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John L. Allen, Jr. -
Rest of world skeptical of 'zero tolerance' strategy

Thomas P. Doyle -
Reflections from the eye of the hurricane

Eugene Kennedy -
The secret cause of the sex abuse scandal

Margot Patterson -
Support grows for zero tolerance; George calls for including sanctions for bishops

Margot Patterson -
Central question: Is proposal too tough or too lenient?

Sandra Schneiders -
The Weakland case: An invitation to cast the first stone

Posted Tuesday, June 11, 2002

Reflections from the eye of the hurricane

Fr. Thomas Doyle, who worked for the pope’s representative in the United States in the early 1980s, was one of three drafters of a report given to the United States bishops in June 1985. That report was largely ignored (NCR, May 17). Since then, Doyle has been an outspoken critic of the bishops in their handling of the sex abuse crisis. He currently is an Air Force chaplain stationed in Europe.


Jan. 6, the day The Boston Globe published its first major story about the sex abuse cover-up, was the day the hurricane hit land, but it was not the beginning of the storm, nor was it the peak moment. The Boston storm has turned out to be a squall line reaching across the Catholic church. Six months ago few would have believed the debacle would have lasted this long, but it has. And it shows no sign of letting up! More and more corruption and dishonesty is being dredged up. The anger has spread across all stripes of Catholics with the staunch orthodox as disgusted as the futuristic liberals.

The hierarchical system still has plenty of defenders who keep repeating the same tired excuses like frightened children whistling in the dark. The two main targets for deflecting attention from the fundamental issue are, of course, the secular press and the homosexual establishment. Some quibble over the distinction between pedophiles and ephebophiles, laying the blame on a conspiracy between gays and the hedonistic critics of traditional Catholic morality. What these people don’t get is the fact that sexual abuse is sexual abuse, whether the target is a 6-year-old boy or a 46-year-old woman, and when the abuser is a priest the evil is compounded with a gross betrayal of trust, which is tantamount to spiritual rape.

Probably one of the more ridiculous excuses has been to lay the blame on the so-called sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s. Cultural trends don’t cause sexual disorders. Besides, there was plenty of abuse going on before then. The difference is that it was more deeply hidden, in part by a deep-seated Catholic naiveté that prevented the average Catholic or average anyone from believing that priests would do these things.

Members of the secular media have really taken their share of hits from the clerical establishment from the pope on down. The slams from people in the Vatican bureaucracy, the editors of La Civiltà Cattolica and various high-ranking churchmen throughout the world would be almost comical were it not for the fact that these arrogant pronouncements further victimize the victims by directly implying that this is all an exaggeration. Civiltà, an influential Jesuit journal, claims that the press’ treatment of the sex scandal is “morbid and scandalous” and reflects growing anti-Catholicism in the United States. If they really think people believe that assessment, then it’s fair to say that their grip on reality is tenuous at best. The coverage is certainly morbid and scandalous, because the sex abuse is morbid, and the arrogant cover-ups have been worse than scandalous. Anti-Catholic attitudes! They’re right in principle but off the mark. Allowing the sexual pillaging of Catholic young people and then lying about it while at the same time squandering millions of Catholic dollars in hush money, that’s anti-Catholic!

Several years ago Capuchin Fr. Michael Crosby wrote that the Catholic church is a dysfunctional family. All of the classic symptoms of dysfunction and addictive behavior are present. For years, clergy sexual abuse of children and adults was like the elephant in the living room. Everyone tiptoed around, and no one wanted to ask why it was there. Then the elephant moved, and the whole house shook.

It’s fair to say that the catalogue of excuses offered by the leadership for its totally inadequate and irresponsible reaction to the many cases of abuse, and the attacks on the secular press, the so-called materialistic society, the plaintiffs’ lawyers, the victims’ rights advocates and even the victims themselves, are symptoms of a combination of corporate denial and fear.

