Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Abuse Crisis: Catholic Responses at the Center

In the posting I just uploaded, I linked to a posting of Mollie Wilson O'Reilly at Commonweal yesterday discussing Laurie Goodstein's article about Father Henry Willenborg. The thread following this posting is fascinating, I believe, as a snapshot of where the center of American Catholicism is today, vis-a-vis the crisis precipitated by revelations of clerical sexual abuse of minors.

I continue to find the discussions of my Catholic brothers and sisters of the center stultifying, for the most part, for a number of reasons. There is, first of all, an apologetic defensiveness about having our dirty linen aired in public that is, in my view, entirely misplaced, when it comes to the abuse crisis.

The problem with the crisis of clerical sexual abuse is not the nasty secular media, with its need to take pot-shots at the Catholic church. It's us. We have a serious problem on our hands, with what we now know about clerical sexual abuse of minors and the hierarchy's cover-up of this.

Blaming the wicked old media is not going to get us anywhere with that crisis. If we expect to resolve it and address it effectively, we have to admit that it's our problem, and that all the excuses we offer for the hierarchy's indefensible behavior are part of the problem and not of the solution.

There is, as well, running through some of the comments on the Commonweal thread a malicious little subtext of blame for Pat Bond, the woman by whom Father Willenborg fathered a child. This is part of a larger cultural subtext that tends to blame women for the sexual indiscretions of powerful men.

I'm disappointed that my educated Catholic brothers and sisters of the center continue to appear oblivious to the malicious use of that cultural subtext both within the church and in the culture at large. Blaming women for the indiscretions of priests who sleep with women is not going to solve the problem we have on our hands.

I find it interesting, too, that centrist discussions still find it possible to speak of Bill Donohue as though he is a credible witness to Catholic values, when Catholics of the left tend to have no voice at all in the discussions of the center. Too many of our discussions of the center are simply silent about the real-life stories and real-life experiences of, for example, survivors of clerical sexual abuse, or gays and lesbians in the church.

Until those voices are incorporated into the discussion, it will remain parochial and largely irrelevant.

For my money, the most significant comment in the Commonweal thread discussing the Willenborg story is this comment of Bill Mazzella:

The unfortunate reality is that the Boston Globe did more to arrest the pedphilia coverup and scandal more than any one or group in the Catholic church. This is really an indictment of all of us that we remained silent and defensive during this whole imbroglio of pedophilia.

My intent in offering these reflections on the Commonweal thread is not to attack any poster in the thread, and certainly not to criticize Mollie Wilson O'Reilly for her fine posting about the Laurie Goodstein article. I highly respect some of those who post regularly in the discussions at Commonweal and other blogs of the American Catholic center.

But I find those discussions often beside the point, to the extent that they bend over backwards to justify what cannot be justified in the behavior of some Catholic leaders, to the extent that they continue to give the benefit of the doubt to power, to the extent that they legitimate the fringe right while discrediting all voices to the left of center, and to the extent that they continue to discuss abstract theological issues in isolation from the real-life experience of many of those affected by these issues--notably gay and lesbian Catholics.

We need to color with many more crayons, if we want to paint a representative picture of a church catholic.