Scandal Time

By Richard John Neuhhaus
First Things
April 2002

The timing, it seems, could not have been worse. In last month’s issue I offered my considered and heartfelt defense of Father Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, against unfounded charges of sexual abuse. I meant and I mean every word of what I said there. Just after the issue had gone to press, however, scandals involving sexual abuse by priests in Boston exploded, creating a level of public outrage and suspicion that may be unparalleled in recent history. The climate is not conducive to calm or careful thought about priests and sexual molestation. Outrage and suspicion readily lead to excess, but, with respect to developments in Boston, it is not easy to say how much outrage and suspicion is too much.

Professor Philip Jenkins of Penn State University has written extensively on sexual abuse by priests, also in these pages (see “The Uses of Clerical Scandal,” February 1996). He is an acute student of the ways in which the media, lawyers, and insurance companies—along with angry Catholics, both liberal and conservative—are practiced at exploiting scandal in the service of their several interests. Scholars point out that the incidence of abusing children or minors is no greater, and may be less, among priests than among Protestant clergy, teachers, social workers, and similar professions. But, it is noted, Catholic clergy are more attractive targets for lawsuits because the entire diocese or archdiocese can be sued. That is a legal liability of the Church’s hierarchical structure. Moreover, the expressions of outrage by many in the media are attended by an ulterior agenda, namely, discrediting the Catholic teaching on human sexuality, about which they are genuinely outraged. These and other considerations can and should be taken into account, but the tragic fact remains that great wrongs have been done, and there is no avoiding the conclusion that, in Boston and elsewhere, some bishops bear a heavy burden of responsibility.

Children have been hurt, solemn vows have been betrayed, and a false sense of compassion—joined to a protective clericalism—has apparently permitted some priests to do terrible things again and again. For some Catholics, this is a time that will test their faith in Christ and his Church, as distinct from their faith in the holiness, or even competence, of some of the Church’s leaders. Catholics used to be good at that sort of thing, pointing to figures such as Alexander VI (Pope from 1492 to 1503) whose thorough corruption—he gained the papacy by bribery and used it to benefit his illegitimate children—was thought to prove that the truth of the Church and the validity of her sacraments were not dependent upon the holiness of her leaders. In the fourth century, the Donatist heretics took the opposite position, and Catholics have been exuberant in their condemnation of Donatism. We all have a steep stake in the rightness of that condemnation. At the same time, the orthodoxy of anti–Donatism is not to be confused with moral indifference. All three synoptic gospels report the warning of Jesus about those who corrupt the innocence of children. “It would be better for him if a millstone were tied around his neck and he were cast into the depths of the sea.”

Conformed to the Culture

The current scandals constitute a painful moment of truth for bishops, heads of religious orders, and others responsible for the moral integrity of the Church’s ministry. More often than not, the priests allegedly involved in these scandals are now in their sixties and seventies or even older. They received their formation and were ordained in the 1960s and 1970s when, in addition to false compassion and clerical protectiveness, there was in sectors of the Church a wink–and–a–nudge attitude toward what were viewed as sexual peccadilloes. Anyone who was around during those years, and had eyes to see, knows that was the case. Ecumenically, and especially among clergy involved in social activism, both Protestant and Catholic, there was frequent confusion and laxity with respect to sexual morality—heterosexual, homosexual, and unspecified. That is deplorable but should not surprise. In this way, too, the institutions of religion are too often conformed to the culture of which they are part.

Among Catholics, the situation is generally very different with today’s seminarians and younger priests. It is not unusual to encounter priests who claim they were ordained in, say, the 1970s with the expectation that the celibacy requirement would be abandoned within a few years. Many of them have since left the active priesthood. For others, the “acceptance” of homosexuality and the rejection of every form of “homophobia” was clearly the approved attitude. Today, I think it fair to say that seminarians and younger priests know beyond doubt what is expected of them in terms of faithfulness to the Church’s teaching. But the penalty for past laxity and malfeasance is now coming due, and has been coming due since the reality of sexual abuse by priests was brought to public attention more than a decade ago. Of course the Church will survive, and more than survive, but I expect this storm is not going to pass any time soon. I expect we have not yet seen its full fury. I very much wish that I were more confident than I am that every bishop understands that there can now be no returning to business as usual. The word crisis is much overused, but this is a crisis.

