Canon Law, Church Reform, Clergy, Hierarchy, Uncategorized

Sex Abuse, Cover Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 2: Protect the Church vs. Protect the Child


How did the thinking, policy, and action end up with bishops protecting the image of the Church instead of protecting the children who are victims of sex abuse by priests? It seems so obviously backwards that there must be something in the Catholic culture that allows and promotes this clearly reversed set of priorities. This destructive response reflects blindness even from bishops who, in other areas, are “good men.”

As recent reports indicate, this upside-down reaction goes back many decades, perhaps centuries. Similar cover-ups took place in vastly different countries (Australia, Chile, Germany, the U.S., and most likely everywhere), so the culture that promoted this behavior is beyond race, regional influences, or age.

The hierarchy’s commitment to protect its Catholic brand is indisputable. Avoiding the appearance of scandal by hiding the charges of sex abuse was dominant for a long time.  To be fair to well-intentioned bishops, it seems no one really knew how to treat sex abusers, especially pedophiles. Sending a priest accused of this sexual abuse of minors to a treatment center to “fix him” by therapy, prayer, and confession seemed the best the experts could advise. Bishops at a loss about how to handle these cases followed the experts’ opinions and reassigned “recovered” sex abusers, many of whom “sinned again.”

Bishops who thought they knew better than the experts did or didn’t do whatever they wanted.

But I suggest that the Catholic clerical culture goes deeper than this faulty action or inaction. There are at least two interconnected factors that contribute to this dominating and damaging culture: a sense of brotherhood and loyalty among the clergy, which coincides with a reliance on canon law as opposed to criminal law.

The culture that thrives in a male-dominated seminary and priesthood normally includes a bonding, a brotherhood that values loyalty to each other. The shared experience during formative years and reinforced through the unique life of priesthood generates a camaraderie and a network of relationships that creates emotional ties designed to support one another. This sense of brotherhood is most evident in the relationships among priests from their own generation and personally known.

Loyalty to one another is a valued side-effect of this shared experience. It is an unspoken acceptance that there is a bond among those who have walked the same path to adulthood and who share the same generic and unique life style of a priest. Similar to the “code of silence” attributed to law enforcement personnel, or the bonding that occurs among the military, priests and bishops are conditioned to defend their friends, and their clerical caste system. With this mindset, a sex abusing priest is still a priest and deserves protection and loyalty from brother priests and bishops.

This spontaneous thinking goes further. When a priest is accused of sex abuse, the treatment, care, understanding, and forgiveness needed for the priest is best delivered within the clerical culture since outside that culture there is little understanding and less forgiveness. The mistaken belief is that only those who have experienced seminary and priesthood can really relate to those who have deviated from the acceptable standards of behavior.

It is no wonder that in dealing with the sex offender the reflex guidance to the problem is to resort to canon law rather than civil or criminal law. There is a presumption that church law is superior to civil law. The mindset here is that the Church has policies and procedures that implement the gospel. Love God, love your neighbor, follow canon law and the current catechism, and you don’t need civil or criminal law for these kinds of issues. When someone sins, the Church will handle it internally – and better. Confession and the sacrament of Reconciliation is better than a criminal arrest, trial and jail. This approach not only protects the image of the church but is better for the priest as well. And satisfactory “arrangements” can be made for the victims. The inevitable consequence of this mindset rejects a primary role for the civil justice system to investigate and prosecute criminal behavior, like sex-abusing priests and cover-up bishops. The sacrament of Reconciliation becomes a forgiveness palliative. This thought pattern existed for centuries, and still lingers.

A change in thinking is needed to address this church protectionist aspect of the clerical culture. The fear of false allegations is real (more on that in a future article) but an initial focus on the presumed victims must be the first reaction. Complete involvement in the whole process by the laity, including women, is essential (more on that topic in another further article also).

This reverse thinking is a prerequisite for reformative and lasting action. It is not enough to replace priests and bishops with “better” priests and bishops. The cultural structures are too ingrained.

In any effective, revised clerical structure and set of presumptions, protecting the church is achieved by protecting the children, not by hiding the victims.

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