Monday, February 22, 2010

Dispatch from the Front: Irish Survivors of Clerical Sexual Abuse Close to Despair

Cian Molloy of Catholic News Service is reporting at the National Catholic Reporter website that Irish survivors of Catholic clerical sexual abuse are “close to despair because the church will not take full responsibility for covering up the abuse.”  Survivors maintain that Benedict continues the cover-up, and that the recent meeting with the Irish bishops was a complete charade. 

The sticking point: the pope refuses to admit responsibility for the crisis—the responsibility the Vatican itself bears for enabling child molesters for years.  And he will not meet face to face with survivors to hear their stories.

Survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic authority figures expect a pastoral response from the chief pastor of the church.  That response has not been forthcoming from bishops around the world, as survivors come forth.

Uniformly, the response of the pastors—the word means “shepherd”—of the church has been to turn their backs on these wounded, hurting members of the flock.  When the chief shepherd of the flock behaves precisely as bishops have behaved around the world, consistently and repeatedly, when survivors come forth and ask to meet the church’s pastors face to face, the pain drives very deep.

This phenomenon—the persistent refusal of bishops even to meet face to face with survivors of sexual abuse—is what first hooked me, with the abuse story as it began to break from 2002 forward.  I was hooked by reports of the bishops turning their back on survivors over and over because I myself experienced precisely the same behavior in the 1990s, when I repeatedly asked the bishop of Charlotte, North Carolina, William J. Curlin, to meet with me after Belmont Abbey College presented me with a terminal contract and refused to explain that contract.

Thus ending my career as a Catholic theologian, and causing such a breach in my institutional connection to the church that I have found myself, ever since, unable to participate in liturgy and receive communion in Catholic communities.

In the 1990s, I naively believed that bishops would care, when they heard stories of such abuse on the part of Catholic pastors and Catholic institutions—in Steve’s and my case, the ending of careers we had worked hard to build, and of employment and health insurance at precisely the time in our lives when we had assumed the responsibility of providing care for my mother in her last years.

I learned a bitter lesson when Bishop Curlin refused—ever, not once—to meet me face to face and hear my story, and when he reproached me through his young priest-secretary for my “disrespect” in asking to see him face to face.

So when I began to read stories of survivors of clerical sexual abuse who reported, over and over again, in one place after another, that bishops completely refused to meet with them, rebuffed them, told them they were enemies of the church when they asked for pastoral meetings, I understood.  I knew at least a part of what these hurting members of the flock were feeling, due to my own experience.

These experiences—which are now widespread in the Catholic church, in that they are reported repeatedly in many places and for a number of years now—provide the foundation for a serious theological problem confronting the Catholic church today.  Rather, they provide the basis for a serious theological problem that should be confronting the Catholic community today.  If anyone cares to listen.

It is impossible for a church credibly to maintain that its raison d’ĂȘtre is pastoral—is about love, compassion, healing, and justice—when its pastors persistently and uniformly behave in the way Irish survivors of abuse are reporting the pope is behaving now.

This behavior presents—it should present—the entire Catholic religious community with a serious theological challenge: how can the church continue credibly to talk about itself as a sign of salvation—of love, compassion, healing, and justice—in the world, when its pastors persistently and uniformly belie that claim in their behavior towards a sector of the Christian community in desperate need of compassion, healing, and justice?

For all of us now standing on the outside looking in, the problem is acutely compounded by the willingness of many of our brothers and sisters to continue their affiliation with—their tacit support for—an institution whose pastors persistently and uniformly belie the most fundamental claims the church makes about itself, in this gross way. 

To those of us standing on the outside looking in—and our numbers grow larger every day—the silence of our brothers and sisters of the center is as scandalous as, if not more scandalous than, the averted backs and faces of our pastors.  That silence speaks loudly to us: we do not exist.  What we have experienced does not matter.  We should simply walk away and stop asking uncomfortable questions.

Of course, the pastors of the church don’t want to see our faces.  And of course, our brothers and sisters of the center don’t want to see our faces.  To see is to connect, and to connect is to acknowledge that you are responsible to me and I to you. 

I don’t claim, and wouldn’t dream of claiming, that I understand the depths of anguish with which adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse by priests endure.  Still, I do understand the searing pain that arises when the shepherds of the church turn their back on those asking for pastoral counsel and encouragement from those shepherds.

I understand that word “despair” in Cian Molloy’s report, and why it’s there.  How can those who have believed in what the church claims about itself not feel despair, when the pastors of the church behave like CEOs of a multinational corporation more concerned about its image and its bank accounts, than about people and their pain?

And not like good shepherds walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

While the churches remain full of people who continue singing hymns of triumph and joy, and talking about the pros and cons of Latin Masses, as ever increasing numbers of their brothers and sisters look on from the shadows where we’ve been placed, asking ourselves how this can be possible.