Thursday, April 29, 2010

Catholic Abuse Crisis, Argument and Counter-Argument: Weighing the Moral Norms

Since the conversation continues—and heatedly so, but with more heat than light ensuing—let’s try it from another angle.  I want to return now to an observation of Vincent Twomey’s to which I linked several days ago. 

Writing about the dynamic underlying the cover-up of clerical abuse by Catholic hierarchy, Twomey observes that the “real cause” of the cover-up—and Twomey finds this frightening—is “the lack of expected emotional response to reports about the abuse of children.”  As he notes, while Catholic officials have been quick to blame others for exposing the abuse and its cover-up, and have been quick to call for sympathy and understanding for clerics abusing children, nowhere has there been “any expression of horror or outrage by those who were told [about the abuse].”  And yet, in Twomey’s view, “Horror and outrage are the natural passions of the good person which God gave us to ensure that we get up and do something in the face of injustice done to others.”

I think Twomey’s right.  And if he is right, his words are a terrible indictment, indeed, of the Catholic clerical system as it now stands and functions.  The insights to which he points are becoming an indictment of our clerical system heard not merely within the church itself, but among people of good will in general, who, as Twomey correctly notes, respond with horror and outrage to the sexual abuse of minors—and therefore assume that the correct response to such outrage is not 1) to defend the abusers, 2) to blame the victims, 3) to lash out at any and all perceived “enemies” reporting the abuse, and 4) to cover up the abuse.

When I taught and wrote about moral theology, an image I often used to help students grasp the concept of making informed, conscientious decisions was that of a balance or scales.  In most decisions of conscience, I told students, we’re faced not with one clear, simple solution to the moral problem, but with a variety of possible responses—some more morally defensible than others.

And so what we’re challenged to do as we employ conscience in approaching our moral quandary is to place various moral norms in the scales, and see which appears to weigh heavier.  The correct solution—the morally defensible one—to our quandary is likely to be the one on whose side the scales are weighted.

And so the abuse crisis and Twomey’s observation: on the one hand, we have the following moral norm: minors ought in the normal course of things never to be abused, and those who recognize that minors are being abused have an obligation to stop the abuse, if possible, and to protect the abused from future abuse.  This norm resonates for us, I would argue, because it is intuitively correct from the standpoint of rich wisdom handed down in many cultures and religious traditions of the world.

Most religious traditions teach as a core value, for instance, that the vulnerable—the widow, the orphan, the stranger in our land—has a preëminent claim on our conscience.  We have a strong, overriding obligation to defend the vulnerable and to resist those who treat the vulnerable with contempt and hostility.

In all world cultures, minors—children and adolescents—are among the most vulnerable members of society.  They deserve attention and protection, since they do not have the legal rights and privileges accorded to adult members of society, and are therefore susceptible to coercion and abuse.  They are not yet fully formed persons, and deserve sanctuary space (to use my e-friend TheraP’s marvelous phrase) in which they can be free to begin shaping their humanity and fulfilling their personhood without undue restraint and without violence of any sort.

And so all the moral norms inherent in these observations drawn from the folk wisdom and religious traditions of the world appear, when we look at the abuse crisis, to freight the scales of our conscience very strongly in one direction.  And what, one wonders, can possibly be placed on the other side of the scales to offset the clear movement of the scales towards protecting minors from abuse whenever and wherever possible?

One of the arguments one sometimes hears offered now to challenge the way I’ve just framed the abuse crisis and the tragically defective way in which the Catholic church has responded to this crisis is that priests who abuse minors—or who are accused of abusing minors—are being demonized.  This argument charges those who use the mantra of protecting children with helping to foster a climate of vigilantism that will destroy many good institutions and many good people, if it gets out of hand.

In his interview last week with a Colombian radio station, Cardinal Castrillon Hoyos stated that he wrote French bishop Pierre Pican in 2001 to praise Pican for shielding a priest who had abused minors because “it’s about defending the dignity and the human rights of a person, even the worst of criminals.” 

