Thursday, October 1, 2009

Terry Weldon on the Vatican Blame Game: It's about "Excessive Concentration of Power"

I blogged yesterday about the old song and dance in which the Vatican keeps trying to shift blame for the clerical sexual abuse crisis away from where it belongs—with the hierarchy itself—and onto the shoulders of gay priests.

As a follow-up to that posting, I want to take note of a posting of my colleague Terry Weldon later the same day at Queering the Church. If Terry had already posted his comments when I posted mine about the recent statements of the Vatican’s Archbishop Silvano Tomasi at the U.N., I hadn't yet seen them.

Terry doubts Tomasi’s claim that the problem of sexual abuse of minors is as severe in other faith communities as in the Catholic church. He notes two areas in which the Catholic church is unique, and which, in his view, predispose it to problems when it comes to priests abusing minors.

One is the “excessive concentration of power in the church,” and the other is its clerical system with the requirement of celibacy. I think Terry’s absolutely right here. In my view, the abuse crisis is all about abuse of power first and foremost. The sexual aspect is secondary to the power aspect.

The Catholic clerical system is rife with abuse because it’s based on abuse, on abuse handed down step by step through each level of hierarchical control from the central power echelons of the Vatican, through cardinals, archbishops, bishops, to chancellors, monsignors, and priests. At each level, power is exerted over someone else, and then, in turn, the person controlled (and frequently, abused) by the power above him exerts power over someone beneath him.

The system predisposes people to abuse—to abuse power; to abuse others; and, finally, to abuse all of those at the bottom, the laity. It is a system that, by definition, places all power in the hands of the ordained, and none in the hands of the non-ordained, who are subject to any kind of abuse the ordained can get away with—including sexual abuse.

Absolute power over others invites abuse.

Until the system itself, with its predisposition to abuse, is changed, nothing will change in the Catholic church. And until the abuse of money, which is central to this system of abuse of power, is examined honestly and transparently, the clerical abuse will continue and will continue to be covered up by the top echelons of power.

Terry takes exception to the statement of Archbishop Tomasi that, while the Catholic church has been cleaning its own house vis-à-vis clerical abuse of minors, other faith communities are sitting on their hands. As Terry states,

The Catholic Church has been “cleaning its own house”? How, exactly, apart from scapegoating the homosexuals, and shielding those who were culpable from public scrutiny or public prosecution? As for “could do the same and inform the media about it”, perhaps they could begin in Connecticut, and throw open to the media the records they have been trying (by court order) to keep out of the public domain.

Indeed. The rule of thumb as the abuse story has broken open from 2002 forward has been one of persistent stonewalling tactics on the part of dioceses and religious communities everywhere, as they try in every way possible to keep personnel files closed, to keep information from the public, and to put forth ludicrous claims about how they have solved the abuse problem and have nothing more to report.

Terry has a follow-up today to yesterday’s posting about these matters. This posting links to a 2004 article by Jonathan Kay in the National Post (Canada), which summarizes the findings of the John Jay Study.

The John Jay Study was an investigation of the extent, profile, and, inferentially, causes of the sexual abuse situation in the Catholic church in the U.S. This study showed a rate of abuse of minors by Catholic clergy in the U.S. from 1950 to 2002 that is staggering—and many times higher than any known rates of child abuse by pastors in non-Catholic churches. The study also found that 81% of those abused were males and 19% females.

These are the data—these data parsed and selectively used—underlining Archbishop Tomasi’s claim that 80%-90% of priests abusing minors are gay. But the glaring methodological flaw of the John Jay Study, which was noted immediately on release of the study by SNAP, the network of survivors of abuse by priests to which I drew attention yesterday, is that this study is based on self-reporting of the American bishops.

Over which there is no lay oversight to assure that this reporting is accurate or comprehensive. And who have a pronounced history of wanting to blame anyone but themselves, any easy target, for the abuse situation they have created in the church.

As the statement of SNAP founder and president Barbara Blaine on the release of the John Jay Study notes,

It's clear what American bishops want. They want us to think it's all about a tiny group of bad apple priests long ago.
But it's not.
It's about the bishops, not the priests.
It's about the enablers, not the abusers.
It's about the cover up, not the crime.
It's about the present, not the past.

Blaine goes on to say (and my apologies for the lengthy citation, but the voice of survivors is crucial to any accurate assessment of what is really going on in the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, and to the solution of the real crisis),

Catholics want and deserve accountability from bishops.
Instead, we're given numbers of abusers.
Catholics want and deserve the full truth.
Instead, we're given carefully chosen partial numbers. . . .
Let's talk about our terminology for a minute.
The John Jay document is not a study, not a thorough accounting, or God forbid, not an investigation. It's a self-survey. Period. No independent corroboration, no spot-checking, no verification, no third party involvement.
It's also not a sign of greater openness. Keep in mind that this has been forced on the bishops by years of seemingly endless revelations, removals, prosecutions, admissions, exposes, verdicts, lawsuits, and excuses.
Now let's talk about the bishops' terminology for a minute. To the bishops, we say:
Stop the excuse making:
--- "Our understanding of abuse has evolved."
Stop the minimizing:
--- "Priests abuse at the same rate as others."
Stop the dodging:
--- "Most abuse occurs in the home."
Stop the distancing:
--- "Most cases date to the 70s and 80s."
Stop the self-praise.
--- "No other institution is doing such self-examination."
Stop the blaming.
--- "We relied on faulty experts."

This is the study that continues to be cited as authoritative when the church wants to say that it now has a handle on the abuse crisis, and that weeding gays out of the priesthood will solve the problem. It is a study constantly used by Catholics of the right to continue their bashing of gays in general.

And it’s based, as Barbara Blaine notes, on a numbers game—on “carefully chosen partial numbers” selected by the very church authorities who are responsible for the abuse crisis. It’s based on numbers selected in self-survey studies done by the same people who are responsible for the abuse crisis, with “no independent corroboration, no spot-checking, no verification, no third party involvement.”

And, despite the clear, sustained witness of those most equipped to understand the real nature and real causes of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church—the community of those who have survived this abuse—and despite their warning about what is really going on with this self-study and its blame-the-few-bad-apples approach, this John Jay Study continues to be used by the Vatican to shift all responsibility for the abuse crisis away from the bishops who covered it up, shifted abusive priests from parish to parish without the knowledge of parishioners, shut up survivors and their families with secret pay-offs, hounded those seeking justice and information with hardball lawsuits, and persistently lied to the public about what has gone on in the abuse crisis.

When the U.S. Catholic bishops met in Dallas to discuss the sexual abuse situation in 2004, the Dallas Morning News released the results of an exhaustive study detailing each and every bishop in the U.S. known to have shielded a priest abusing minors. Two-thirds of U.S. bishops were on that list.

And they, and the Vatican that orchestrated the cover-up, want us to believe gay priests are the problem?


The graphic for this posting is from Tom McMahon's superb 2008 series "Priesthood, Past, Present, History, and Future" at Catholica.