By Leon Suprenant | February 18, 2008
Last week I received this question via email:
“It continues to puzzle me why the present and the previous popes seem to take no meaningful action regarding the malaise in the Church, such as making sure that bishops and priests involved in the clerical sex abuse scandal were dismissed. It seems plainly obvious to me that if you really want a clean house then you must clean the house. We all have known for some time that there has been a lot of “enabling” going on (in fact there are still cases at this very moment). Why do you suppose this is so?”
This is a question I’ve received many times through the years, so much so that I’ve written extensively on the topic, usually from the perspective of how the laity are to maintain their spiritual equilibrium through it all. Examples of such are articles may be found, for example, in Lay Witness and This Rock.
This time, however, rather than jump more immediately to our response (which, after all, is the only aspect we can control and are personally accountable for), I took the question at face value, despite its complexity and the fact that I can’t even begin to grasp the weight and responsibilities that come with being the successor of St. Peter, or even a bishop. With that disclaimer, I offered the following ten reasons, in no particular order.
(1) He’s trying. There certainly has been some action on the part of the Holy See, but let’s assume with my questioner that there has been not sufficiently meaningful action. If I were to assign a different room in my house to different family members for cleaning, the house overall would be cleaner than it was, but how clean each room is would be dependent on the child assigned to that particular room. The Pope can’t personally clean the entire house. He has overall responsibility for the “house,” but some of his bishops and congregations do a better job with their assigned “room” than others. I do think he takes seriously his responsibility, and perhaps the best indication of this was his personal handling of Fr. Maciel’s case, which required him to alienate himself to some extent with the Legionaries, one of the more orthodox and influential religious communities of our time.
(2) Speaking of bishops, I really think their selection is more of an art than a science, and even using the best of criteria and motives some of them are going to fail. Because of the way the Church is divinely organized, with the individual bishop’s being responsible for His particular Church, the principle of subsidiarity is going to limit the Pope’s willingness to micromanage a solution. I do think that we’re seeing on the whole a better “crop” of priests and bishops now than in previous decades. (And realize here I’m not addressing the problem and inherent difficulties in standing in judgment of Church leaders.)
(3) The feminization of the Church and society. The “empowerment” of women has at times been accomplished by blurring gender roles, making women more like men, and men more like women. In a very real sense, men have been castrated by our hyper-inclusive Church, creating a generation of men, especially clerics, who too frequently lack manly strength and leadership skills.
(4) Due process run amuck. We rightly tend to think first and foremost about the victims of sexual abuse. At the same time, the priest does have rights. A single allegation can destroy a priest’s entire ministry. Even if the charge is ultimately dropped or discredited, there will always be suspicions–the priest will be “damaged goods.” Given this fact, the indelible sacred character priests bear, and the finite number of priests to begin with, Church authorities are understandably slower to intervene than civil authorities.
(5) Inroads of dissident agenda. The Sexual Left is fully accepting of homosexual activity and is pushing for even greater, unspeakable sexual license. Liberal moral theologians are not typically as extreme, but they have undercut the Church’s opposition to the Sexual Left, and have weakened the resolve of her members (including her clergy) to resist sexual temptation and sin. All this got played out in a seminary culture in recent decades that allowed this type of perversion to foment.
(6) Looking out for your own. This is hard to explain. I was a seminarian in Boston and in Los Angeles in the 1980s. Let me be clear: I never knew about any specific sexual misconduct at the time and certainly wouldn’t have condoned it. But as a seminarian you’re different, you’re set apart, and that continues as a priest or bishop. This creates a certain type of fraternity that would make it hard to come down hard on your brethren. It’s almost an “us and them” sort of situation.
(7) Blackmail and skeletons in the closet. Very few people were able to navigate through the turbulent 60s, 70s, and 80s without some significant moral misadventures of one sort or another. I strongly suspect that there are some Church officials (not the Pope, however) who feel powerless to speak up lest their own complicity in sexual misconduct be revealed.
(8) Different mindsets. We think of abuse of teenage boys as criminal activity requiring stern punishment and the imposition of safety precautions. The Church doesn’t explicitly deny that, but also tends to see it as a moral failing that God’s grace is able to forgive and heal. Further, a much higher percentage of married men engage in various sexual sins and perversions. For them it’s not “one strike and you’re out.” Rather, we try to preserve a sacramental marriage if at all possible (and even then we’ve seen an exorbitant number of divorces and annulments in recent decades). Yet when it comes to the priesthood, we’re very quick to want to terminate the exercise of the sacrament of Holy Orders. At least part of this is based on our society’s hostility to the priesthood and to the Catholic Church in general. I’ve heard good bishops convincingly point out this double standard.
(9) Financial considerations. I think that if the Church were able to take appropriate action without opportunistic plaintiffs’ attorneys capitalizing on the situation to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, I think Church leaders would generally be more transparent, conciliatory, and decisive. As it is, it’s (perhaps literally) damned if you do, and damned if you don’t.
(10) Clericalism. It will always be around. It’s always a potential problem, and in this situation it comes off as despicable, heartless arrogance.
This is obviously an incomplete list of factors. In addition, please note that I don’t necessarily agree with all the mindsets I’ve described above; I’m just simply setting them forth as contributing factors of the malaise. And I think at the end of the day the mysterium iniquitatis cited by Pope John Paul II is something that’s interior to all of us. Given that reality, and given the fact that nothing is an “accident,” God must be calling us in a special way at this time to an interior purification, both on an individual and Church-wide basis. Certainly Lent affords us an opportunity to reflect on this and take to heart our own need for repentance.