The Church in Crisis: Commentary
Steps in Bishops' Forced March toward Accountability

By Thomas Doyle
National Catholic Reporter
Downloaded March 10, 2004

Do the revelations of the Gavin audit, the John Jay study and the National Review Board report mark a significant turning point in the Catholic church?s long-term ?dark night of the soul?? I believe they do, but not in the way some would hope. This is another spike on the moral and spiritual graph tracking the decades-long clergy abuse scandal. It marks another step in stripping off the cover of clerical secrecy, fear and deception that has characterized the scandal in the United States and in a growing number of other countries.

The revelations of the three reports do not mark the end of the ?crisis,? nor even the beginning of the end. In the first place, it?s not a temporary ?crisis? that can be quickly dealt with by reports, public apologies and the widespread dismissal of any cleric ever accused of a sexual impropriety. The scandals of the past 20 years have exposed a number of frightening and harsh realities. They have shown that there is something wrong with mandatory celibacy and that the ongoing blind defensiveness of the institutional leadership is making the problem worse rather than better. The scandals have shown that the hierarchical leadership lacks the ability to adequately face and respond to a complex problem that it does not fully comprehend. The Gavin audit of diocesan compliance with the bishops? child protection policies (findings released in January) and the John Jay study focused on the perpetrators. They have not come close to facing two much deeper issues: why the institutional leadership failed to extend compassionate pastoral care to the victims from the very beginning, and why the bishops have avoided honestly confronting their own part in causing the cover-up and stonewalling.

These three reports will succeed in making sure that the spotlight stays on this issue because there is still little lasting light in the long dark tunnel. The John Jay study and the National Review Board report have been criticized by survivor groups and others and rightly so. There are more than a few unanswered questions about the methodology of the John Jay study and the Gavin self-report. The review board report has generated just as much scrutiny.

These are not ?bold steps? nor are they the last mile in the bishops? forced march toward accountability. We must never forget that were it not for the revelations of the media, the drainage of money from the hundreds of lawsuits, the horrific revelations of the grand juries and the overall pressure from victims and survivors, nothing would have happened over the past 20 years. We must also remember that since 1984 the bishops have steadfastly refused to release any statistics or information about clergy abusers, claiming either that they had no such information or were prohibited from releasing it by some twist in canon law. The bishops want the public to believe them, but their track record in honesty is a disaster.

The church?s bankrolled spin is well under way. The so-called ?Catholic League? rants that the numbers of clergy abusers are no more and maybe less than in other professions. So what? That makes as much sense as telling your mother when she finds out she has terminal cancer not to worry, because other mothers have it as well. Others have tried to unsuccessfully minimize the issue with the hardly newsworthy revelation that only a small percentage are really true pedophiles and most victims are above the age of reason. Again, a resounding so what? Abuse is abuse, and that?s the point, not the age of the victims. It is not the numbers that cause the most anger and disgust. It?s the dishonest and uncaring way the institutional church has responded to abuse victims and its stubborn refusal to acknowledge its primary role in this era of shame. This pain is re-victimization ? slamming the victims all over again by trying to sandpaper them out of existence with ludicrous claims that they have exaggerated, imagined or caused their own abuse. The spin also tries to blame the press, the lawyers and the so-called dissenters and unorthodox. The worst offense of the institutional spin doctors is that they continue to insult the intelligence of those they are trying to convince.

Dissent from church teachings is at the core of it all, but it is not dissent from Humanae Vitae or any other teaching on sexual morality. The dissent is from the essential commands of Jesus Christ that demand that religious leaders be honest and accountable to their people and that the rejected and hurt be treated with compassion and not denial. This dissent is amplified as long as the bishops refuse to look honestly into their own role in the ongoing nightmare.

The media and the bishops have focused on one class of victims and one class of perpetrators. Clerics who have preyed on children and adolescents have been at the center of concern, but there are others that must not be left in the shadows. Direct victims are the thousands of adults who have been preyed upon, used and left behind to be dismissed and often ridiculed by the church?s leadership. The adults, mostly women, are part of a centuries-old legacy of the failure of mandatory celibacy to work and the failure of church authorities to accept this fact. There are also the men and women who were seriously abused both physically and emotionally by religious women. They are finally appearing on the radar and represent another dimension of the horror story.

Though it might not be popular with some victims to mention the next class of direct victims, it must be done. These are the hundreds and perhaps thousands of priests who have been caught up in the bishops? drive to focus all attention on the abusers, alleged and real. In their haste to deflect more accusations of negligence, too many bishops have illicitly dispensed themselves from the canonical and moral obligation of providing due process to the accused. The thousands of reports that were ignored and buried by bishops for decades are now being dug out, dusted off and used to demonstrate the commitment to zero tolerance. Yet the appearance and reality of injustice is all around us, and as long as it is, the victims, survivors and faithful in general will suffer greatly and the bishops? collective credibility will continue to diminish.

I have been involved in this issue for more than 19 years. I continue to meet and hear the stories of the many indirect victims ? the collateral damage. At the top of this list are the immediate loved ones of victims and survivors ? the parents, spouses, children, siblings and friends who have been horrified and have either fled the Catholic church in disgust or quietly drifted away. I have spent countless hours with lawyers who have been shocked and scandalized by the bishops and the duplicitous way they have acted.

I also think that the bishops themselves are often victims of their commitment to an anachronistic self-image and narrow concept of the ?good of the church.? I would hope that they honestly do feel compassion for the victims and frustration at feeling trapped in an upside-down system that compels them to preserve their power at all costs.

Clergy sex abuse goes back to the earliest centuries. The proof is not found in a medieval version of The Boston Globe but in the church?s own official documents. There has been an unbroken chain of attempts to curb clergy sexual abuse. The canonical sources are replete with disciplinary legislation against clerical concubinage, abusive sex with adults, homosexual relationships and pederasty. At times the popes and bishops have been up front about it all, but in our own era clergy abuse has been deeply buried in a secrecy defended by fear. Throughout, however, the institutional church has had the upper hand and has retained control of the problem in all its aspects. Therein lies the radical disparity between the past and the present.

This time around the hierarchy is not in control. It has failed to contain what at first appeared to be a crisis and rapidly revealed itself to be a fatal flaw in the system. Though the pope and the bishops have tried to control the solution with edicts from on high, the days of imperial solutions to systemic problems are dead. The extent of the fatal flaw has been gradually exposed over the past two decades. Boston 2002 was not the beginning but the moment of critical mass. The victims, survivors, their supporters and the laity had been trying to find the reins of control since 1984 and in January 2002 realized they had found them. This is all much bigger than a challenge to celibacy, injustice or the monarchical governmental system. It is all of the above. If we add the element of hope to the embattled landscape perhaps we can see it all as a moment in the age-old evolution of Catholicism from an institutional kingdom to the people of God.

Dominican Fr. Tom Doyle, a canon lawyer, was one of three authors of a 1985 report warning the U.S. bishops of the severity of the sex abuse crisis, the possible legal consequences and its possible effect on church credibility.


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