Thursday, May 21, 2009

On Truth Commissions: Parallels Between Legacy of Torture and Catholic Sexual Abuse Crisis

One of the major religion stories breaking this week is the story of truly horrific abuse of children by priests, religious brothers, and nuns in Irish institutions through much of the 20th century and up to the present. The story is breaking following the release of a report by the Irish government, based on several years of research. Another report focusing on sexual abuse of minors by priests in the archdiocese of Dublin is expected soon, and apparently contains such hair-raising revelations that the archbishop of Dublin is already warning people they will be shocked by it.

The Irish report has all the earmarks we’ve come to know all too well about abuse of minors by religious authorities in the Catholic church: the abuse was known to the highest pastoral authorities in the church; it was consistently covered up by those authorities, who consistently took the side of priests and religious accused of abuse rather than that of the victims; the pastoral leaders of the church lied, paid out money to silence victims and their families, broke the law, and manipulated government and law enforcement officials in the to protect abusers. The media collaborated by remaining silent, refusing a voice to victims of abuse, and propping up pastoral leaders and allowing them to represent themselves as moral exemplars through it all.

There is much I could say about this situation—and I have said a great deal about it, vis-à-vis the American Catholic church, in other places. Here, though, I want to focus on a connection that has struck me in the past two days, as I think about the resistance of the Obama administration to the appeals of progressive supporters to begin acting on its human rights promises.

As I noted in a previous posting today about this, human rights representatives who met yesterday with Mr. Obama and his team pressed him about his refusal to establish an independent truth commission to investigate the crimes of the Bush administration. I do not fully understand the reluctance to establish such a truth commission in this case.

I do see that there seems to be a strong presupposition in the current administration that it is important to move forward now, to let the past be the past, to put the battles of the past behind us, and to pull together as a nation to address the serious challenges that confront us. I read the refusal to establish a truth commission in light of those determinations. I suspect that there is a perception by powerful members of the current administration that too much might be revealed by a truth commission, and that what such a commission would reveal would further divide us as a nation, by exposing heinous misdeeds on the part of some of our leaders.

In my view, these presuppositions about what a truth commission would accomplish as it addressed the legacy of torture bequeathed to us by the previous administration are wrong-headed. I come to the question of such a truth commission out of other discussions in which incisive recommendations about truth commissions have been taking place.

To be specific: when the story about clerical abuse of minors in the American Catholic church began to break in Boston in 2002, and when it quickly became apparent that this problem was endemic in American Catholicism (the media reported during the bishops’ 2002 annual meeting that some two-thirds of all bishops had shielded one or more abusive priests), some compelling voices in the American Catholic church began to call for a truth commission.

In a November 2006 editorial in National Catholic Reporter, for instance, Tom Roberts argues that a truth commission in the American Catholic church is imperative if we expect to find healing as a church—the authentic kind of healing of soul about which the Catholic sacramental tradition speaks.

In Roberts’s view, in situations in which an entire community has been wounded by the actions of a few, healing begins with truth-telling: “We must start by telling the truth. The community has a right to know what was done in its name and by whom.” Roberts notes that in one of his first comments about the abuse scandal after he became pope, Benedict stated that the need “to establish the truth of what happened” is imperative, if we expect justice and healing.

Roberts also notes the need for the leaders of the Catholic church to be accountable, if they expect to be credible. As he observes, the persistent pattern with revelations about the abuse situation from 2002 forward is that bishops have been forced, fighting tooth and nail against the process, to divulge information and disclose documents.

In his view, this pattern of behavior damages the entire church, and impedes the ability of the whole community to heal. Roberts concludes:

I don’t know what a truth commission inside the church would look like; no models exist. But our understanding as a community of what is required to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation should provide some clues. While the various studies that have been completed, as well as the upcoming John Jay College study, provide invaluable information on the context of the crisis, its dimensions and some of its causes, those reports supply only part of the truth. What is missing is the narrative, a bishop to his people, about what happened, about who did what. The documents that tell the fuller story, as we have said, are extant, where they haven’t been destroyed. We live in an age in which such things will not remain secret forever. Our leaders are the ones who can determine whether this information will continue to be leaked or forced out by legal processes or whether the bishops will present the unvarnished truth to their people.

In his powerful 2007 book Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church: Reclaiming the Spirit of Jesus (Dublin: Columba, 2007), Australian bishop Geoffrey Robinson offers a similar argument, this time applying it to the Catholic church as a whole. As does Roberts, Robinson notes that the abuse crisis has wounded an entire church, and that the communal nature of Catholic thought points to the need for actions that expose the truth of what has taken place, so that the healing process of the entire community can proceed from that point of moral clarity.

It is important to note that, up to now, neither the U.S. Catholic bishops nor the Vatican has acted on any of these calls for a truth commission. And the price of the silence has been steep. I would hazard the guess—I hope an educated one—that the trend many recent studies are tracking, of increasing disaffiliation from the Catholic church by younger Catholics, reflects first and foremost the determination of younger Catholics to distance themselves from a church whose leaders have known about and covered up an endemic problem of sexual abuse of minors in nations across the globe.

Silence in the face of such horrific crimes is really not an option. Not, that is, if we want to move forward productively. The point that arguments which resist a truth commission on torture are missing when they propose that having the truth on the table would divide us, is that we are already divided by what we know—cloven right through our hearts.

As Roberts notes, we live in an age when things do not remain secret forever. We already know a great deal about what has been going on in the Catholic church with the abuse crisis. The latest revelations from Ireland do not come as a surprise. We live now steeling ourselves for the next round of revelations.

But as we do so, we live with little expectation of catharsis, with the gnawing sense that we have not yet plumbed the ugly depths of this story, with a growing suspicion that those who stand in positions of moral leadership over us are, in many cases, entirely unworthy to occupy those positions. The truth would not hurt us more. It would clarify for us what we already know in part, and set us on the path to specific actions to deal with what we learn.

And the same is true with the torture story: we already know. We have long suspected. We have partial knowledge of what has gone on and who is responsible, enough to have developed strong revulsion against those who crafted and set into place the system of torture done in our name. We—we the people in whose name our leaders have tortured—want healing. We want to know the truth so that we can begin the healing process.

Silence, evasion, partial truths, half-lies have not helped in the Catholic church. The Catholic church is in shambles now and deserves to be in shambles, as long as its leaders refuse honestly to confront the abuse situation and permit us to know what they have known.

And silence, evasion, partial truths, half-lies will not serve the new administration or the nation as a whole well, either, as we deal with the legacy of torture on our behalf now bequeathed to us.