Despite all the talk about the pervasive “nonjudgmentalism” in our culture, about some things judgments are much harsher today. In anything having to do with children, for instance, what some viewed as embarrassing misbehavior in the 1970s was, by the 1990s, viewed as a heinous crime. Psychological theory, law, and public attitudes have all changed dramatically. The very subject of homosexuality was, not so very long ago, pretty much in the closet. Like most people, bishops did not know, or did not want to know, about rude things that men did together, and sometimes did with little boys. Today’s scandals notwithstanding, there was something to be said for such reticence and naiveté, even if the naiveté was sometimes feigned. When it comes to priestly adherence to the Church’s teaching, zero tolerance must now be the order of the day. The enforcement of zero tolerance, in this connection and others, can lead to ridiculous extremes and can inhibit natural and healthy interactions, especially in working with young people, but that, too, is probably part of the price to be paid.

There was a similar sense of crisis following the first public revelations of sexual abuse by priests in the mid–eighties, but then the issue receded after CNN notoriously sensationalized charges against the late Joseph Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago in 1993 and the charges turned out to be false. That incident helped remind people that priests, too, are to be deemed innocent until proven guilty. In the current climate of outrage, we need to be reminded of that truth again. Unbridled outrage can too easily become hysteria. One recalls that during the same period, there was a blizzard of criminal charges and lawsuits over alleged abuses, including satanic rituals and other grotesqueries, perpetrated by people working in day care centers. Whole communities around the country were caught up in a frenzy of mutual recriminations, and many people went to jail, until the heroic and almost single–handed work of Dorothy Rabinowitz of the Wall Street Journal exposed the madness for what it was.

Other Casualties

Among the potential casualties of the present scandal is severe damage to what has historically been called the “liberty of the Church” to govern her own affairs. Catholics have a distinct tradition of canon law that goes back to the Council of Nicaea in 325 and took lasting form with Gratian’s Decretum in the twelfth century. This history of ecclesiastical liberty is basic to the various exemptions and immunities in current law and practice that protect religious freedom not just for Catholics but for everyone. The right of religious institutions to govern themselves may be gravely eroded under pressure from lawyers, insurance companies, and the state. The ruthlessness of many in the legal profession should not be underestimated. As Peter Steinfels writes in the New York Times, it has now been “discovered that lawyers for plaintiffs could play hardball, too, inflating charges and using the news media to play on public fears and prejudices in hopes of embarrassing the Church into settlements.” With respect to self–governance, “confidentiality” is now commonly translated as “secrecy” and “discretion” as “evasion.” The cultural revolution popularized the slogan that the personal is the political. So also, it now seems, the religious is the political, and the legal. All of life is to be lived on the front pages or in the courtroom, or at least under the threat of the front pages and the courtroom.

News reports claiming that a certain number of priests have been charged with abuse and that the claims were settled out of court must not be interpreted to mean that the priests are guilty. Some of them insisted and insist that they are innocent, but bishops were advised by lawyers and insurance companies that a legal defense against the charges would cost much more than settlement out of court, and could well end up in a guilty verdict entailing even greater financial liability. In some cases, settlements were agreed to with the guarantee that they would remain forever confidential. In Boston, that guarantee has now been broken by court order. This can be seen as an ominous encroachment by the state on the Church’s right to self–governance. It can also be argued that the Church forfeited that right by failing to govern itself, and by surrendering episcopal governance to lawyers and insurance companies.

At least in some cases, there can be no question of the state’s legitimate interest. To cite the most notorious instance, that of the defrocked John Geoghan, he is already convicted of one criminal act, and is charged with many more. Sin is the business of the Church, and crime is the business of the state. There was once a time, centuries ago, when there were ecclesiastical courts to deal with clerics who committed sins that were also crimes. Although it had no standing in law, that way of handling things continued in a vestigial and informal way up to our day. If the cops suspected Father of criminal activity, it was reported to the bishop in the confidence that he would take care of it. No more.

