In the Vineyard :: September 24, 2016 :: Volume 16, Issue 18

The Blast from Boston (continued)

The bishops realized they were in a completely new ball game. Incapable of responding and conjuring up effective strategies on their own, they hired expensive public relations firms to try to convince the public and the Catholic laity that they were acting as true pastors. Unfortunately, they were incapable of a genuinely pastoral response. All they could do was meet the rapidly expanding phenomenon with more administrative solutions: a general meeting in Dallas in June, a national policy, well-scripted expressions of regret interspersed with assurances of their concern for victims and their promises of change.
Their newly created National Review Board turned out to be more than the bishops bargained for. It undertook to write a report which ended up being both truthful and highly insightful. It did not paint a sympathetic picture of the U.S. hierarchy and remains one of the best general descriptions and analyses of the clergy abuse issue.

The Boston event began a new phase in the history of clergy sexual abuse not only in the U.S. but world-wide. The anger of Catholics, lay and clergy, as well as that of the general population was unprecedented and was not assuaged by the bishops’ collective or individual rhetoric.

Pope John Paul II had known about the issue in detail at least since 1985 but chose to say nothing publicly until 1993 when he sent a letter to the U.S. Bishops. After that he made statements at the World Youth Gatherings and to individual groups of bishops. He steadfastly refused to acknowledge the thousands of pleas from victims sent to him over the years and never addressed them directly. His attitude was that this was a sin and a problem caused mostly by the materialistic, sensationalist secular society as well as a few sinful priests. He never acknowledged the deadly role played by the bishops whom he continued to defend and support.

In an unprecedented move, the pope summoned all the American Cardinals to Rome for a meeting (April 23, 2002), probably with a view to putting a lid on this troublesome problem that was threatening the equilibrium of his view of the Church. The cardinals all gathered round the pope for two days of discussions, Vatican style. At the end of the event the pope responded by telling the cardinals and the world what we already knew: Sexual abuse was a sin and a crime. The meeting itself was a complete waste of time because it did not even succeed as an effective public relations stunt.

The bishops never sponsored or even suggested that there be serious, in-depth research into the systemic causes of the overall phenomenon. In 2003 Dr. Leslie Lothstein reported that the medical professionals who had treated priests at some of the prominent treatment centers asked the Bishops’ Conference to support an in-depth study based on the data they had gathered in treating several hundred priests. The bishops declined.

The immediate issue was dealing with the actual acts of sexual violation but the more pressing concern went much deeper. People wanted to know why the institutional Church, i.e., the bishops, had acted as they had, with no real regard for the victims and an obsessive concern for themselves and their image. They wanted to know why the bishops had gone overboard in protecting priests but had treated victims as a nuisance.

The two John Jay studies provided demographic information (2004) and contextual data (2011) but neither delved into the systemic causes because they were not allowed to by the bishops who had commissioned them. This posed far too great a threat. Although many of the bishops have claimed that the second study, “Causes and Context,” has answered why it happened, any person with any knowledge of the problem knows that such a claim is ridiculous. Some of the study’s findings were met with not only serious criticism but with derision.

The bishops have not wanted to look deeply or even superficially into their own structures, their role, their self-awareness and the often magical definitions of the priesthood. Scholars, however, have seen this phenomenon for what it really is: a paradigmatic shift in the meaning and perception of priests and bishops and their place in the institutional Church. There has been much serious and significant independent research by social scientists, theologians, psychologists, Church historians and legal historians over the past twenty-five years. Several doctoral dissertations have been written about various aspects of clergy sexual abuse. There have been investigations by at least fifty outside agencies such as American grand juries, the four Irish Commissions and the Australian Royal Commission to name just a few, and these have produced invaluable analyses and evaluations of the vast amount of data collected.

Pope Benedict visited with victims in five countries. The visits were very short and allowed no time for the dialogue that was needed. Nevertheless, he visited with them and apparently gained a greater degree of understanding and sympathy for what all victims have experienced. Benedict spoke out several times, far more directly, strongly, and with more relevance than his predecessor. He directed bishops to extend care to victims and essentially, to “do the right thing.” But Benedict’s role was seriously flawed because, though he knew that hundreds of bishops were complicit in child abuse, he failed to discipline any. If anything will shine positive light on his historical place in the abuse saga it will be his involvement in the debacle of Marcial Maciel Degollado (1920-2008).

Pope John Paul II, contrary to the fawning and completely erroneous responses of George Weigel and Joaquin Navarro-Valls at a press conference shortly before the canonization, did, in fact, have detailed knowledge of the sex abuse crisis at least by March of 1985. Thousands of letters were sent to the pope by victims, begging to at least be acknowledged. Not only did the pope fail to respond to even one, he neglected to even acknowledge their receipt.

