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.

Church Reform

What’s a Reformer to Do?

By Tom Smith

The New Year looms. While “Happy New Year” is welcome, it would be better to be able to say “Happy Old Year” a year from now. To have a year begin, remain, and end happily depends on many factors, some which we control and many which we don’t.

For the Catholic Church, 2016 could be critical. Will the reforms that Francis initiated take hold and expand? And, more personally, what’s our role?

As a minimally effective but earnest Catholic Church reformer, I have a new and unexpected problem. For decades it was quite clear what my vision was but it was also evident that the real life context for that vision included a stubborn, rigidly conservative, self-serving hierarchy, a narrow focus on dogmatic teaching, and a stifling clericalism. And there was an obvious attempt to sterilize Vatican II. In that environment, I knew that my main message was to highlight the devastating consequences of that approach and to point towards the enlightened possibilities outlined in the Council. Frankly, it was easier to be prophetic.

But then along came Francis. He has changed the context. It’s not that many issues are now resolved and many hopes realized. But Francis is clearly guiding the church in a direction that I am happy to follow. The Vatican is no longer the major obstacle to renewal that it was for decades. While I am still impatient with the rate of change, I can at least support many of the initiatives that Francis has launched. I haven’t felt that positive about papal leadership for a very long time

That happy change leaves me with a problem. What does a reformer do when the reform is now being led by the Pope? Follow his lead seems the most sensible approach. But how does that role work in this changed context?

I see three possibilities – but, of course, there could be more. Here are my current three:

  1. Focus on local issues. How does your bishop measure up to the new standards that Francis champions? Things like: a simple life style, obvious personal commitment to the poor, service first rather than dogma first ministry, personal humility, a joyful spirit, decentralization, collaborative decision-making, etc. How does your pastor measure up to the same standards? How do you measure up? If you, your pastor, or your bishop still think and function like it was pre-Francis, then there are opportunities to be prophetic, to be a reformer. In fact, we can now cite Francis when we push for reform on the local level.
  2. Stick to one issue. Women’s ordination comes immediately to mind. One day I think Francis is heading toward an acceptance of women’s ordination because it seems so consistent with the other initiatives he has made. It seems he is headed toward a major reorganization of church governance with lots of decision making on a regional level. Maybe women’s ordination will be part of that process. Then the next day I feel he’s not going to do anything about women or celibacy. Any reformer, if he or she is so inclined, can focus on this issue and keep at it for some time.
  3. Education. The prophetic role can morph into an education role. There are millions of Catholics who don’t really know what Francis is doing, why he is doing it, and what difference does it make. Admiring Francis because he lives simply and identifies with the poor is one thing. Becoming knowledgeable about the nature of the Church, our history, and what is included in an authentic spiritual journey takes some study, reflection, dialogue, reading, prayer, and a spiritual guide or two. In our technological age, insightful articles and blogs are readily available. A modern day educator who sifts through all the resources and knows their relevance could easily educate lots of people by forwarding the best of the articles to interested readers. The basis for reform could then expand.

In any case, people like me, organizations like Call to Action, and news media like the National Catholic Reporter live in a new context, along with everyone else. The Francis factor makes a difference. His reform is bigger than my plan, but my plan certainly fits in with his reform.

It is exciting to be a part of the transformation that is happening right now. Our biggest sin would be to act like it isn’t happening or that it is irrelevant.

Somewhere, in the middle of this discussion, there’s room for a New Year’s resolution. Got any suggestions?

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