Another potential casualty is an erosion of confidence in the possibility of repentance and amendment of life. Such confidence is dismissed as “naive” when it comes to priests being given another chance. But the belief in the power of the grace of God to transform lives is at the heart of Christian faith, and is overwhelmingly supported by Scripture and the experience of innumerable Christians. Belief in the gift of grace, however, is perfectly consistent with knowing that the gift is not always effectively received. When a priest repents after being caught dipping into the collection plate, there is forgiveness. There is even forgiveness, if he is repentant, after he has done it several times, but there are also secure measures for denying him access to the collection plate. Children and the integrity of sacred vows are immeasurably more valuable than the collection plate. It is now evident that it is much easier to keep violators away from collection plates than to keep them away from children.

The Meaning of Episcopos

Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston was already in 1993 thought to be taking a “hard line,” going through diocesan files to find any cases in which priests had believably been accused of molestation, and trying to make sure they were not assigned to positions involving regular work with minors. It now seems obvious that some priests eluded such scrutiny. In other cases assignments were made on the basis of medical and psychological counsel that at the time was thought to be perfectly sound. There were also experts who warned that simply getting rid of a priest would loose a sexual predator on the society. The beating that Cardinal Law has taken is, in large part, because of his inability to anticipate changes in medical and psychological thinking about sex abuse and sex abusers. At the same time, the medicalizing of gross wrongdoing too often lets ever–changing psychological theory trump commonsense judgments about sin and its consequences. In any event, Cardinal Law has confessed that, in all of this, he has made “tragic mistakes.” It is not possible to disagree. The word bishop is derived from the Greek episcopos, which means overseer, and there would seem to be no doubt that there have been grave deficiencies in the moral oversight of some of the clergy of Boston.

An outraged reader writes that, if I do not publicly call for Cardinal Law’s resignation, I am clearly “circling the ecclesiastical wagons in defense of the indefensible.” Nonsense. Saying who should be placed or replaced as a bishop is way above my pay grade. Many people, including many devout and orthodox Catholics, are calling for the Cardinal’s resignation. A wire service story is headed, “Boston Cardinal Vows to Stay, Despite Poll Numbers.” In the Catholic Church, bishops do not run for election. Nor are they to be viewed, or at least not chiefly, as CEOs of a corporation. In the Catholic Church, a bishop is a successor to the apostles appointed to his see by the Bishop of Rome. The bishop’s task is “to teach, to sanctify, and to govern.” Cardinal Law has been an outstanding teacher of the faith, and was instrumental, not incidentally, in producing the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Nobody can complain about his fidelity to his sacramental duties. In the third task, that of governing oversight, he has, as he has confessed, made tragic mistakes. His future as Archbishop of Boston is a matter between him, his conscience, and the Pope. He may conclude that the effectiveness of his ministry in Boston has been crippled beyond repair. I sincerely hope not. His resignation would be a severe loss to the Church in the United States. Nor dare we despair of God’s bringing great good out of these terrible events. There cannot help but be a deeper awareness of sin, its consequences, and our radical dependence upon grace—and such deepened awareness is a precondition for spiritual renewal.

There is an unseemly readiness on the part of many, including some Catholics, to believe the worst. What we know for sure is wretched enough. We would not know what we do know without the reporting of the Boston Globe. It is pointed out that the Globe, like its owner the New York Times, is no friend of the Church. The suggestion is not that we should kill the messenger, but that we should be keenly aware that the messenger has, on issue after issue, points to score against the teaching and claims of the Catholic Church; that the messenger is not a neutral party. All that is true, but it is of limited pertinence. It is also true that Catholics should not be apologetic about wanting to defend the Church. It is their duty. Doing that duty, however, is not incompatible with, but in fact requires, a recognition that, in this case as in so many others through history, leaders of the Church are guilty of giving ammunition to those who would attack her. Throughout his pontificate, John Paul II has been urging such a candid recognition, which is at the heart of our understanding that the Church is a community of sinners called to be saints.

That having been said, what has happened in Boston is inexcusable. Those responsible can be forgiven, but what they did cannot be excused. And again, Boston is not an isolated instance. Catholics and others who wish the Church well should be braced for the probability that the storm of scandal is by no means past. It will only be magnified if bishops and heads of religious orders have not learned from what happened in Boston. They must take the governance of the Church back from lawyers, insurance companies, spin doctors, blackmailers, and priests who are misguidedly protective of colleagues engaged in great evil. Meanwhile, these pages will continue to address this crisis—closely, candidly, and with a wrenching sadness tempered by, I pray, the virtues of faith, hope, and charity.


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