbr0155 crop.jpg
Archbishop John Nienstedt, right, addresses the media alongside Auxiliary Bishop Lee Piché at a 2015 news conference. (CNS/The Catholic Spirit/Dave Hrbacek)

While changes of heart might well have accounted for some of the change in behavior, where once hiding the crime was the path to preserving a career, it has now become a threat to career advancement.

An inseparable part of being Catholic

The terms "clergy culture" or "clerical culture" refer to a reality that, for many Catholics, is probably like air — essential but indiscernible — an inseparable part of being Catholic. In recent years, however, the term has been used increasingly, and often in a pejorative sense, to place a boundary around the leadership segment of the Catholic community.

In the mid to late 1980s, just as the news had begun to break about the clergy sex abuse crisis, Eugene Kennedy, one of the era's premier church observers and analysts, placed the crisis of the clergy culture smack amid the unsettling transitions being experienced across the professional landscape.

He foresaw the diminishment of the status of professional "elites" that has become part of our political landscape today. "The trembling on the surface of American life is evidence of the significant changes at a deep level that are occasioned by the break in our geographical and spiritual sense of continuity by our leap into space." It was a leap that acknowledged in visceral terms the "unity of the universe" that had previously been sundered in the imagination.

But it was a leap that also caused dislocations not only across institutions but within individuals. "The problems of the clerical subculture ... are only small aspects of this broader and inescapable change," he wrote in Tomorrow's Catholics, Yesterday's Church: The Two Cultures of American Catholicism. An element of that "inescapable change" was the search for authentic and healthy authority as old hierarchical models — whether states, corporations or the church — continued to crumble at the end of the last century.

Related: 'Uncommon conversation' on sex abuse falls silent (July 18, 2017)

A more intense look at the clerical culture, particularly as it relates to the sex abuse crisis, is contained in Sex, Priests, and Secret Codes: The Catholic Church's 2,000-Year Paper Trail of Sexual Abuse. The work is by Doyle and former Benedictine priests A.W.R. Sipe and Patrick Wall. Doyle was one of the few priests who, even while working in the papal nuncio's office in Washington, acted radically counter to the clerical culture when he first learned of the crisis.

It is sufficient to note briefly here what is documented far more thoroughly elsewhere — that taking the position Doyle did led to the end of a promising ecclesial career. Others in the same circles at that time have since risen to significant heights on the hierarchical ladder. Doyle has become one of the leading advocates for victims and a ubiquitous expert for plaintiffs' attorneys.

Sipe, trained as a monk to deal with the mental health problems of priests, has written extensively on the dynamics of celibacy and the clergy culture and has also served as a witness in hundreds of abuse cases. Likewise, Wall, trained in canon law, was for a period employed by a civil law firm as an expert on abuse cases.

While not blaming celibacy for the crisis, the writers say it "is essential to the continuation of the power and prominence of the clerical subculture, the home of the elite minority who rule the church. ... To abandon celibacy would be to risk the demise of the fortified clerical world and the consequent loss of power and influence."

The authors also describe the bishop-priest relationship as "unique," one that goes well beyond employee-employer "since the priest is responsible to [the bishop] for all areas of his life and not merely those hours during which he is exercising priestly ministry. The priest owes complete obedience to his bishop and it is the bishop alone who has the power, by reason of office, to transfer or assign a priest."

20160204T1100-1923-CNS 550.jpg
A bishop's miter and ring (CNS/Tom McCarthy Jr.)

The relationships among priests and particularly between priests and bishops has created, as described to this writer by a bishop, "an asymmetry of affection" that apparently tugged members of the hierarchy to a quick defense of their priests and away from the victims of priests' abuse.

Whether tremors from the outside culture or ground-shaking changes within the church or the peculiar nature of bishop-priest relationships, no single reason can be identified as cause of the crisis. Loyalty, paternalism, pathology, protection of the church, cowardice — all played a role in creating the crisis, writes Fr. Michael Papesh in Clerical Culture: Contradiction and Transformation. All of the causes — he lists nine — "and likely others still, are so thoroughly enmeshed that no one factor dominates the rest."

