Thursday, February 17, 2011

SNAP's Peter Isely on Claims of Catholic Bishops' President Timothy Dolan That False Charges Against Priests Increasing

Two interlocking stories today on the abuse front in the Catholic church, both demanding attention.  The first--and more significant--statement depends on the second.  The first article is a press release from Peter Isely of SNAP, the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests.  Isely is the Midwest director of SNAP.  Dennis Coday makes this press statement available at National Catholic Reporter.  I haven't yet seen it at the SNAP site itself.

Isely is addressing statements made by the head of the U.S. Catholic Bishops' Conference, Timothy Dolan, in the second article to which I want to draw attention, which is also at the NCR site: an article by John Allen about a multi-pronged effort of a coalition of priests, bishops, and reactionary Catholic laypersons to try to call into question the decision of the Catholic hierarchy to respond--or at least give the appearance of responding--proactively to the abuse crisis in the Catholic church.

First, Peter Isely's article: it responds to a claim Timothy Dolan makes in a citation in John Allen's article, in which Dolan says that he has the "perception" that the majority of allegations of sexual abuse made against priests are false, and that false allegations are increasing.  Readers will recall that I've been blogging about this diversionary tactic of reactionary Catholic apologists for the hierarchy since the new year began, when I noted that Los Angeles attorney Donald H. Steier had published a document claiming that the vast majority of abuse allegations against priests are false.  

This began making the rounds of right-wing Catholic (and right-wing political) websites soon after Steier published the document on 2 January.  In other words, it has all the appearances of being an opening salvo, for the new year, in a war designed to assist the bishops in continuing their cover-up of the abuse situation, as more and more information about the cover-up becomes public every day.  Steier claims that most abuse claims are fueled by victims' desire to make a financial killing by suing the Catholic church--a constant meme of the Catholic right, and one that has recently appeared in a ranting and raving press release of Archbishop Dolan's pal Bill Donohue of the Catholic League.  Donohue maintains that it is "unseemly" to ask if Archbishop Dolan, as the former bishop of Milwaukee, may have hidden some $75 million dollars prior to the Milwaukee diocese's declaration of bankruptcy.  Donohue also insinuates that attorney Jeffrey Anderson's questions about where that money has gone are motivated by his own greed and by SNAP's desire to recoup revenues it supposedly lost last year.

Isely counters Dolan's "perception" that most allegations of abuse against priests are false with facts:

In the original US bishop’s national study in 2004, only 1.5 percent of all allegations against priests since 1950 were determined to be false.  Since then, yearly reports of allegations show that the false and unsubstantiated reports are actually dropping since the 2004 study

As Isely also notes, in pressing his false claims (claims easily disproven by the data provided in annual reports of the U.S. Bishops Conference itself), Dolan is implying that U.S. bishops have been removing innocent priests from active ministry, due to false charges made against them.  This is a serious "(mis)perception" for Dolan to broadcast, Isely thinks, precisely because Dolan is "the most powerful Catholic prelate in the United States."

Here's where Isely thinks Dolan intends to go with his "perceptions" about the abuse crisis, false allegations, and innocent priests wrongly removed from ministry--he's headed to the position of Rome, which has not endorsed a zero-tolerance policy throughout the church, rather than the position consolidated by the American bishops several years ago, which is a zero-tolerance policy for priests credibly accused:

But Dolan is increasingly becoming unedited, uncomfortable, and dangerously misleading.  Dolan did not just target victims of clerical abuse in his remarks.  Apparently, according to Dolan, American bishops have been removing priests who are innocent.  Is Dolan, now that he is in charge of the US Bishops, going to tell us who these nefarious fellow bishops are?  Maybe, since Dolan is moving very close to the position held by Rome and the Pope, which is to keep priests, even with proven reports of child sexual abuse in the priesthood, it really doesn’t matter to him.      

As John Allen's article (to which my second link above points) notes, Dolan's "perceptions" are part of a broader movement spearheaded by a loose coalition of priests, bishops, and reactionary Catholics, to thwart further public revelations about abuse cases within the Catholic church, and to chip away at the zero tolerance policy now in place in the Catholic church in the U.S.  Some of the complaints of this growing movement within American Catholicism:

1. Bishops have unfairly transferred the weight of the abuse crisis onto the shoulders of priests, who are not accorded rights and a fair hearing when accused of abuse.

2. The zero tolerance policy may actually be promoting abuse by putting priests credibly accused of abuse outside the watch-network of the church, where they can abuse with impunity and without supervision in other vocations.

3. Once a priest, always a priest: the haste with which priests are being removed from ministry implies that the priesthood is just one job among other jobs, rather than a sacred calling from which no one can ever really be removed, once (s)he has been ordained.

4.  The church has apologized enough, and the constant apologies are undermining its effectiveness at giving moral witness to society.

And here's my take on these claims: I certainly don't discount the need for anyone charged with any violation of the professional standards of his/her guild, or with breaking the law, to have due process.  And I will grant that it's entirely possible that priests have been unfairly targeted by bishops who, after all, are the ones who have covered up abuse cases for years, in a public-image campaign to make the church look tough in its response to abuse.  When those same bishops have never taken responsibility for their cover-up of abuse cases.  And when they are still--see Philadelphia; see Los Angeles--covering up abuse, even now, while claiming that their get-tough policy has solved the abuse problem in the Catholic church.

