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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

The secret cause of the sex abuse scandal

Eugene Kennedy, a long-time observer of the Roman Catholic Church, is professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and author of the recent book The Unhealed Wound: The Church and Human Sexuality, published by St. Martin’s Press.


As the America’s Catholic bishops gather in Dallas, this week, they will be under intense pressure to deal with this modern plague of clerical sex abuse.

It is a tough spot for the country’s bishops, who are mostly good, gracious, and timid men. They did not get where they are by displaying initiative. Indeed, their ascendency in the church has always depended not on their telling what they are doing but in their doing what they are told. They seem driven by fear of what Catholics will do if they fail to do act boldly even though they still have not agreed on, and seem incurious about, a proper diagnosis of the problem or any understanding of its surface or secret causes.

Joseph Campbell turns us to James Joyce and Stephen Dedalus, the hero of his Portrait of The Artist As A Young Man, to explore the concept of the secret cause. Dedalus is concerned, as we are in this scandal, with the tragic emotions, the pity and terror that break through the surface appearance of any great human phenomenon. As Dedalus puts it, “Pity is the emotion that arrests the mind before whatever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer.” The emphasis, Campbell notes, is on the human sufferer. We have no lack of these in the sex abuse scandal.

Through his protagonist, Joyce defines terror, as “the emotion that arrests the mind before whatever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the secret cause.” What is the universe of the secret cause in tragedy and how may we enter it?

In Martin Luther King’s murder, for example, one may list many instrumental causes, including racial hatred and even the rifle or the bullet itself. But these are not worthy explanations of the tragedy of the death of a truly great man. One finds the secret cause in King’s own life, in the valedictory words he spoke shortly before his death, “I know that in pressing on for this justice and this cause I am challenging death.”

That,Campbell explains, is the secret cause, noting that “the secret cause of your death is your destiny. Every life has a limitation, and in challenging the limit you are bringing the limit closer to you, and the heroes are the ones who initiate their actions no matter what destiny may result. What happens is, therefore, a function of what the person does ... your own life course is the secret cause of your death....The accident that you die this way instead of in a different time and a different place is a fulfillment of your destiny.” (Thou Art That, edited by Eugene Kennedy, Novato, California, New World Library, 2001, pp 34, 35)

We write the secret cause like a DNA code into the genes of our own destiny. It is our way of answering the question asked of all of us by Hamlet, are we to be or not to be? The yes, no, or maybe we give to this profound inquiry is the secret cause for the narrative of our lives, that we will lead and end them this way rather than that.

A preferential option for the passive

We have heard many theories about the instrumental causes of the sex abuse scandal, some of them not unreasonable, such as insufficient screening of seminary candidates, poor training for celibacy, and many of them wild, such as Vatican II or Catholic Bashing by the Media. What, however, is the secret cause of this epidemic-like scandal?

If we define the secret cause of our deaths by the way we say “Yes” or “No” to our lives, thereby drawing the blueprints of our own destinies, we may, with good warrant and in good faith, examine the bishops to discover if, in their way of responding to their lives and the life of the Church, they reveal the secret cause both of the sex abuse scandal and of the threatening and painful endgame they face in Dallas.

The secret cause of this tragedy that has so affected both Catholicism’s individuals and its institution is the passivity ofAmerica’s Catholic bishops. This strong strain is the basis for the wry clerical joke about the motto that sums up the artfully receptive maneuvers of ambitious priests to have their heads canted at just the right angle when miters descend, as they believe they do, from Heaven: Expectans, Expectavi. It loses its fine edge in translation, “Expectantly, I looked forward to (this).” Or more freely and more to the mark, “Have I Been on the Lookout for This!” From such mannered passivity, great careers have been launched in the Church.

It is striking, indeed, to observe how many episcopal destinies have been built on managed passivity, on knowing how and where to be seen and what to be seen doing, and, perhaps more importantly, not doing, when the ecclesiastical equivalent of major league scouts are in the stands with their stat books and speed guns. Does this crafty positioning constitute a Yes, a No, a cautious Maybe, or a Whatever It Takes to Life’s grave question, to be or not to be? Expectans, Expectavi.