Pope John Paul’s exaggerated, mystical notion of the priesthood and his monarchical concept of the Church no doubt contributed greatly to his grossly negligent response to the victims. This pope had incontrovertible information confirming that hundreds of bishops had covered up countless cases of abuse, yet he chose to protect the priesthood. He had to shift the blame somewhere. His succession of targets, each of which proved irrelevant, made his response all the more outrageous. At first the blame was dumped on the United States which he saw as largely materialistic and secular. Another target was the secular media, which he accused of sensationalizing the problem. A common theme for John Paul was his assertion was that this was a very small number of priests who were sinners. He never referred to sex abuse as a crime nor [to] the perpetrators as criminals.

Pope John Paul’s relationship with Marcial Maciel Degollado and the Legion of Christ is the thin cover for something that is far worse than a scandal. The story of the Legion and its founder/leader/cult figure Maciel is the story of a phenomenon that invaded Catholicism like a silent but deadly virus. It is replete with contradictions, hypocrisy and behavior that is violently anti-Christian. The story is not only that of Maciel and the papacy’s eventual admission that he was a psychopathic hypocrite. It is also the story of the Legion, a powerful and toxic cult that used orthodox and traditional Catholicism as the cover for its true identity, that of a ruthless multi-national corporation. Maciel’s mission and therefore that of the Legion was the accumulation of more and more power, influence and wealth.

John Paul II knew that Maciel had been accused of sexual abuse by nine former members of the Legion. These men opted to use the Church’s legal system, which was both a mistake and a blessing. It was a mistake because the canonical system was rigged in favor of the pope but it was a blessing because his direct intervention to stop the process proved to be a fatal mistake—because this led to the eventual revelation of the corruption, directed by Maciel, involving the highest authorities in the Vatican including the then-secretary of State, Angelo Sodano, and the pope’s long-time secretary, Stanislaus Dziwisz, now the Cardinal Archbishop of Krakow.

Dziwisz was interviewed in 2013, after the sordid details of Maciel’s real life came out. He said that it was a mistake for the pope to have met Maciel. He went on to claim the pope knew absolutely nothing and then blamed his so-called ignorance on the Vatican bureaucracy. He tried to exonerate his late boss by claiming that he and Ratzinger were of one mind on dealing with the problem. This statement is completely irrelevant. What is important, however, is that in spite of Dziwisz’ after-the-fact regret that John Paul had gotten tangled up with Maciel, during this relationship he had no problems accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes from the Legion in exchange for preferential and privileged treatment.

John Paul died (April 2, 2005) and Josef Ratzinger succeeded him as Pope Benedict XVI. Ratzinger knew more about the extent of sexual abuse than anyone else in the curia because the cases that made it to the Vatican were sent to his department, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Many of these cases contained detailed and extensive information of the predator’s history, his victims, and the way his bishop had handled (or mishandled) the situation. During Benedict’s papacy (2005-2013), clergy sexual abuse was recognized to be a world-wide reality that was not causally connected to any culture or economic system. Verified reports of abuse came from European, Central and South American, Asian and African countries.

In 2010 the scandal, which had touched numerous bishops, archbishops and cardinals, finally reached Pope Benedict. In March it was revealed that as prefect of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger had refused to finalize the punitive laicization of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, credibly accused of having sexually violated 200 boys at St. John’s School for the Deaf in Milwaukee. Within days the media reported that when Ratzinger was archbishop of Munich (1977-1982) he had approved the parochial assignment of a priest sent to Munich from a neighboring diocese because he had sexually abused minors.

As pope, Ratzinger spoke numerous times about the scandal, expressing concern for the victims and instructing bishops to treat them with care and understanding. During his pontificate the church’s laws were again revised to facilitate the canonical prosecution of accused clerics. Benedict did something else that was extraordinary and historically unique: He laicized three bishops, all for some form of sexual abuse. Until Fernando Lugo, (former bishop of San Pedro, Paraguay), was laicized on June 30, 2008, such a drastic step was practically nonexistent.  With the exception of Charles Maurice de Tallyrand, one-time bishop of Autun who was laicized by Pope Pius VII in 1801, there are no other laicizations of bishops known to have happened before or after until 2008.

The past thirty-two years have shown that the definition of this phenomenon cannot be limited to the sexual violation of thousands of vulnerable minors and adults by dysfunctional clerics accompanied by an organized, institutionalized, cover-up. The responses of the hierarchy have been, with a few individual exceptions, fundamentally contradictory. This response to the widespread violation of the most vulnerable members of the Church by its clerics defies adequate description. It has shown there is something wrong with the institutional Church at its deepest and most fundamental level.

Jimmy Breslin came close to the answer with his 2002 book The Church that Forgot Christ. The popes and bishops have spoken eloquently about the Church’s shame and about the need to care for the victims, but it seems clear from the behavior of many bishops through the decades, that this means care for the victims on the bishops’ terms. All too often bishops or other church leaders have treated victims with what appeared to have been pastoral solicitude. Once the victims realized they were being taken advantage of and engaged an attorney, the attitude quickly changed. In 1993 several of the victims of the Capuchins at St. Lawrence Seminary realized they were getting nowhere and engaged an attorney. The Capuchin’s attorney, an alumnus himself, at first told the fathers they had to remember they were priests in their treatment of the victims. The same lawyer then said, “Once they came in with lawyers, they became the enemy.”

The protective veneer of societal deference that once protected the bishops from criticism or from the exposure of their faults, was rapidly eroding. One searched in vain for evidence of a Christian spirit or motivation grounded in authentic Christian principles in the often vindictive treatment doled out to victims who committed the grievous “sin” of challenging the bishops and not backing down.

Pope John Paul enabled the enablers. His sympathies were with the bishops whom he believed were “suffering” because of the “cases of scandal given by certain members of the clergy.” He ignored the victims and protected the bishops. The most blatant and disgusting example of his attitude was his covering of Maciel.

Pope Benedict met with victims and showed genuine sympathy for their pain. He admonished bishops but was unable to discipline any for negligence and complicity. He did however actually laicize three for sexual abuse. He had canon law revised, changing things in the only way he knew how, through the bureaucracy. Benedict was certainly a major step up from John Paul but the end of the nightmare was nowhere in sight.
Francis was elected on March 13, 2013. His kindly and informal demeanor and his initial un-papal actions such as living in the Vatican hotel and not the palace, gave hope to many victims that things would finally turn around. Yet he has sent out mixed signals since his election. He met with victims on July 7, 2014, but unlike his predecessor, he did not limit the visits to three- or four-minute exchanges. He said all the right things and appointed a commission in late 2013. Then he appointed a bishop in Chile who had covered for a notorious Chilean pedophile and he ignored the protests of victims, lay persons from the diocese and even its clergy.

He made things even worse for himself in September 2015 when, during his visit to the U.S. he praised the U.S. bishops for their handling of the issue saying “I realize how much pain of recent years has weighed upon you and I have supported your generous commitment to bring healing to victims.” Many who were listening, including myself, could not believe what they were hearing. Did the pope not know about the highly expensive and duplicitous efforts of so many in his audience to prevent victims from receiving any justice? Did he not know that the efforts of the U.S. bishops to provide healing were non-existent and that all of the programs they had conjured up for child protection had been forced on them?

The commission Francis appointed is formally known as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children. They are consultative as is every other commission in the Catholic Church but, unlike other commissions in the Vatican government, they answer directly to the pope. Their mandate is the protection of children and NOT the care of present victims. Nevertheless, many members of the commission see the care of victims as being essential to the commission’s credibility. One of their major problems is the Vatican curia that not only persists in working at its own traditional pace, which rivals the speed of a glacier, but also is also populated with clerics who are threatened by the commission and do their best to thwart its work.

The papal commission was responsible for the tribunal or court which the pope promised in June 2015. The commission succeeded in getting the pope’s attention about the Vatican’s failure to punish, remove, or even question a bishop who had knowingly covered for predators. The idea sounded like major progress at first but critics (including myself) pointed out that it was just another layer of bureaucracy that accused bishops could conceivably use to avoid accountability for years while in reality the pope didn’t need a tribunal to take action against a bishop. All any bishop needed to do was publicly or even privately question any of the Church’s antiquated rules of sex, marriage or ordination and he’d find out how unilateral removal (with no due process) works.

The announcement from the Vatican was simply that: There will be a tribunal. No more information ever came forward. The concept was quietly dropped with no announcement or reason. Instead of another structure which the Vatican bureaucracy certainly doesn’t need, the pope issued a rather remarkable Apostolic Letter on June 4, 2016. It is remarkable in that it states that negligence by a bishop in relation to sexual abuse, is a canonical crime and can justify either forced resignation or removal from office.

This document is the most important statement issued by any pope to date because it cuts to the real problem, which is the behavior of bishops in response to sexual abuse by clerics. Victims, their supporters and others have been screaming for years that the bishops are the real problem, and all three popes heard it but only Francis listened and took the extraordinary step of naming it a crime. Now the question will be whether or not the pope actually acts on his new law. There are countless candidates from dioceses around the world. If every bishop, active or retired, who had ever committed what is now a crime were to be called to account and punished, the episcopal ranks would be seriously depleted.

To sum up “What Happened,” one can say that the victims’ persistence, with the help of the media, the civil courts and others, forced the clergy abuse reality front and center and refused to allow it to be minimized or pushed back into the mists. Over the thirty-two-year period, the relationship between the victims as a group and the hierarchy has remained adversarial, and this is the fault of the bishops as a group. They have an underlying attitude that whatever happens with regard to improving the Church’s response to clergy sexual abuse, it has to be their way, and this is simply not going to happen.

If you missed parts 1 and 2 of this series, you will find them here.



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