Church Reform, Clergy

Sex Abuse, Cover-Up, and Catholic Culture, Part 4: Clerical Power Dominates

By TOM SMITH

Every Catholic in every pew, including those who don’t sit in those pews anymore, knows that clerical power dominates within the Catholic system. Pedophile priests and cover-up bishops know it, too. And that concentration of power within the clergy is another element in our current culture that augments the widespread presence of abusing priests and the bishops who have covered up their crimes.

Sanctioned and sanctified by canon law, the priest, bishop, and pope have final authority and decision-making power in all situations. Parish trustees are supposed to oversee financial matters, but they are appointed by the pastor. Pastoral councils are advisory only, and any decisions they make can be vetoed by the pastor. Bishops, and, of course, the pope, have similar and expanded power. While many pastors are wise enough to seek the advice of lay people, we all know that a new pastor can neutralize the pastoral council immediately. The same dynamic thrives at the diocesan level. And there is no practical recourse. This system eliminates accountability and promotes a feeling of immunity for some clerical personalities.

A pedophile priest in such a system can choose his victims without much fear of discovery. No one is watching him, supervising him. He easily learns the profile of a vulnerable victim and uses his status as a weapon. The bishop has even more freedom and the presumption of wisdom and sound judgment because of his position. He was promoted by the institution and so his loyalty is to the institution. His unchecked power reinforces his sometimes-misplaced priorities. His decisions are the right decisions because he made them. Some bishops are able to reject this power-fueled temptation but others, obviously, are not. And there is no one to stop him. A culture of clerical power floods the Catholic experience and feeds pedophile priests and cover-up bishops.

One of the most discouraging aspects of this total clerical domination within the Catholic culture is that there is no relief in sight. Centuries of teaching have reinforced this clerical strangle-hold on Catholic decision making. Popes, cardinals, bishops and pastors are all in total control of their related fiefdoms and can do or not do whatever they wish as long as they celebrate the sacraments validly and are not too blatant about stealing, abusing, lying, or their own public image. All they have to do is preach and teach orthodox Catholic doctrine which is easy to do especially when their underlying primary focus is on devious behavior.

Thankfully, many priests and bishops are genuine in their commitment, compassionate in their ministry, and balanced in their personalities. But there are some, obviously way too many, who are deceptive and self-serving. They misuse their clerical power for their own pleasure and victimize people, even kids, to satisfy their destructive tendencies. That deviation is what numerous surveys, multiple investigations, thousands of testimonies all over the world have made evident. Clerical power dominates the Catholic culture and its pervasive presence causes devastation, broken lives, pharisaic hypocrisy, and excruciating, personal pain worldwide. And it is done in the name of Jesus.

Most reforms that have been implemented to address the problem are mere window-dressing. Popes, bishops and priests have made the requisite statements of outrage and sorrow. Those who are responsible for priestly formation have pledged to screen priest candidates more thoroughly; to implement more enlightened training to ensure better men are ordained. Discussions and debates about some form of accountability have taken place throughout the church. Zero-tolerance policies have been implemented. Any and all of these reforms could help.

But without addressing the clerical power structure that props up the institutional church, there is little chance these changes will sufficiently protect future children and adult victims of sexual assault from power-influenced, forced sex on unwilling and/or unwitting prey of clerical sexual deviants. And the cover-ups will continue in order to maintain that same power structure.

In short, the Catholic church must include laity, men and women, in the decision-making process at all levels, from the parish church to the Vatican. This shared decision making must represent genuine power, not token advice. Other denominations have variations on this collaboration and Catholics can learn from them. A hierarchy can be preserved but it would look much different from the way it now looks.

The only thing that is preventing this new form of governance is the willingness to do it.

If the Catholic church is serious about changing the Catholic culture in order to deal with this sex abuse and cover-up scandal, this core topic must be addressed openly.

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