Life in the passive voice

Inspect briefly the episcopal lexicon and the passive verb forms employed, conceptually and factually, to define so many careers and to shape so many destinies. Bishops, we learned in the 1982 Loyola Study conducted by Dr. Mary Sheehan and Dr. Frank Kobler, understand themselves as chosen ones, acted upon, recipients of grace and grandeur, selected before they were formed in their mothers’ wombs, to be made successors to the apostles themselves. Those living in the passive voice in order to be called evince such meager passion as they have about the protocol of their great expectations. Not long ago, an American archbishop demanded an explanation from a subordinate who had written that the Pope appointed Cardinals. No, the prelate insisted, the Pope creates Cardinals. Alas, he is still waiting for his own creation.

This profound sense of preferment from all eternity, of being called and elevated, of being the son in whom the father is well pleased, pervades their consciousness and reinforces their expectations of guaranteed destines, of graces piled overflowing into their laps, as, vested with greater gifts than their fellow priests, they are raised above them by episcopal ordination.

They are inheritors, not founding fathers, and their whole life style, from the liturgy in which attendants bow to them, remove and replace their miters, wash their hands and becloud them with incense, to the civic banquet where a central seat is kept on the dais for them, to the crowded events at which a parking place is blocked off for them by a traffic barrier, to the speaker’s intonation, May it please your excellency, to the aptly passive reception line where they let people kiss their rings, to the doors opened for them afterwards, including the one on the big car swung wide by a man who was made a Monsignor for his dedicated anticipation of just such moves, to their return home to be told if any important mail or messages have come in for them, their immense passivity suits their sense less of destiny than of predestination.

Examine some of the most accomplished ecclesiastics in American Catholic history, and observe the fireworks arc of the passive prelate, of men who knew when and where to be seen and how to indulge the passivity of those bishops who could make straight their way to episcopal glory, to being transported properly to that lofty place in the hierarchy on which a reserved card was placed for them back when God separated the firmament from the waters.

The cobbler’s tale

Francis Cardinal Spellman did not become archbishop of New York by any inability to get himself noticed by such great patrons as Archbishop Marchetti-Selvaggiani, when, as a Roman seminarian, the young New Englander would snap pictures of Vatican prelates with his then novel camera and later bring them the prints as if they were calling cards engraved by God to place on the silver salvers of the powerful. John Cardinal Cody became archbishop of Chicago by knowing how to find and, indeed, not budge from the place where lightning would strike.

Cody missed his own mother’s funeral to remain at the deathbed of St. Louis’s Edward Cardinal Glennon when the latter was stricken in Ireland on his way home from the 1946 consistory at which he received his red hat. Expectans, Expectavi.

How poignant that each man was to die differently, but virtually alone, in their residences, Spellman in the middle of Manhattan in 1967 and, in 1982, Cody, long isolated by charges of scandal, with only a hired nurse at his bedside in his seemingly blacked out mansion deep in Chicago’s Gold Coast.

Passivity is practically an art form in how to succeed in all bureaucracies, of course, but being raised, as the ecclesiastical phrase expresses it, to the bishopric practically depends on it. Many men may be hurt that they were not made bishops but none is surprised when they are. They study their superiors as earlier peoples studied the gods, trying to find how to propitiate and please them and win their good favor.

I recall an ambitious cleric who studied not only the moods and manners of his superior - this is a subtly nuanced pas de deux of power - but his language and expressions so that he could feed them back to him in a baby food formula with such deftness that the older man would taste only the residue of flattery. “I speak to him,” he explained earnestly to me of his own Uriah Heap style, “not of the shoemaker or the shoe repair man but, in his own word, of the cobbler

A man gets noticed in the Church by supporting the status quo, getting along by going along, applying the canon law phrase that interdicts any activity during the interim between one bishop’s departure and his successor’s being named: Nil innovetur.- Nothing new is to be undertaken. That is the password to being looked upon with favor. It also explains why creative people are never made bishops. Since their natures urge them to think of and do new things all the time, they are threatening to people who believe that keeping the faith means keeping it from being studied, understood better, or applied in a fresh way to the woes of the world.