A common thread weaves through all the causes, however. "They are sustained by a culture in which they have been allowed to continue," he writes. It is a culture he defines as "precisely the constellation of relationships and the universe of ideas and material reality in which diocesan priests and bishops exercise their ministry and spend their lives."

"That clerical culture," he writes, "the primary professional context for Latin Rite diocesan presbyters and bishops in the United States, is a primary answer to the question: Why the sexual misconduct scandal in the United States? Clerical culture in itself, therefore, must be examined for its contribution to the scandal."

Related: 'All of us together': Sex abuse survivor seeks healing within the church (July 19, 2017)

Such an examination — with some unusual turns of the prism through which it is seen — occurs in Jesuit Fr. George Wilson's treatment, Clericalism: The Death of Priesthood. No just treatment can be done, in this brief mention, of his separation of "clergy" from "priest", though each can exist with the other while also existing individually. But it is well worth a broader discussion.

So is the point he makes that a culture "can survive only if it is nurtured by zillions of tiny behavioral interactions among all or almost all of those implicated in the culture." Thus, "it would be a fatal mistake to view a clerical culture as being generated only by its clergy. Like any other culture, the clerical culture is the product of everyone affected by — or implicated in — its continuance. That includes equally those who are seen as laypeople vis-à-vis a particular body of clergy."

In other words, we outside the closed culture are in part responsible for giving it the status, the credibility and the beyond-accountability standing that enabled its members to act with such arrogance and license.

If we're going to call for an accounting now, an examination of how this happened, we have to be prepared to be part of the answer no matter how imbalanced the power relationship has been for centuries. Claiming our Catholic adulthood may mean facing up to our own acceptance of the excesses of the clergy culture for a variety of reasons.

The clerical culture, one can say with confidence, is not something imaginary or elusive. It is something quite real and discernible that has a profound influence on the small sliver of humanity — all men — who inhabit it, and on the huge and widely diverse swath of humanity affected by it.

Breach of trust at a sacramental level

Sexual abuse of children, of course, occurs mostly outside of church and clerical structures — in families and other organizations as well. Within the church, however, it has had a particularly devastating effect for a host of reasons, not least of which are the historical status of the ordained as standing in the place of Christ and the community's long-held conviction regarding its sacramental life.

In his monumental work Catholicism, Fr. Richard McBrien used the definition of Pope Paul VI of sacramentality as "a reality imbued with the hidden presence of God." Whether consciously or not, Catholics imbibe this view in the course of life in the community — through ritual, prayers, liturgy and the formal sacraments.

dreamstime_m_39060561_Wideonet 600.jpg

"A sacramental perspective is one that 'sees' the divine in the human, the infinite in the finite, the spiritual in the material, the transcendent in the immanent, the eternal in the historical. For Catholicism, therefore, all reality is sacred," writes McBrien, the late theologian and professor at the University of Notre Dame.

In that sense, the abuse within the church and by those representing its spiritual leadership is remarkably different from that which might occur in a Boy Scout troop or within a school, points of comparison frequently raised in attempts to temper Catholic rage over the scandal.

Catholicism, writes McBrien, "insists that grace (the divine presence) actually enters into and transforms nature (human life in its fullest context). The dichotomy between nature and grace is eliminated. ... Human existence in its natural, historical condition is radically oriented toward God. The history of the world is, at the same time, the history of salvation."

That reality can find its expression in wildly different forms: worn rosary beads, the recitation of grace before meals, sacred medals, holy cards, voluntarism at a parish soup kitchen, the priest acting as chaplain to the U.S. Congress, or the nuns living and advocating for justice in the worst sections of our cities. All of these things — the sign of the cross, fingertips dipped in holy water, a parent's bedtime prayers with a child, or the profound celebration of the Eucharist — announce that we do believe that our lives in all their details are "radically oriented toward God."

The abuse within the church, then, particularly of tens of thousands of children, was a breach of trust at a sacramental level. Given what our sacred texts quote Jesus saying about children, it is easy to conclude that sexual violence against little ones is about as egregious an offense against the community as one might imagine.

While the betrayal occurred at a sacramental level, the attempts to repair the breach have largely been at the level of legality, sociology and organizational mechanics.

Why can't we close the book?

Marie Collins felt conscience-bound to resign from the papal commission dealing with sex abuse. But it is hardly inconsequential that a commission exists and that she, not only a victim but also a woman, was appointed to it.

