Friday, December 29, 2017

Bishop William G. Curlin: Some Last Words (about Pastoral Image and Pastoral Substance)

I don't like beating dead horses — and could not bring myself to beat a live one, either. I do think it's important to make one final statement about Bishop Curlin and why I posted a series of pieces about my dealings with him over the years, and about his record in the Catholic abuse cover-up, at the time of his death.

I did so because it seemed to me that, as often happens when powerful churchmen die, strong attempts were being made in some quarters to misrepresent the record regarding Bishop Curlin's pastoral life, with the implication that telling the truth about that record is speaking ill of the dead and being uncharitable. I fully understand loyalty to friends. I value that as an important virtue.

Again and again, in the context of the Catholic abuse crisis, however, we find — and isn't this lamentable? — that good people who are willing to grant that other powerful churchmen who have died leaving a very mixed and often downright horrible record vis-a-vis the abuse cover-up cannot or will not admit that their own friend had a similar record. What we see over and over again as powerful churchmen who participated in the cover-up of abuse die is that the old boys' network is alive and well in the Catholic church.

The very same network that has given us the abuse crisis and its cover-up in the first place . . . . A network of clerical affiliations that puts one's clerical ties and clerical friends above the well-being of the people of God . . . . A privileged club that excludes the vast majority of the people of God, who are not ordained and have no governing power in the church . . . . A privileged club whose cardinal rule is that the ordained have special rights and should enjoy special privileges, and are not to be held to the same fundmental moral standards they preach to the rest of us . . . . 

This has to stop. It has to stop if the church is to be healed. It has to stop if the church is ever to get beyond the abuse crisis and its cover-up. It has to stop if the church wants to be church in any credible or compelling way at all at this point in its history.

This — what I have just written in the preceding paragraph — is why I chose to speak out after Bishop Curlin died. I did so knowing full well that in many quarters I'll be dismissed and villified as uncharitable, unforgiving, vengeful. I already am represented that way in those quarters, and by speaking out now, I'm only adding fuel to their fire.

The fact is, I forgive Bishop Curlin any harm he did to me. He was not even the bishop who set into motion the destruction of my theological career and that of my then-partner and now-husband, in collaboration with the abbot of Belmont Abbey, Oscar Burnett. That bishop was Curlin's predecessor John Donoghue, who left Charlotte to become archbishop of Atlanta right as I was presented with a terminal contract by Belmont Abbey College — a terminal contract in which Donoghue had a direct hand, though his successor Bishop Curlin claimed that the bishop of Charlotte has no role at all in the hiring or firing of faculty in the theology department at Belmont Abbey.

How do I know that Donoghue had a direct hand in my firing? Because the president of Belmont Abbey College, Joseph Brosnan, told me this. Curlin knew this, too — and, though he came to Charlotte telling people (I heard this through a clerical network in both Charlotte and Atlanta) that Donoghue had made a royal mess of the Charlotte diocese because of his lack of pastoral sensitivity, Curlin would not lift a finger to change anything, when doing so might put him at odds with the rabidly right-wing (and well-heeled) Catholics calling the shots in the Charlotte diocese. 

As I wrote Bishop Curlin to say to him on 22 October 1998, when a friend in Charlotte wrote to me to say, "Our bishops in Charlotte have been coldly silent in the wake of the Matthew Shepard murder" (to my knowledge, Curlin never said a single word about that murder),