A theology of passivity

Passivity serves bishops well, as in their ability to absorb criticism without letting it touch or disturb them. Unkind appraisals are filed away under The World, as in The World, The Flesh, and The Devil, these universes and agents of evil that are the active sources of all distraction and sin. Their passive theology allows them to interpret their experience in a way highly favorable to them: Are they not being misunderstood and criticized even as Jesus was? Are they not to glory in the passive stance, indeed, the high and holy calling of being suffering servants and martyrs? This is the great and functional theological defense of fundamentally passive personalities. Why should they be other than pleased if the world misunderstands them even as it misunderstood their master?

Everything that happens, therefore, may be rendered spiritually enhancing for them when they see themselves as being purified through trials not unlike those heaped on the apostles who were their predecessors? These criticisms are taken as tributes to their goodness - signs that they are on the right track, even if the train is not moving - by bishops who see the silver lining in their leaden mode of spirituality.

The Pontius Pilate Syndrome

This attitude makes complacency a virtue until bishops encounter the consequences of their own inactivity, or their unwillingness to listen to or examine what is happening all around them. Then Church officials wail the same off-key bureaucratic blues about how they missed the sex scandal that F.B.I. chiefs sing about how they missed 9/11. Can’t you hear the identical passive voice rhythm? - mistakes have been made, we were not informed, we only did what we were told by the experts, the blame belongs to somebody else...

That is the sound of the Pontius Pilate Syndrome, that unwillingness to learn, that fatal paralysis of judgment, that preferential option for passivity flicked up like a cabdriver’s flag whenever they encounter a choice point in history. What they do not understand is that, if such habitual passivity works in the ecclesiastical culture, it fails utterly in the real world. Indeed, such passivity prompts anger from others, as, indeed, the bishops’ static self-display in the sex abuse scandal has from almost everybody, including their own people.

The bishops, of course, have no wives to relay them warnings from dreams but they do share Pilate’s worry that their actions are being watched carefully inRome. In such circumstances, holding one’s breath and doing nothing is no small virtue, and lawyers and public relations people feed them such passive anodynes as fall back positions and talking points.

Pressed for the truth, they may say, as many bishops have about clerical sexual abuse, What is truth? Is this pedophilia, ephebophilia, homosexuality, anti-Catholicism, a result of a sex mad culture, a media plot, the result of Vatican II? In short, in the passive man’s vindication of choice, somebody else’s fault. And now, as Dallas looms, they uneasily ask what the crowd wants, let our hands be laved clean and let the blood be upon you and your children....

Catholics are angry because the bishops have been so passive in responding to this plague, propitiating the modern gods as other leaders did ancient gods to keep from being swept away by their power. Payments have been made to buy silence about bad things, they learn, with the money good people gave for good works, priest abusers have been reassigned without informing anybody about their problem, children have been left vulnerable by the very shepherds charged with actively guarding the flock.

“The bishops won’t do anything about it...”

The American bishops have exhibited a genius for passivity in responding to any information or alerts about problematic priests. If we begin with the multi-disciplinary study of the priesthood that they themselves authorized shortly after Vatican II, we can identify the characteristic passivity of their responses. These studies were initiated under John Cardinal Dearden, the first President of the newly reformed National Conference of Bishops and they included studies of the history and theology of the priesthood as well as sociological and psychological studies that yielded a great deal of information about the attitudes, behaviors, and personal characteristics of American priests. Reports were given at the April 1971 bishops’ meeting in Detroit by the various chairmen, including John Tracy Ellis, Andrew Greeley, and me.

