Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A Moral Perspective re: the Catholic Abuse Crisis: Do No Harm

Nicholas Maes, "Jesus Blessing the Children"

I’ve mentioned a crisis in my family recently.  And as a result of that crisis, I am having to revisit aspects of my childhood that I thought I had put behind me, had buried along with the adults of my parents’ generation.  Of that generation, I have only an aunt living.  And an uncle by marriage.

Last weekend, as I was doing some of this revisiting of the past, I spent several hours talking by phone with a cousin of mine.  This cousin grew up as a brother to my brothers and me.  He is close to us in age, and the extreme turbulence in his family as he was growing up sometimes caused his mother, my mother’s sister, to bring her son and live with us for extended periods of time.

For whatever reason, this cousin and I have always had a very similar outlook on our upbringing.  My memories confirm his and his mine, though my brother’s memories—when he does, in fact, remember anything from childhood—are sharply different from our memories.  We have the same values.  Ask us to rank, say, sets of virtues and moral failings, and we’d pretty much compile the same list in both areas.  

Both of us would put loyalty to friends and family and fighting to protect the underdog near the top of our list of virtues, and harming the defenseless (including defenseless animals) near the top of the list of moral faults.  We even write so much alike that people who see the handwriting on anything either of us has written often think the other person wrote it.

And so at times of family crisis which involve remembering and rethinking the past, I often turn to this cousin as a sounding board.  And the current crisis affects him, too, because it’s about family.  And because he is a brother to my brother and me.

In our recent conversation, my cousin and I didn’t talk about the abuse crisis in the Catholic church, or about sexual abuse of children by adults.  Neither of those topics has anything to do with the past we’re revisiting in our current crisis, though when we do revisit the past, the topic of abuse of children (and of other family members) by adults does always come into play.  Since we both experienced physical and verbal abuse at the hands of our parents when we were children.  And, in his case, he witnessed horrifying abuse of his mother by his father that turns my blood cold to hear him describe.

Even so—even though what we talked about had nothing to do in any direct sense with the abuse crisis in the church—for days after that conversation, a recognition has been growing stronger and stronger in my head, about precisely what it is that perturbs me most about the morally defective response of far too many Catholic leaders to sexual abuse of minors by Catholic religious authority figures.  And that recognition does certainly arise out of what my cousin and I shared with each other in our recent phone conversation.

One of the memories we “checked” with each other as we talked recently is a memory about where we both felt safe and loved as children.  Because of the horrendous abuse going on in his household, about which I have learned only now that we are adults, and because both of us (and my brothers) were all too often beaten and verbally abused in savage ways by our parents, my cousin and I have sharp, grateful memories of the one safe place we could go as children, when things became too grim at home.

This was my grandmother’s house.  And the person whom we both remember as the welcoming, embracing presence in that house was not my grandmother (though I do remember her as a very loving, affirming woman).  It was her oldest daughter, my mother’s oldest sister, the one member of the family who did not marry, who had no children of her own.  (An unmarried half-brother had taken his own life three years before I was born.)

My cousin’s memories of this aunt and mine coincide, as if they’re a set of those transparencies a teacher used to use in class presentations, in which she overlaid two maps to show that they have the same contours.  What we remember most of all about our Aunt Kat is that she created a space in my grandmother’s home that was not merely always welcoming for us, but was a safe space.

And she made that space around herself and for all of her nieces and nephews because, without ever making any loud professions of the core value that guided her in her interactions with us, she was clearly guided by a principle that I now recognize as this: Do no harm.  In everything she ever did and everything she ever said to any one of us, harm was off the table.  

She did not hit.  She did not threaten.  She did not taunt or put down or verbally abuse.  Though she was capable of impatience—she had a difficult life as the unmarried and unappreciated sibling expected to provide care for her mother, a divorced brother, and his daughter, while she taught school full time—she was never, not once that either my cousin or I (or any family member in my generation) can remember intent on harming any of us.  Not in any way.

And so we came to take for granted that being in her presence and in her house meant safety.  It meant we would not be harmed—something none of us could count on in our parents’ households.   That voucher of safety meant a world of difference to all of us as we grew up.  It meant that there was one predictable place in the world where we knew we could always go and not be harmed.

And this is the thing that perplexes me about the defective moral response of too many Catholic pastoral leaders to the abuse crisis: how is that a religious organization, one centered on the memory of Jesus, ever ended up in a place in which it did not see that the first and foremost principle that should guide any adult in his or her interaction with children is, Do no harm?  How has it happened that not only many adult authority figures within the Catholic church have harmed children, but that those supervising these adults have then colluded in the harm by excusing or hiding what was done?  And by failing to provide places and structures within which the ultimate guiding principle is that no harm is to be done to children?

This is what I am still not able to grasp about the abuse situation in the Catholic church: the apparent lack of moral or psychological insight regarding the need of children for safety—for places, above all, in the bosom of the church!, in which children know that they will never be exposed to harm, and can begin to thrive as human beings.  Because no child can thrive in situations in which harm is an ever-present possibility.

My cousin and I tell each other that we really do not know what we would have done—who we would have become—if we had not had that one safe space, that one adult intent on shielding us from harm, as we grew up.  It shocks me profoundly that far too many Catholic adults now report that they came of age as Catholic children in situations, right within the church itself, in which they cannot say the same of their upbringing and experience among priests, brothers, and nuns.

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