Those who know this story also know that Bishop Donoghue was at the heart of my firing. Since you did nothing at all to overturn that injustice—since you lent symbolic authority to Bishop Donoghue and Abbot Oscar's action by refusing even to meet me face to face and allowing me to be driven from Charlotte like a hunted animal — those who know the story see you as a church politician, one who is willing to play destructive ecclesiastical power games that undercut your public utterances about justice, equality, or the inclusion of gays and lesbians in the Charlotte church. 
Those who know the story have, in many cases, simply shrugged their shoulders and stopped attending Catholic churches in Charlotte. They see your gay and lesbian ministry as a lukewarm and precarious ministry, one likely to be abolished at the first sign of controversy. They see you, I am sorry to report, dear bishop, as timid, unwilling to challenge the powers that be, unwilling to live the convictions you preach to your flock, when living those convictions requires any cost on your part. 
In short, they see you as a typical bishop. I'm sorry to have to report that, increasingly, people do not expect our bishops to be spiritual or pastoral leaders, but good businessmen, men with the shortcomings of corporations managers, men intent on managing a corporation, quelling controversy, presenting a smooth façade to the public. For spiritual guidance and pastoral leadership, increasing numbers of American Catholics — the best among us — look elsewhere. By playing political games, our bishops have forfeited their right to speak out about issues such as Matthew Shepard's murder.

And as I said to him on 4 April 1999 when he welcomed the bitterly homophobic Antonin Scalia with open arms to Charlotte — the Charlotte paper featured a photo of Curlin smiling broadly as Scalia arrived in the city — right as Curlin attended a ceremony at Belmont Abbey designating its church a basilica,

By appearing at the recent consecration of a basilica at Belmont Abbey, you seemed to be giving an official stamp of approval to all that Belmont Abbey stands for. You appeared to be endorsing an honor from Rome that many in the Charlotte gay community can only see as a reward given to an overtly homophobic institution. 
Your welcome of Scalia and your appearance at the recent Belmont Abbey basilica consecration raise serious questions about your attempts to build bridges between the Catholic church in Charlotte and the gay community. These events make it seem that your outreach to the gay community is more rhetorical than real, more about salvaging an image of compassion for an institution that practices savagery towards gays and lesbians.   
How can one claim to be compassionate towards any group of people to whom one denies basic human rights? In Catholic institutions, gay and lesbian people have no protection from discrimination. They can be fired at will, if their "lifestyle" becomes public knowledge. They can have their livelihoods and health coverage taken away from them without even receiving a public hearing. Such violations of the fundamental human rights of gay and lesbian people in Catholic institutions are commonplace, as stories in the national press indicate.

The word "image" (as opposed to "substance") was a recurring one in letters I wrote Bishop Curlin in these years. And as I wrote him on 10 September 1997 after I had just read news in National Catholic Reporter about the Rudolph Kos pedophilia trial and how the Dallas Catholic bishop was colluding with a "group of powerful laymen" to mount a legal and public relations campaign to spin the diocese's response to sexual abuse of minors as "compassionate" and smear the court system:

Is money what counts above all for the church now? 
This is 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?

And then I added, 

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.

I forgive Bishop Curlin. I wish him mercy. I wish everyone mercy, as they face the Lord. I cannot expect mercy and forgiveness for myself and deny mercy and forgiveness to others. I cannot and will not judge Bishop Curlin — or any other human being — because judgment belongs only to the Lord. I cannot see into the souls of any human being as the Lord can see, and I cannot claim the right to pass judgment on the worth of any human soul.

But to say all this is not to say that these bedrock religious convictions I share with many religious believers around the world should be used as a smokescreen to cover over the very real failings of religious institutions and their representatives. If we commit ourselves to safeguarding the integrity of those institutions, then we cannot permit such smokescreens to prevent us from seeing those very real failings. And from talking about them. . . . And from doing something about them . . . .

Even when people die . . . . 

The world might be a very different place, the church might be a very different kind of institution, the future might be radically different in a good way — if the Bishop Curlins and the Abbot Oscars and the Abbot Placids of the world simply had the ability, the humanity, to say that they are sorry. To say that to the face of those they have harmed in the name of God . . . .

Why is asking for that simple, human, eminently pastoral step so beyond the ken of the Catholic institution, I wonder — in so very many cases? And what does that obtuseness and mean-spirited intransigence say about what the church really is, and about the reality of the "good" news it preaches to the world?

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