The psychological report (The American Priest: Psychological Investigations by Kennedy and Heckler, 1972) noted, in its overview, that “a large proportion of the priests ... emerge as underdeveloped persons.... these priests have reached a level of overall personal growth that is not equal to that which is expected at their age and in view of their careful selection and lengthy training .... they reflect a lack of proper integration of their emotional and intellectual growth....They look like adults but, on the inside, they still struggle with the challenges of the previous level of development. The underdeveloped have not successfully passed through adolescence.” (Pp.7, 8)

The sociological results, from a different point of view, also alerted the bishops to challenges and probabilities with which, as leaders of a vital institution, one would have expected them to be concerned and perhaps take some constructive action. The studies were received politely but dealt with passively. Although some individual bishops and many priest groups showed interest, the conference initiated no follow up action on any of them.

By the mid-80s, however, some of the behaviors of poorly developed priests had become public concern, in significant part because of the investigative reporting of Jason Berry in the diocese ofLafayette,Louisiana, where Father Gilbert Gauthe was accused of having sexually abused children in his care. Berry reported the diocesan efforts to shield this story from public view, documenting the passivity that was evident in the reactions that were guided less by trying to find out how this could have happened than by legal and insurance company inspired tactics to avoid disclosure and protect the assets of the institution. Nothing was said about victims.

In 1985, the bishops heard a report on priest sex abuse in an executive session at their Spring meeting atSt. John’s Abbey inCollegeville,Minnesota. That year, Father Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest working at theVatican diplomatic center inWashington,D.C., authored, with the priest psychiatrist head of St. Luke’s Treatment, a lengthy memorandum on the burgeoning sex abuse scandal among the clergy. Doyle sounded a clear alarm and prophesied that, if the bishops did not act to deal with this major problem that was claiming so many victims, they would end up paying a billion dollars in reparation every year.

The bishops took no action on this memorandum. The only follow-up, masterly in its passivity, was the removal of Father Doyle from his post. He became an Army chaplain and, along withBerry, one of the true heroes of this sad story as he continued to sound the alarm and to give voice to the victims, made victims again by the passive neglect of their suffering.

Concerned at the bishops’ inaction on this as well as on their unwillingness to forge a national policy to deal with the sex abuse scandal, Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago, forwarded a brief memorandum to the National Conference of Bishops early in 1986 proposing a high level scientific study of the origins of the sex abuse scandal and other psychological questions then being raised about the priesthood, including whether or not it was becoming a predominantly homosexual profession.

A few weeks later, he received a brief letter from Msgr. Daniel Hoye, then General Secretary of the Bishops. Hoye explained that he had referred the memo to the committee concerned with pastoral life and its members agreed that the bishops wouldn’t do anything about this issue. He was, therefore, returning the memo to the Cardinal who re-submitted later only to get no response at all. Bernardin then turned to a collegial development of norms for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse against Church personnel, a document imitated by many other dioceses, to which he submitted his own case when he was falsely accused of sex abuse in 1993.

During the intervening years, the National Catholic Reporter, almost alone among Catholic publications, continued to report the facts about the growing problem of sexual abuse by Church personnel throughout the world. The bishops, who intoned a master rationalization in refusing to examine the problem — one kept quiet for the good of the Church — did not look kindly on the paper or on the victims’ groups who had found their voice and were raising it plaintively throughout the land.

The strategy handed to the bishops by lawyers and insurers - take this case by case and diocese by diocese - legitimized their failure to develop a national policy to deal with the growing scandal. Passivity triumphed again, as it had as far back as 1985 when, as Fr. Thomas Doyle has observed, the National Conference refused to develop a Crisis Intervention Team, distorting it as a mandatory “swat team” rather than the voluntary program that had been proposed.

As Fr. Doyle has further chronicled, the Conference continued to stall on having any kind of committee study, “claiming that it could not impose on individual dioceses.” A committee was eventually formed in 1993 but has, in Doyle’s judgment, “done little if anything effective.” The Conference also rejected the offer by CARA (Center for Applied research in the Apostolate) and other medical/psychological experts to pool data on the problem in order to understand it better.