On one side of the scales, the human rights of young people—to protection from abuse, since they do not have adult rights and privileges, to sanctuary in which they can develop their personhood—weighs very forcefully.  But on the other side of the scales, the rights of anyone accused of immoral or criminal activity also weighs strongly.  And it is entirely possible for people in any social grouping to develop a witch-hunting mentality that tramples on the human rights of a group of people thought to be a menace to the order of a society.  The European (and North American) witch craze of the early modern period demonstrates this clearly.

I recognize the force of the argument that it is possible to demonize priests amidst the current Catholic crisis, and that such demonization can produce conditions in which innocent people may be harmed, simply because the social psychology of reaction against anyone wearing a Roman collar has become so strong.

And I would even go further.  I also recognize that much of the rhetoric about protecting children in Western societies rings insincere.  It is sentimental, and therefore false.  I agree wholeheartedly with Swiss psychologist Alice Miller, who has devoted a lifetime to the study of this issue, when she argues that, on the whole, Western cultures in the 20th century have done a deplorable job of protecting children.  And that, while we profess to be horrified at abuse of children, we have created a culture conspicuously callous to the needs of children, including children’s need for protection from abusive adults.  As I have noted repeatedly on this blog, I remain unconvinced by the moral fervor of many so-called pro-life advocates who tell me that I should have passionate concern for a just-fertilized zygote, but who are obviously not passionately concerned at all about many children already born.

The ferocity with which we protest that children come first masks our indifference to the needs of children—children for whose education we pay shockingly little, for example, because we do not value the education of children.  Children are, in fact, frightening to many of us, because the clarity of their unvarnished vision dismantles our pretensions and social fabrications.  This was my point in reviewing Uwem Akpan’s book Say You’re One of Them earlier in the week.

It was the child in Andersen’s fable who dared to say what all the adults bowing to the king knew but would not say: that he was naked.

And so I tend to listen carefully to those who warn us not to get caught up in a sentimentalized, self-serving frenzy of demonization of priests abusing children.  It is altogether too easy to go down the path of demonization when anger and self-righteousness feel so right, and so gratifying. 

However, even with those valuable warning signs placed on the other side of the scales of my conscience, I still find the scales heavily weighted in the direction of putting the needs of abused children first and foremost in the moral evaluation of the abuse crisis.  And because the scales weigh so heavily for me in that direction—at an intuitive level, yes, but at an informed intuitive level where I keep struggling to offset any hidden bias my intuition may incorporate—I confess that I simply cannot understand the counter-arguments offered by church officials and their apologists.

Not any of them. 

I have not yet heard a counter argument that explains coherently for me how any group of grown men who are pastoral leaders could have responded to the sexual abuse of minors for decades in the way my Catholic pastoral leaders have responded to this abuse.  The more apologists seek to “explain” the lack of expected emotional response to the abuse, the more shocking that lack appears to me to be.

I am not hearing anything that seems to me to weigh in the scales so heavily as the moral obligation of humane people to protect youth from abuse whenever and wherever possible.  And the fact that apologists continue trying to offer arguments for what seems to me completely incomprehensible and indefensible compounds the problem for me.

I cannot agree with those apologists who tell me that religion and ethics live on entirely different planes, and that I should appropriate and internalize Christian doctrine despite the example provided by those teaching that doctrine to me.  In a sacramental church, the behavior of my pastoral leaders as they teach doctrine to me is part and parcel of what they teach—just as the behavior of parents is part and parcel of the message they communicate to children, despite the conventional argument of parents that children ought to do as parents say and not as parents do.  

Children know very well that the real message parents impart is what they do and not what they say.  Why do we imagine, then, that we can convincingly argue that the teachings of our pastoral leaders can be separated from who they are and what they do?

The abuse crisis—but most of all, the heinous way in which that crisis has been handled by my church leaders—is a serious obstacle to faith to me.  Even before the crisis, I have long found myself at a decisive distance from my church, in its institutional face.  I have been shoved to the margins by the institution, and I accept my place on the margins. 

But now, I’m more actively repulsed than ever.  I do not seem to live in the same moral universe with those who have covered up this abuse crisis—and, even more, with those who defend the cover-up and keep calling for understanding of and sympathy for abusive priests.  But not those these priests abuse . . . .