Something amiss with the system

This crisis is a massive deluge that didn’t start in January 2002 or even back in 1985. It goes back for centuries … look at what St. Peter Damian wrote in the 11th century and how he was received by the establishment. The eruptions that have been taking place not only in the United States but throughout the world are indicative of the fact that more is wrong than sexually abusive clerics. There is something radically amiss with the entire clerical system. There are reasons why the church’s leadership has acted as it did but these reasons are far from the hardly believable catalogue of excuses we keep hearing.

To have handled the problem effectively from the beginning would have necessitated a radical shift in attitude and outlook. In a sense this is a theological issue: Who is the church? The clerical establishment thinks that it is the church and guards its security at all costs. The denial mechanisms we have seen are indicative of a deep-seated fear that the structures, so long the fortress of the clerical sub-culture, will change. To have responded with immediate compassion and total concern for the victims carried with it the immense risk of losing the security provided by the power and prestige of the episcopate. This is the risk that goes with reaching out as Christ would have done. It means that the value of one victim goes far beyond all the power, prestige and monetary worth of the entire system.

A two-edged common denominator in the bizarre series of statements coming out of certain highly placed Vatican officials, Italian journals, prelates such as Cardinal Oscar Andrés Rodríguez Maradiago of Honduras and others is the narcissistic obsession with the image of the “church” and the scandalous lack of concern for the victims. Why? Simply put, it’s because the prelates don’t know the victims. The church is people, not rules, traditions, rituals or governmental structures. Some bishops have tried to justify their lawyers’ incredible hardball tactics with victims by saying that they have an obligation to protect the church’s patrimony. That’s a church buzzword for the money. In other words, the money is more important than the horrific damage done to the victims by the abusing priests.

All that most of the victims ever wanted was belief, understanding and compassion from the bishops. Instead they got threats, intimidation, manipulation and subterfuge. The ecclesiastical establishment couldn’t break free of the obsessive secrecy and self-absorption to take the risk of embracing the victims.

Perhaps what is so threatening to the Vatican bureaucrats and many of the bishops is the realization that the medieval church is finally starting to crumble before them. This was the church that put so much stock in power, prestige and control. The masses were largely uneducated and superstitious. They had to be controlled because the hierarchy knew what was best for all, and the laity was generally in a state of sin anyway. It was easy to build kingdoms, little and big, in the church power structure.

Medieval church is dying

All one has to do is take an impartial look at the traditional governmental model, clearly outlined in the Code of Canon Law, to see the concept of monarchy loud and clear. That model doesn’t work anymore! The false presumption of uneducated, sinful masses is a figment of history. The people, led by the abuse survivors, won’t tolerate an institutional church that puts looking good and the preservation of power and control above the emotional and spiritual welfare of persons. The medieval church is dying, terminally afflicted with the virus called “clericalism.”

This is all a painful reminder of the fact that the Catholic church is centered on Jesus Christ, not any human structure. Furthermore, its claims to reflect the word and example of Christ must be present in the real life of the church, not just in sermons or theology books. It means little to a wounded survivor to say “the church is love” unless we do it, not by word but by action.

The credibility of the hierarchy will not be restored by mere words — more decrees, more public apologies, more promises of “no more abuse.” New and streamlined ways of disposing of abusive clerics (and the further tromping underfoot of that wonderful American value called “due process”) won’t do it. The bishops need to openly and honestly admit why there have been cover-ups and lies. Following this, their credibility might possibly be restored somewhere in the future if they begin now to actually get to know the victims and survivors by reaching out, one by one, to them.

“What would Jesus Do?” That’s not just a cutesy motto for teens or dreamy idealists. That is the fundamental issue before the church today. The answer is obvious. It’s not one that comes out of power or medieval panoply but genuine compassion for those who are in pain. It means action, not just words. It also means accepting not only what Jesus would do, but quite possibly what he is doing right now, and that is reminding us just what his church is all about.