Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Situation in the Belgian Catholic Church: Bishop Vangheluwe's Interview and Moral Rot at the Center

Bishop Roger Vangheluwe

Commenting on the abuse situation in the Catholic church, Irish moral theologian Fr. Vincent Twomey writes that at the heart of the cover-up of cases of child sexual abuse by priests in the Catholic church there is an inexplicable and shocking lack of "expected emotional response" to reports about the abuse of minors. Twomey says that the persistent lack of the expected emotional response to reports of sexual abuse of minors by pastoral officials receiving these reports shocks us, because "horror and outrage" are what we expect people to display when they hear such reports.

We expect people to react to credible reports of sexual abuse of youths with outrage.  With shock.  With horror.  With the intent to see that such abuse is stopped immediately.  With the intent to do anything possible in their power to see that the abuse stops now.  And yet, Twomey says, here is what we have gotten almost uniformly from the leaders of the Catholic church, instead:

Nowhere, as far as I can see, was there any expression of horror or outrage by those who were told. Horror and outrage are the natural passions of the good person which God gave us to ensure that we get up and do something in the face of injustice done to others.

I'm thinking of Twomey's remarks all over again as I read reports about what a leading Catholic official in Belgium, former bishop Roger Vangheluwe, said on Belgian television several evenings ago.  Vangheluwe has previously admitting having sexually abused one of his nephews for thirteen years.  The abuse began when the nephew was five years old.

In the television interview last Thursday, Vangheluwe now reveals that he abused another of his nephews.  And here's how Leo Cendrowicz of Time sums up Vangheluwe's performance several days ago:

Looking relaxed and sometimes smiling, Vangheluwe described the sexual abuse as no more than "a little piece of intimacy." While he claimed to recognize that he had done wrong and said he often went to confession about it, Vangheluwe played down his actions. "I had the strong impression that my nephew didn't mind at all. On the contrary. It was not brutal sex. I never used bodily, physical violence," he said. The abuse of his first nephew, in the 1970s and '80s, he said, "started as, I would call it, a game." At the time, the boy was just 5, and the abuse would last 13 years. The abuse of the second nephew, he said, was "merely over a year." Despite this, Vangheluwe insisted, "I don't have the impression at all that I am a pedophile."

The "natural passion" of good people who hear stories about the sexual abuse of a five-year old child, moral theologian Twomey tells us, is to feel horror and outrage.  The response of one Catholic pastoral official after another, and of apologists for these pastoral leaders, has been, instead, to speak--and this boggles the mind!--about how the youths being abused enjoyed being abused.  Or asked for the abuse.

Or were the real seducers.  We are now almost a decade down the road from the revelations in Boston in 2002, and still apologists for the Catholic clerical system and for the bishops' cover-up like Bill Donohue want to tell us that the youths being raped by priests were not raped, that they participated in and consented to the "games" in which they were raped, and that we ought to feel some pity for poor Father, who is, after all, only human and has frequently been targeted by seductive little boys and girls luring him into these sex games.

"I don't have the impression at all that I am a pedophile."

So what do we do now?  What do we do when the horror and outrage of people of good will and sound moral judgment, faced with reports of pedophilia, comes up against the stony denial of a church-based system that refuses even to admit that horror and outrage are an appropriate response to such reports?  What do we do when someone somewhere is paying Bill Donohue (Marci Hamilton calls him the bishops' "paid pit bull in the media) huge sums of money to engage in a disinformation campaign on behalf of the Catholic bishops of the U.S. designed to desensitize the American public to what the U.S. bishops have done, over and over again, with impunity and seemingly with no remorse at all, as the Philadelphia grand jury reports now reveal yet again to us?

What do we do when Catholic clergy with the benefit of years of education in moral theology want to engage in tortured semantic exercises to rank degrees of sexual abuse of vulnerable human beings by Catholic clergy, in which the penetrative rape of a little boy is played against the violation of the body of a confused teenaged girl or the forced ritual sexual acting out of a woman whom a priest has convinced that she is inhabited by demons that can only be cast out through her sexual captivity to him as exorcist?

What do we do when those proclaiming moral values to us not only appear to have little to no moral insight themselves, but have such a warped sense of right and wrong that they can molest their five-year old nephew and call this a game, a game the nephew enjoyed?  And can then say that they have no "impression" that this behavior constitutes pedophilia?

To me as a theologian trained in moral theology (my minor field of Ph.D. study was social ethics), one of the most serious bottom-line messages in the abuse crisis is that something is radically wrong with the entire system of moral thinking that has become institutionalized in the Catholic church and in large numbers of its adherents.  Something is wrong with a system that sees trees but fails to recognize forests.  Something is wrong with an approach to moral theology that looks at acts but is oblivious to relationships, with a system that weighs the relative wrongness of this or that sexual act while totally ignoring the effect on real people of the acts on which this system so obsessively focuses.

It's also clear to me that what's broken in this system, with its lopsided, abysmally wrong-headed way of thinking about moral issues, has everything to do with clericalism, with a system of allocating power and privilege within the Catholic church that places all power and privilege in the hands of an ordained elite.  And gives no power at all to those on whom the elite exercise that power and privilege.  To whom that elite preach about morality.

The Catholic system is clearly broken, and broken in a very fundamental way.  Bishop Vangheluwe, who was made bishop of Bruges in 1984 by Pope John Paul II, demonstrates that to me all over again.  And as I watch the fanfare begin for the next lavish show in Rome--the beatification of John Paul the Great, the great enabler of Marcial Maciel--please forgive me if I remain entirely cynical about the ability of that show to address the serious problems the Catholic church now confronts.  To the serious problems it confronts now precisely because John Paul the Great insisted on mortgaging the future of the Catholic church to the exalted notion of a hieratic priesthood with unchecked power and privilege from which the abuse crisis and its cover-up stem.

Later: I'm seeing Colleen Kochivar Baker has also blogged about this story today at Enlightened Catholicism. Her analysis of how the desire to dominate others in power games attracts narcissists to the clerical life as many churches have now configured pastoral ministry is brilliant--and very central to interpreting this particular story.

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