The commission is the latest, and perhaps highest-profile, of those markers along the way that church officials point to as signs of progress. The markers have been many, some of them significant. It is probably true today that Catholic churches and their ministries are among the safest places for children, if for no other reason than heightened awareness.

No system can be perfect and abuse will continue to occur, but there can be little doubt that with all of the training of church personnel and increased parent awareness, there are fewer incidents of abuse today.

Related: Convicted soul: A priest-perpetrator of child sexual abuse shares his story (July 20, 2017)

So why can't we just close the book on the issue? Why would someone like Collins — a survivor who became expert on abuse and preventing abuse, helping the Irish bishops with their guidelines and creating a foundation in her name in the United Kingdom that offers services to those exploited by technology such as the internet — still express such frustration with the clerical culture?

The community understands that very little happened in terms of addressing what occurred to victims in the United States and elsewhere until the public pressure, mostly by print media, became so overwhelming that the bishops were forced to act. Anyone who had the stomach for (or whose job required) reading through depositions and court testimony knows that not a small portion of the abuse amounted to sexual torture of children. Rest assured that we have not begun to hear the beginnings of what has gone on and likely continues to go on in those parts of the world where there is not a strong press and judicial system.

20150626cm00011 550.jpg
Priests participate in the first Polish penitential Mass for the sins of pedophilia at a Catholic church in Krakow in June 2014. (CNS/EPA/Stanislaw Rozpedzik)

The U.S. bishops' big Dallas meeting in 2002 resulted in a charter for the protection of children, subsequent requirements for training of church personnel, the zero tolerance policy, a special office for the protection of children, a national review board and review boards at the diocesan level, and major studies by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. All of that only occurred because the bishops had been embarrassed into doing something after nearly two decades of exposure. It wasn't as if the hierarchy didn't know how bad it was before The Boston Globe's investigations. It wasn't as if bishops had not been sufficiently warned about the broad implications of their cover-up approach to the scandal.

And those studies and annual audits? Don't get too excited about them because they are based on information volunteered by the very people — bishops and archbishops — who are the principle subjects of the studies and audits. In simpler terms, those investigated are being trusted to tell on themselves. In instance after instance where legal action has allowed documents and correspondence to be subpoenaed, the extent of the abuse in both numbers and character has been worse — and sometimes far worse — than the information previously volunteered.

All of the apologies and reconciliation services and public displays of sorrow for what had happened — straight up to papal visits with victims that finally occurred during Pope Benedict XVI's reign — lacked a central element: an engagement by clergy with our sacramental tradition to ask what happened and how.

Before another synod is conducted about families, or young people or evangelization, or any other aspect of church life, we need a synod on the clergy culture. Church leaders, after wide consultation with their peers and with respected experts, should meet in Rome. There need be only one topic on the agenda and that topic, in the form of questions, should be distributed to all the priests and bishops in the world.

The central question:

What caused us, members of the Catholic clergy culture, to arrive at the point where we could devise a rationale that allowed us to walk away from the incalculable suffering of the community's children in order to protect those members of the clergy culture who caused the suffering?

Those outside the clergy culture have pondered that question, unanswered, for more than three decades. The only ones who can provide an authoritative answer are those within the culture itself.

To do that, leaders of the community will have to put aside all of the rationalizing, equivocating, relativizing and shading of the truth that has provided a measure of comfort. Answering the question, finally, will require an intense and unsparing examination, the kind about which they provide others with instruction, that leads to a level of truth-telling that, in turn, places one starkly reliant on God's mercy. We've all been there.

Collins provided Pope Francis, bishops, cardinals, priests, with the best shot yet to square up honestly with what happened and what caused them to react as they did. That last strand of credibility was worn to the breaking point. The clergy culture found her and her rather reasonable demands a nuisance.

So she's gone, compelled in conscience to remove herself from high-level hypocrisy. Members of the clergy culture are left with their consciences and a troubling history that grows longer, and sadder, by the day.

[Tom Roberts is NCR editor at large. His email address is]

Latest News


1x per dayDaily Newsletters
1x per weekWeekly Newsletters
2x WeeklyBiweekly Newsletters