The characteristic passivity of American bishops was obvious in many other matters as well. They have remained passive to the loss of sacramental availability to their people over the last generation. Holding on to the passive person’s favorite fantasy, vocations will come back, they have presided over the closing of parishes, the curtailing of Mass schedules, and the fallback of bible services with pre-consecrated hosts as if these were the best they could do to meet their primary obligation of providing the sacraments for their people. Their non-response, their letting this happen, as if they had no other options, such as the ordination to the priesthood of deacons, is a melancholy signal of what they would do if there were a power shortage: they would allow the lights to go out and sit in the dark.

This knowing passivity - knowing because it is linked as tightly as the beads in their rosaries to their desire to be approved by the Pope - has been obvious in other ways as well. In the mid 80s, for example, they allowed support for Dignity, a Catholic group of Gays, to dribble away. They allowed it to be understood that parishes were to withdraw the platform they had offered to these Catholics to meet in Catholic churches or other facilities. Gradually, the doors were closed in all but a few dioceses. So, too, the newspaper columns by Father Richard McBrien, were dropped by Catholic papers throughout the country - it was the expected thing - by bishops who allowed the actions to seem like those of their editors. The secret cause of these incidents lies in the bishops’ longing to be perceived as orthodox and pleasing toRome.


Because of the revelations by the investigative reporters of the Boston Globe, the priest sex abuse scandal exploded in the United States, as it has fromIreland toOceania to sub-SaharaAfrica, in 2002. In April, the American Cardinals went toRome at the Pope’s bidding for a session that was to discuss and devise guidelines for resolving the crisis. The signature note of passivity was written from the start on the unfinished symphony of this gathering.

These Cardinals had already marked themselves as passive to the Pope’s vigorous efforts to restore hierarchy as the pattern of church life and administration. Indeed, we may say that in saying yes to the restoration of hierarchy, the bishops marked out the lines of their own now unfolding destiny.

Bernard Cardinal Law, a central figure in the earthquake and aftershocks of the story inBoston, had gained enormous power in the Church by collaborating with the Pope on this venture. He had accepted, along with his brother cardinals, the Pope’s 1998 demand that their National Conference become, in effect, his passive instrument, by agreeing to his specifications that national conferences could author no plans or such things as pastoral letters unless they reached an impossible 100% agreement on them and then submitted them first to him for his approval.

The Roman meeting, passive in concept and execution, proved unfortunate for the American bishops, their Catholic people, and for any sign of acting instead of reacting to a tragedy of great human suffering and almost unparalleled scandal. The perfect symbol of the passivity of the American Cardinals were the empty chairs left by several of them who did not attend the final press conference. The earnest Cardinal McCarrick was left to try to manage the unmanageable in an ending sadder than an Irish wake, with none of the latter’s redeeming humanity.

This was the equivalent of presenting themselves for emasculation, to accepting the passive voice, the counterpart of the soprano inVatican choirboys mutilated for the sake of supposedly divine harmonies in other times. They willingly surrendered even the possibility of their potency in allowing their true authority and the collegial theology of Vatican II to be taken away without a struggle, as if, in the classic male distortion of violent sex, they enjoyed it.

The Handwriting on The Wall

The passivity identified as sinful in the penitential rite - in what I have done and in what I have failed to do - is writ large here, like the words inscribed on the wall of Belshazzar’s banquet, Mene, tekel, peres. When the king “saw the wrist and hand that wrote, his face blanched; his thoughts terrified him, his hip joints shook, and his knees knocked.” He “shouted,” we learn, “for the enchanters ... and astrologers to be brought in.” If they could interpret the writing for him, these forerunners of modern day lawyers and public relations experts, “would be clothed in purple, wear a golden collar ... and be third in government of the kingdom,” a melancholy foreshadowing, perhaps, of what we now recognize as a contingency fee.

