Sunday, September 12, 2010

Tom Doyle on the Catholic Clerical Sexual Abuse Situation: A Dark and Destructive Force Rooted in the Institution Itself

As with everything Tom Doyle writes, his review (and trenchant analysis) of the story of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic church from 1984 forward in the latest Voice of the Faithful "In the Vineyard" newsletter is absolutely on target.* And it's dynamite.  Doyle notes that the dark heart of this story--a narrative heart we miss when we view it as some eruption of temporary "crisis" in the church--is human beings.

Whose lives have been upended by abuse, repeated abuse in many cases.  By trusted pastors.  Who were then protected by other trusted pastors when those treated as sex toys turned to these other pastors for assistance.  

And who were treated in almost every case, when they sought pastoral help from Catholic officials, as human garbage.  As not worth a meeting.  As enemies of the church and of God to be silenced through hardball legal threats.

And Fr. Doyle lets none of us off the hook--not the Vatican, bishops, priests, or the laity.  In the latter case, as he notes, we've seen persistent, nasty attacks by many of the faithful against their brothers and sisters who dared to go public with their stories of abuse--attacks I've had to read as lately as this last week here in the comments section of this blog, as one reader logged in to say that the folks connected to SNAP (Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests) need to get a life.

As Tom Doyle concludes, the abuse situation is not--as many apologists for the church want to say--some foreign parasite that has attached itself to the church and is being nurtured by the enemies of the church.  It is "a dark and destructive force that ha[s] its roots deep in the essence of the institution itself."  Its cancerous presence in the body of Christ has depended not only on the behavior of those perpetrating and then hiding the abuse.

It has also depended on all the rest of us, insofar as we have allowed this behavior to continue--and have sought to silence and dehumanize those who have made their stories of abuse public.  In the abuse situation, we see not "the revelation of a shameful aberration but the uncovering of a dimension of the clerical subculture, a complex pattern of thought and behavior that was a deeply embedded aspect of the 'institutional Church.'"  An institutional church and clerical subculture many lay Catholics are intent on defending and preserving, no matter how much pain this subculture has caused many of their brothers and sisters . . . .

Doyle's powerful conclusion about the endemic nature of this situation in our church, about its roots in us and our own behavior, is as follows:

The bishops’ responses revealed a pattern of behavior by individual bishops and by the hierarchical corporate body that was consistent and systemic in nature.  It was neither haphazard nor random nor did it appear to be the result of a conspiracy to respond in a manner that was opposed to the norm.  The cover-ups, the secret re-assignments, the failure to report crimes to civil authorities and attempts to coerce victims into silence have not been exceptional reactive behaviors but evidence of pattern and policy that was and is part of the clerical culture…not the exception but the norm.  The bishops made it clear by the divergence between their public expressions of regret, sorrow and apology and the way they were actually treating victims that whatever the response to the growing problem was to be, it had to be on their terms.  Their public utterances and the consistent refusal to accept any true responsibility (“If mistakes were made…”) made it obvious that they were entrenched in their belief that the institutional Church was willed by God and entrusted to them.  Their fundamental mandate was to protect and defend this institution and their role in it at all costs.  The salvation of humankind depended on the Church and its bishops.  Joined to this core belief about the nature of the institution is the conviction that the priesthood, also of divine origin, alters the very nature of a man once he is ordained.  This ontological change raises the man to another level of being because he is, to quote Popes Paul VI and John Paul II, “configured to Christ.”  Both of these beliefs influenced the popes’ and bishops’ attitudes towards the victims in a way that was detrimental to them.  These beliefs have been instilled in the laity and have a profound impact on the severity of the traumatic effects suffered by victims, especially the effects of a spiritual nature.    

This is analysis we sorely need to hear, as the story in Belgium becomes ever darker and more rotten--suicides and attempted suicides that can clearly be traced to abuse by Catholic clerics.  As P.S. Myers writes, this is not a story of a few bad apples: it's, sadly, a horrifying story "about a common risk associated with growing up Catholic in Belgium."

*For the first page of Tom Doyle's article, click the link to the right of his text, which reads "page one."

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