Thursday, January 6, 2011

Milwaukee Catholic Archdiocese Files Bankruptcy, Survivors of Clerical Sexual Abuse Call Foul

Following in the footsteps of a number of other U.S. Catholic dioceses, the diocese of Milwaukee has declared bankruptcy as survivors of childhood sexual abuse by Catholic clerics demand justice from the Catholic church.  Leaders of the group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests (SNAP), an organization with a long history of following carefully the actions of the hierarchy in response to abuse claims, decry the Milwaukee archdiocese's bankruptcy filing as a ploy to shield the records of the archdiocese--to shield the names of priests who have abused minors, and to prevent for as long as possible legal testimony by church officials who have protected these priests.

SNAP's Midwest director Peter Isely notes that the Milwaukee bankruptcy filing is curious, indeed, when no legal judgments have been made against the archdiocese, no debts declared by the archdiocese, and no trials scheduled.  Isely notes that Bishop Richard Sklba of the Milwaukee archdiocese had been scheduled to testify this month, and this testimony will now be postponed indefinitely by the bankruptcy proceedings.  Isely notes that Sklba "was the 'go to guy' on the abuse cover up for at least two decades," who has the most detailed and comprehensive view of the cover-up in this diocese, and of the names of priests involved in the abuse situation.  According to Isely, Sklba was directly involved in protecting the notorious serial pedophile of the Milwaukee diocese, Fr. Lawrence Murphy, who has been credibly accused of abusing more than 200 deaf boys over the years.

David Clohessey, SNAP's national director, and Barbara Dorris, outreach director, have also issued statements about the Milwaukee diocese's bankruptcy ploy.  In Clohessey's view, in taking the bankruptcy route, Milwaukee archbishop Jerome Listecki is acting like a callous CEO rather than a good shepherd.  Clohessy concludes that the bankruptcy proceedings are "about protecting church secrets, not church assets. The goal here is to prevent top church managers from being questioned under oath about their complicity, not 'compensating victims fairly.'"

Dorris notes the several practical steps that Listecki could have taken in lieu of declaring bankruptcy, if the diocese is, indeed, in financial distress due to the claims of survivors of childhood clerical abuse.  She concludes that instead of taking the practical steps most organizational leaders might have taken to avoid bankruptcy, Listecki chose "the coward's way out." 

In Dorris' view, he chose the coward's way for the following reasons:

Instead of disclosing the truth, he’s hiding it. Instead of fostering healing, he’s delaying it. Instead of moving his diocese forward, he’s holding it back.

I am convinced that this bankruptcy gambit by a major U.S. Catholic diocese will begin to frame the discussion of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church in the U.S. in 2011 in a conspicuously contentious way.  Already, there have been signs of a new, ruthless, hyper-aggressive push-back on the part of an institutional church intent on pretending that the abuse crisis is a thing of the past, that it was a blip on the screen of history caused by the permissive 1960s, and that survivors pressing claims against the church are making up their allegations of abuse because they are seeking financial gain.

As the new year began, on 2 January, Los Angeles attorney Donald H. Steier, who has defended numerous priests in sex abuse cases, released a document that has been making the rounds of right-wing political and religious websites, which essentially exonerates the Catholic church of blame in the abuse crisis, by claiming that the majority of cases of  sexual abuse involve false claims.  At the right-wing Catholic website Catholic Culture, Christopher Mirus touts Steier's document, arguing that the abuse crisis is a thing of the past, and was a manifestation of "a culture of abuse" in the 1970s and 1980s, a culture of abuse whose ramifications went beyond clerical sexual abuse of minors.

The scenario Mirus wants to paint here is the following: post-Vatican II priests who came of age during the sexually licentious 1960s repeatedly displayed "wide-ranging contempt for the rights of the faithful" in manifold ways (i.e., in imposing Vatican II's liturgical reforms on parishes against the wishes of the faithful, and in preaching sermons about social and economic justice that flew in the face of parishioners' prejudices).  In Mirus's view (in his fantasy version of American Catholic history, that is to say), this "wide-ranging contempt for the rights of the faithful" continues in "far too many mainstream religious communities and universities" in American Catholicism today--that is, in the majority of parishes and Catholic universities in which the Vatican II reforms haven't been reformed according to the canon of ultra-right wing dictates.

Nonetheless, things are looking up, Mirus proposes: "we are entering the period of the aftermath now . . . ."  The abuse crisis, which was a manifestation of 1960s licentiousness, has been resolved as the seminaries are cleaned of the filth of that period of history, and Rome is now imposing a reform of the reform that will bring even mainstream parishes and Catholic universities into line with the restorationist agenda.  And now,

In this new phase, God and Satan already know what fresh evils lurk in the hearts of men. We ought not to naively assume that everyone who denounces abuse is a paragon of virtue who ardently desires only what is best for the Church. The evils continue to multiply. We should be on guard.

Mirus's point could not be clearer: real Catholics, faithful ones, who have resisted the cultural intrusion of the 1960s and of Vatican II itself, true Catholics who belong to the cutting edge of non-mainstream restorationist Catholicism, will assist church officials in any way possible by attacking the veracity of survivors of clerical sexual abuse.  And in the pretense that the abuse crisis is a thing of the past, and was a blip on the screen of Catholic history, whose roots lie not in the pastoral malfeasance of the hierarchy but in the moral license of the sexual revolution of the 1960s.

This fantasy reading of recent Catholic history, which grievously distorts the actual facts of the abuse situation, provides a perfect ideological cover for prelates like Archbishop Listecki, in his attempt to dodge legal action that will force him to disclose accurate information about the longstanding cover-up of abuse cases by Catholic pastoral authorities.  Look for more of this kind of action--and more of this toxic ideological nonsense--to show up on the American Catholic scene in 2011.

Meanwhile, as Peter Isely notes, "moral bankruptcy, for any church, is a far greater catastrophe than a financial one."  Despite the obvious wisdom of this observation, however, don't expect the U.S. Catholic bishops to begin addressing anytime soon the mass exodus of faithful Catholics fed up with the moral bankruptcy and with the preposterous and immoral attempts of their brothers and sisters who claim to be the truest Catholics of all to give cover to the hierarchy as it continues the cover-up.

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