But, as these wise men could not read the handwriting on the wall “the king was greatly terrified; his face went ashen, and his lords were thrown into confusion.” Many bishops, passive to their contemporary enchanters in law and public relations, now find that they can’t read the message to them either and identify with Belshazzar’s reactions. The lords are indeed thrown into confusion because others are supposed to take care of these things for them. Daniel finally translated the words and their judgment on passive royalty, “God has numbered your kingdom and put a end to it; you have been weighed in the scales and found wanting; your kingdom has been divided and given to the Medes and Persians.” (Daniel 5:25-29)

The bishops do Dallas

Handwriting on the wall, indeed, put there by the Catholic people throughoutAmerica who understand that they, not the bishops or the buildings, are the Church and who have become increasingly irritated at the passive reactions of their bishops. The same feelings surface at gatherings of laity throughout the country. They retain their faith in the Catholic Church but they have lost confidence in its leaders. Some suggest that nothing less than mass resignation by the bishops will suffice as a first step in rehabilitating the Church they have mis-managed so passively.

Catholic people will take little comfort from the draft of the “Charter For The Protection of Children and Young People” released in advance of the gathering. This document is the work of men who have seen the handwriting on the wall and reveals, in its style and content, that the secret cause of the sex abuse scandal operates still, in its strange reverse energy way, in its paragraphs.

The most poignant feeling that the draft generates is the absence of the bishops under whose name it is issued. It bears all the marks of pages prepared for them, this will cover the subject and give you cover at the same time. This lack of authorship, of this having come from their own hearts in an unself-conscious manner dominates its pages. The bishops seem to do everything they can not to put themselves at risk as they claim that they want to put things right.

It is obvious that they cannot easily speak the phrase that should define their capacity for healthy relationships, “I know mine and mine know me.” Instead, they invoke civil authority of other agencies in order to have a pen constructed for their flocks. Article 4 is an example of this passive defense of self as they say that “Dioceses will report any accusation of sexual abuse of a person to the proper authorities and cooperate in their investigation.” This may make them feel like good citizens but it also reveals how ready they are to let the criminal justice system do their work for them.

In Article 14 we learn that “Dioceses are to evaluate the background of all diocesan and parish workers who have contact with children ...Specifically, they will utilize the resources of law enforcement and other community agencies. This outsourcing of judgments that are their obligation to make suggests that they lack faith in themselves and are initially suspicious of anybody who wants to work for the Church. The bishops seem not to understand how their passivity - their worry about what might happen to them - can transform the atmosphere of the Church into that of a police state. Have they thought of the consequences of entering all their workers- including teachers whose dedications prompts them to accept lower wages to work in Catholic schools - into the vast computer network of the criminal justice system?

Nor do they seem concerned that, in their longing to be protected themselves, they are following advice from the same lawyers whose counsel on how to manage the sex abuse crisis transformed the church into a corporation anxious to protect is assets rather than its flock. The family of Catholicism will suffer still more damage from introducing legal tactics into its daily life, bringing, as adversarial systems do, a spirit of mistrust and suspicion into every relationship. Trust is the problem here. It cannot be remedied by agents of mistrust.

A Church that thinks that it can assure virtue by legal and police means has already betrayed its sense of being a sacramental community based on freely given faith and trust. This passive, let the law do it, is one of the sorriest aspects of this draft.

The Unasked Question

It is remarkable that the bishops remain, at this late date, unable to ask the most important question of all: How could this crisis have arisen in the Catholic priesthood? They resolve instead, in Article 11, “to research how the Church in theUnited States has responded to the problem of sexual abuse of minors by clergy.” That passive deflection of attention away from an unanswered question to one whose answer we know all too well is extraordinary.

In Article 17, the bishops speak of the pervasive nature of the problem and then, in as passive a manner as possible, they “offer to cooperate with other churches, institutions of learning, and other interested organizations in conducting a major research study in this area.” This vaguely worded readiness to go along if somebody else goes first is close to being an example of passive aggression.

American bishops are good men but they have not asked many questions of themselves except how do we get out of this anyway? They may be so accustomed to passivity that they cannot observe how much their reluctance to act, their refusal to question, their desire to be approved inRome, has drained away their capacity to lead.

This secret cause of the sex abuse crisis is also the secret cause of their loss of moral authority and the trust of a great many faithful Catholics. They cannot hope to recover it by backing intoDallas and backing somebody else’s truck up to carry away their woes.

The real subject inDallas is not the sex abuse scandal but the bishops themselves.