Friday, June 25, 2010

The Catholic Church's Summer of Discontent: Stories Keep Pouring Forth

This is turning out to be a summer of discontent for the Catholic church—an unprecedented season of bad news reports, one on the heels of another, about the now worldwide scandal regarding sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy, and the institutional cover-up of such abuse.

Yesterday, police raided the headquarters of the Catholic church in Belgium, seeking evidence about cover-ups of cases of clerical sexual abuse.  They raided as well the home of Cardinal Godfried Danneels, who retired in January as archbishop of Brussells—the highest ranking position in the Belgian church.

The Catholic church in Germany is in turmoil, with continuing reports of a mass exodus of German Catholics from the church in the wake of recent revelations about the extent of clerical abuse of minors in the German church, and its cover-up.  New, even more damning, revelations are coming out about Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, who resigned in May amidst the first wave of stories about the extent of the abuse crisis in the German church.  It now turns out that  the archbishop of Munich has been keeping a secret file on Mixa , which—it is alleged—contains damning information about Mixa’s history of severe alcoholism and sexual abuse of seminarians.

Mixa has been a leading figure in the right-wing movement of the German Catholic church.  He is a friend and protégé of Pope Benedict.  The new revelations about him undermine the credibility of the restorationist movement in German Catholicism in general—that is, they call into question the path on which Popes John Paul II and Benedict set the church as a whole during the last two papacies.

The Maciel story has gone mainstream, with an ABC news report on Monday about the lawsuit of Raul Gonzalez, son of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ Father Marcial Maciel, about which I blogged a few days ago.  As my posting noted, Maciel’s son maintains that his father began to abuse him sexually when he was ten years old, and that the religious order his father founded knew of the abuse and did nothing to stop it.

The blog of the New York Review of Books is carrying a damning summary of the Maciel saga by Alma Guillermoprieto, which notes that Maciel was “[a] great achiever and close associate of John Paul II, . . .  [and] also a bigamist, pederast, dope fiend, and plagiarist.”  Guillermoprieto writes,

In the end, the scandal of Marcial Maciel, gruesome and ribald as it is, will turn out to be of much greater significance to the Catholic Church than the isolated terrors inflicted on their victims by one or another European or U.S. bishop or priest. There is the distressing question of the Church’s last Pope, the popular John Paul II, and his relations with the demonic priest. There is the not unimportant fact that the Legionaries—along with Benedict XVI and indeed John Paul—represent the most morally conservative part of the Church, and that they now appear enmeshed in the most squalid moral scandal it is possible to imagine. There is, above all, the fact that an entire, large, wealthy, international institution is now under suspicion (what did Maciel’s fellow Legionaries know, when did they know it, and who was complicit?) and that the greatest institution of all, the Roman Catholic Church, appears to have engaged in a cover-up for decades on its behalf. Catholics who always assumed that a priest and Bing Crosby were more or less identical will need some time to adjust to this knowledge.

Indeed.  And articles such as hers, in an influential secular publication, as well as reports at leading news channels like ABC, will assure that this story is heard by many other folks than Catholics alone—and will radically impair the Catholic church’s reputation as a bastion of moral values and the reputation of its hierarchy as arbiters of morality for both the faithful and society at large (as, for instance, the U.S. Catholic bishops continue to insist that Catholic views about issues like marriage should norm secular laws about marriage).

And more damning news at influential news sites appears to be just around the corner: yesterday, HDNet announced that “Dan Rather Reports” will air a piece on 29 June exposing the game that is being played by a number of well-heeled Catholic dioceses in the U.S., in which they declare bankruptcy to shield their assets when victims of clerical sexual abuse file suit and demand recompense for what they have endured at the hands of Catholic priests.

Where will all of this end?  I have no idea.  In the U.S. Catholic church—in contrast to the church in Ireland and most of Europe—I expect, frankly, that the bishops will continue to dig in their heels, and will be supported by many rank-and-file Catholics in their reactionary stance of blaming the secular media, lawyers, greedy abuse victims, and barbed Catholic bloggers for the abuse crisis.

In some Catholic circles, however, there will be continuing discussion of the problem that has brought us to this point—the problem of abysmal pastoral leadership under the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict, which I discussed last week as I reported on Richard McBrien’s statement about this at National Catholic Reporter.  There’s the heart of the matter—the dark heart of the abuse story.

And we’re nowhere near addressing that dark heart of the story, with the vast majority of bishops in the United States having been appointed by those same two popes.  So that they are part of the problem we’re asking them to solve, and hardly the solution to it.