Monday, December 27, 2010

John Allen on Tom Doyle and Benedict re: the Abuse Crisis: Classic Centrist Balancing Act, Going Nowhere

John Allen's recent NCR piece placing Pope Benedict and Fr. Tom Doyle side by side in a discussion of the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church is a perfect illustration of the game that centrism is all about.  Centrists like Allen love to create false equivalencies between two incongruous positions--left and right, Benedict and Doyle--in what, on the face of it, purports to be a dispassionate dialogue between the positions.  With the centrist as the impartial, objective, uncommitted arbiter.

But these side-by-side examinations of an issue are inevitably weighted in the direction of power, which is where the centrist always intends to go with his/her commitment--though he/she never intends to acknowledge that commitment.  And so the false equivalency is set up in such a way that it robs one side of critical power and insight, while unfairly privileging the other side--and protecting the centrist from having to avow his/her commitment in any public way.

Allen has created this Bendict-vs.-Doyle dialogue in order to deal with a sharp, right-on-the-mark critique Doyle sent Allen, of Allen's 19 November piece reviewing the sex abuse crisis in 2010.  But rather than deal with Doyle's critique in an independent essay, one that takes seriously and seeks to grapple with Doyle's points, Allen chooses to set Doyle in opposition to none other than the pope.  Who is, Allen argues, an "expert witness" re: the abuse crisis, as is Doyle.

By placing Doyle's critique of his own defense of Benedict on the abuse crisis side by side with Benedict himself, Allen both gives Benedict a validity vis-a-vis the abuse crisis that he hasn't earned (as Tom Doyle has earned his valid views), and simultaneously disempowers Doyle--since the power relationship between the pope and a mere priest who has been repeatedly censured for speaking out about the failure of church officials to act in the abuse crisis is radically unequal.

And Doyle's absolutely essential points, which Allen sorely needs to hear, are thus lost in the process.  They obviously have no impact on Allen and his reporting, or why else would he choose to deal with Doyle's critique in this game-playing centrist way that exempts him from internalizing Doyle's criticisms and acting on them, by altering his approach to the Vatican and its role in the abuse crisis?

For instance, Fr. Doyle tells John Allen,

Defenders of the papacy, as well as most if not all [members of] the curia and hierarchy, lack an essential credential for credibility: an understanding of the victims and their families, especially parents.

And if that's true (and it is; and this critique applies to Benedict, while it most certainly does not apply to Doyle himself), then why does John Allen choose to respond to this critique by treating Benedict and Doyle as equally valid interpreters of the abuse crisis, whose insights into the crisis reflect equal experiential involvement with the important movement that has gathered within the Catholic church to address this problem and to listen to survivors and their loved ones?

And, in case Allen didn't get the previous point, Doyle follows it with this:

By my estimation [Benedict XVI] has met with approximately 20 victims in the U.S., Great Britain, Malta and Australia, with an average of one minute or less with each victim. These encounters were carefully planned and the victims carefully chosen. This hardly qualifies for gaining any level of understanding.

And if this is true (and it is), why do Allen and other defenders of the indefensible keep trying to depict Benedict as a champion of reform within the church determined to root out the problem of abuse?  If Doyle is speaking the truth here (and he is), why do Allen and other apologists for the Vatican's indefensible behavior in the abuse crisis keep trying to convince us that the pope and the Vatican are the church, when the church is much broader than these institutions, which are historically changeable and susceptible to reform?

Doyle tells Allen,

Defenders of the Vatican, including you, regularly fall back on the standard defenses: the Vatican does business in a way Americans don’t understand; the Vatican wants to let the U.S. solve its own problems; the Vatican uses a unique form of communication which Americans don’t ‘get.’ … If it wants to be understood, the Vatican should abandon its convoluted language and have someone help them learn how to speak directly and to the point.

And: .

Benedict is not a great reformer. I believe he is personally shocked and possibly even devastated by what he has seen, [but] his responses have been very limited. They have concentrated on the canonical prosecution of accused priests, but they have remained mute about the core issue, namely the lack of accountability of complicit bishops and the lack of penal measures against bishops who have themselves sexually abused minors.

These are points John Allen sorely needs to hear, points coming from perhaps the leading authority within the Catholic church on the abuse crisis--an authority whose veracity and intent to grapple with the root problems far surpass those of the pope himself.  One would hope Allen might listen to Doyle, if Allen expects to have any credibility as he continues to report on this crisis.

But the way in which Allen processes Doyle's critique in this article that employs the classic false balancing act of centrism demonstrates that Allen simply does not intend to listen, and that we're in store for more whitewashing apologetic articles in 2011, which try to convince us, in the face of abundant evidence to the contrary, that the current pope is intent on resolving the abuse crisis and facing the root problems from which it stems.

P.S. (Later the same day): don't miss Carolyn Disco's stellar response to John Allen in the comments section of the article I'm discussing here, and to which I link at the start of this posting.

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