At the same time, I have no sympathy for those within the priesthood who are now seeking to claim that we ought to cut poor Father some slack, because poor Father is, after all, repressed, the victim of poor seminary training, a man like any other man.  One of the most shocking aspects of this entire mess to many Catholics and many people of good will has been the discovery that many of our clergy seem to lack even the most rudimentary moral compass that most right-thinking ordinary lay people have, which tells us that adult coercion of minors into sexual activity is just wrong.  

That adults who need to cope with repression or immaturity or any other similar challenge need to find other adults with whom to interact, as they deal with these challenges--and a fortiori, adults in a professional field need to behave with adult responsibility.  And a fortiori, adults in pastoral ministry and with counseling roles need to behave maturely and responsibly in their relationships with others.  It is frankly sickening to hear priests who are grown men making one excuse after another for brother priests who have violated the boundaries of their vocational calling in exploitative, damaging relationships with minors--for whatever reason.

There are no reasons that justify such violation.  Minors are by definition lacking in the autonomy, either legal or personal, afforded to adults, and any adult sexual relationship with a minor is by definition coercive, since the minor does not have the autonomy the adult has to consent to the relationship.  Minors also lack the psychological resources that adults should have, to cope with the effects of coercion and abuse.

I have no sympathy at all for the excuse-making.  And I am deeply disturbed by the lack of sound moral insight--among seminary-trained clergy, among men called to serve the people of God--that it exposes underneath the abuse crisis, at its very heart.

I'm also interested in the theological angle of those who are promoting the priests-are-inherently-different theological argument discussed in John Allen's article.  One of the sources Allen cites for this argument is Fr. Thomas Guarino of Seton Hall University, who is apparently concerned about what the precipitous removal of priests from ministry is doing to the theology of priesthood.  Another, whose primary concern appears to be that the zero-tolerance policy may make it easier for priests taken from ministry to abuse again when they work in professional fields following their priestly ministry, is Monsignor Stephen Rossetti of Catholic University.*

One respondent to Allen's article makes a fascinating comment about Guarino Rossetti--about whom I know nothing at all.  This respondent says that Guarino Rossetti has published a book entitled Born of the Eucharist, which makes the claim that "the priest himself is sacramentally immolated to the measure that Christ dwells in him."

This respondent goes on to say, "We have had priests for too long think they are little immolated christs."  And, in his/her view, this skewed theology of priesthood has created a culture within the clerical elite that is narcissistic and sexually dysfunctional, and has given bishops the idea that they are beyond the law and responsible to no one except, presumably, God.

If this poster is accurate in his/her analysis of Guarino's Rossetti's theology of priesthood--a theology underlying his claim that bishops are being too hasty in removing priests accused of abuse from active ministry--then I tend to agree with the poster's conclusion.  Priests have for far too long been encouraged to think of themselves as "little immolated christs"--as unique little immolated christs.  As little immolated christs whose self-immolation transcends that of any lay person and sets them apart in some ontological way from the rest of the human race.

And this self-image and the false theology underlying it absolutely have fed the sickness of the abuse crisis.  Furthermore, John Paul II, with his super-high theology of hieratic priesthood, which places priests far above the rest of the people of God, and with his own bizarre fixation on self-immolation, bears much responsibility for bolstering this mentality among priests in the church today.  

And it is therefore certainly no accident that John Paul II turned a blind eye to the gross immoral and criminal behavior of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ, Marcial Maciel, and did nothing at all to address the abuse crisis within the church when that crisis came to light during his papacy.  John Paul's refusal to deal with the abuse goes hand in hand with a skewed, dangerous, excessively hieratic theology of priesthood which views priests as in their very nature ontologically set apart from other human beings.  And therefore beyond the rubrics that constrain the rest of us in our everyday human lives.  And therefore prone to regard the rest of us as objects in power games permitted to them as holy men set apart from the rest of us.

Ultimately, the reactionary Catholics who are now stepping up the fight to deny that there even is an abuse problem in the church, who are attacking and slandering victims of clerical abuse and claiming that victims are pressing false claims and are interested only in financial gain, and who are encouraging bishops to stop apologizing for the abuse and its cover-up, are fighting to keep the legacy of John Paul II alive in the face of increasing indicators that something began to go seriously wrong with the church under the previous pope.  

Even with people leaving the Catholic church now in droves everywhere in the developed world, these reactionary defenders of the "reform of the reform" intend to continue speaking of our period of church history as a springtime moment in the history of the Catholic church.  And even with the moral authority of the church in the public square in shreds, with the reputation of bishops as moral teachers in tatters, these reactionary Catholics intend to keep urging the bishops to become even less accountable and less transparent.

And with story after story of brother and sister Catholics who were molested by priests as children coming to our ears, these reactionary Catholics intend not only to stop up their ears, but to heap scorn on survivors of clerical sexual abuse, by accusing them of pressing false claims and of seeking remuneration from the church rather than justice and pastoral outreach.  Proving by their reaction that the Catholic church at this point in its history has taken some baffling turn--and under whose leadership and for what reasons?--that seem,s in the view of many thoughtful people around the world, to have brought us to a dead end of moral blindness from which it begins to seem we may never find our way out again.

*Please note the corrections to this posting, which I've made after a reader in the comment thread, Fjy, pointed out to me that I had confused Fr. Guarino with Msgr. Rossetti.  

No comments: