Friday, April 14, 2017

On Good Friday, a Letter I Wrote a Bishop Twenty Years Ago: The Abuse Crisis and "A Picture of Christian Pastors Colluding with the Powerful of the World, to Protect Assets"

Twenty years now, and in those twenty years, the story that perhaps more than any other characterizes the Roman Catholic church and has come to brand it in the eyes of the public is the crisis caused by clerical sexual abuse of minors and the cover-up of such abuse by church pastors. In continuation of the theme I began on Palm Sunday, I'm sharing with you now a letter I sent Bishop William Curlin of Charlotte on 10 September 1997 — some twenty years ago — speaking about the abuse crisis before it had even broken out in American Catholicism via media reports (with the exception of Jason Berry's ground-breaking coverage), and about what I could foresee it would mean, when news of it did really reach the world. This letter builds on the 1 September letter I posted here on Holy Thursday. It refers to Mother Teresa because Bishop Curlin has regarded himself as a close personal friend of Mother Teresa and brought her to Charlotte.

Here's my letter from 10 September 1997:

Dear Bishop Curlin:

Soon after I wrote you on September 1, I received the September 5 issue of the National Catholic Reporter. That issue has news about the pedophilia trial in Dallas, on which my September 1 letter commented.

Since this news is deeply disturbing to me, and has bearing on my story in the Charlotte diocese, I am writing again to comment on the latest revelations from the Dallas case.

As you may know, the NCR article indicates that the bishop of Dallas has met secretly with "a group of powerful laymen" to plan "an aggressive legal and public relations campaign designed to discredit … the … verdict in the Rudolph Kos sex abuse case." Notes from the meeting contain evidence of possibly unethical communication between the judiciary slated to hear a motion in the case, and an attorney present at the meeting.

The meeting notes also show that the diocese plans a public relations campaign designed to assure Catholics of the diocese's "compassion," while suggesting that the trial was unfair. According to these notes, at least one of the "powerful men" present at the meeting observed, "We can control the media." The notes identify "protection of assets" as a key diocesan objective.

If the NCR report is accurate, and I have no reason to suspect it is not, then I wonder what such meetings portend for the future of our church. The picture this meeting paints is not a pretty one for those who seek desperately to believe in the church and its message, is it? It's a picture of Christian pastors colluding with the powerful of the world, to protect assets, rather than to discuss the serious pastoral implications of the Dallas case.

Is money what counts above all for the church now?

It's also a picture of a church concerned above all with image, and not with the substance of the gospel it proclaims. This is a church willing to present a "compassionate" face to the world — and to manipulate the media through advertising campaigns to produce that face — rather than living compassion towards the victims of child abuse, and their families.

Is image, rather than substance, what counts above all for the church now?

As I pondered all this in light of my treatment at the hands of Belmont Abbey and the Charlotte diocese, I thought of what the life of Mother Teresa might have to say to bishops or abbots who hold secret meetings with powerful, monied men, to shape the church's image regardless of the substance underlying that image, and to protect assets rather than plot pastoral strategy.

We're told that Mother Teresa preferred the company of the outcast, the despised, the overlooked and ignored. She did so on simple gospel grounds: it is in these that we see the face of Jesus most clearly.

I wonder what kind of church we would have, if Mother Teresa's example prevailed? Perhaps a church in which bishops and abbots were more eager to meet face to face with and listen attentively to the least among their flock, rather than to powerful men?

Perhaps a church in which bishops and abbots were more concerned about the pains their church had inflicted on members of their flock, than about the public relations and financial implications of various cases?

Perhaps a church that would be willing to take seriously the scriptural imperative to pastors to seek out the wounded, to heal them and bring them back into the flock?

Perhaps a church that would be willing to take seriously the gospel vision of the reign of God, in which the last are first, and in which our Lord is preëminently present in the outcast?

Perhaps a church that would be willing to listen seriously to the epistle of James, in which we are told that the poor ought to be given a place of honor in our assemblies, and in which we are told that listening to the word of God means acting on it?

As I have been pondering the Dallas case in light of the life of Mother Teresa, I have also been thinking of a powerful statement of our present pope in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis.  John Paul II says:

Solidarity helps us to see the "other"—whether a person, people or nation — not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our "neighbor," a "helper" (cf. Gen. 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God (39).

It is because of such statements that I remain unable to receive the Eucharist, after what Belmont Abbey and the diocese of Charlotte did to me. Rather than treating me as a neighbor and helper — someone to be met personally, someone whose human story was to be heard attentively — Belmont Abbey and the diocese of Charlotte treated me like a thing, an instrument, someone to be used and then thrown away.

After Belmont Abbey fired me without providing any reason for doing so, lying to me and slandering me in the process, I was treated as a pariah by the local Catholic community. You yourself refused even to meet me face to face, and communicated to me through an intermediary that I had been "disrespectful" to ask for such a meeting — in doing so, underscoring the behavior of Abbot Oscar towards me, behaving in precisely the same way he had towards me.

As Pope John Paul II notes, such behavior has Eucharistic implications. When the church betrays the divine call to invite all equally to the banquet of life, then it also undermines the very meaning of the Eucharist it celebrates.

When the church treats people as things to be discarded, when it betrays its own teaching about human rights in the workplace, when it underscores that betrayal by lying to, slandering, and excluding from community the discarded worker, it undermines the very meaning of the Eucharist it celebrates.

It is because of the treatment I received at the hands of Belmont Abbey and the Charlotte diocese that I find myself unable to receive the Eucharist today, though I long to do so.

I've learned enough about the church through this painful experience to know that I will not receive justice, short of divine intervention. But I do not see why I may not have a simple apology from men who profess publicly to image Christ to their flock. I cannot imagine our Lord ever treating anyone as I have been treated by the pastoral leaders of the church of Charlotte.

Is it not very sad when public relations concerns and monetary ones dictate how the church behaves?  In cases such as mine, when the church listens only to those who have these concerns, the church paints itself into a terrible corner, doesn't it? Once it gives itself to power mongers and image creators, the church loses the ability to proclaim the gospel in any compelling way, and loses the ability to behave with simple, pastoral compassion in situations such as the Dallas case, or mine.

Thanks for listening, Bishop Curlin. I pray that the witness of Mother Teresa may have some real effect on the Charlotte diocese. As I believe Mother Teresa knew very well, effective listening, of the kind the scriptures describe, leads to conversion....  Gospel hearing always leads to action; if it does not, then we have not heard, though we may have allowed words that call us to conversion to pass mechanically through our ears.

A church that really listens is one always susceptible to conversion, even in its governing structures, in the way it exercises pastoral office.

Sincerely yours,

W.D. Lindsey.

A reminder: none of my letters ever had an answer from Bishop Curlin. They never even had an acknowledgment.

The graphic: James Middleton's "Jesus Laid in the Tomb," from his Stations of the Cross at the Church of St. Luke in the Fields, New York.

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