Monday, June 20, 2011

David Clohessy Issues SNAP Press Statement on Wenthe Case: Laws Apply to the Church, Too

In a response to a comment at the thread that has developed with my posting earlier today about the lawsuit of Fr. Thomas Wenthe in St. Paul, Minnesota, challenging the constitutionality of the Minnesota law governing inappropriate behavior of pastors with those under pastoral care, I mention that David Clohessy, director of the Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, had issued a press statement about the Wenthe case earlier today.  I have been watching for this statement to appear on SNAP's website, but haven't seen it pop up there yet.  When it does, I'll provide a link to the statement.

(Here it is.)

Meanwhile, since the press statement has come to me by email, and since what David Clohessy says in it provides very helpful context for interpreting what Wenthe and his attorney are trying to do, I want to excerpt some observations from David's press statement.  These address questions a number of those commenting on the previous thread have raised about what might make abuse of a pastoral counseling relationship different from abuse of other adult relationships that don't involve a pastoral context.

First, I want to note that David calls on the bishops of Minnesota to denounce the legal tactic of Wenthe and his attorney, which attacks the constitutionality of Minnesota laws governing pastoral behavior.  David notes that this is a "callous and selfish move" that would leave those receiving pastoral ministry vulnerable to exploitation by clerical predators, if it succeeded.  He sees this move as "typical" of what predators do: Wenthe is "trying to exploit every possible legal maneuver and technicality to avoid responsibility for his sexual exploitation of a vulnerable parishioner."

In particular, David maintains that the "real blame" for this tactic lies with Archbishop Nienstedt of Minneapolis-St. Paul, who is permitting a priest in his charge to attack a law designed to protect people from pastoral predators who abuse their positions of trust and authority.  And that statement leads to the heart of what David Clohessy wants to emphasize in this press statement.

As he notes, the argument of Wenthe's attorney that the current law criminalizes "any minister who has sex with anybody" is patently false.  It's absurd.  What the law deals with is the violation of pastoral boundaries.  It seeks to punish the abuse of pastoral authority and pastoral relationships, which always involve an unequal distribution of power between the pastor and the one to whom (s)he is ministering, and which always involve vulnerability on the part of the one receiving ministry. 

Here's the heart of David Clohessy's statement:

When will Catholic officials accept the fact secular laws that safeguard the vulnerable apply to them? When will they accept that religious belief, not criminal behavior, is protected in this country?

A highly educated, allegedly celibate man who holds the revered title Catholic priest cannot ever have truly consensual sex with a congregant. Catholics have been raised since birth to believe priests are God's representatives on earth, can forgive our sins, can turn wafers and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Priests always hold an exalted position, and when they have any sexual involvement with parishioners, it is always wrong and hurtful.

There is an inherent power imbalance between clergy and church members. It is much like a doctor-patient or therapist-client relationship, where any sexual contact is expressly forbidden. It's the duty of Minnesota’s Catholic bishops to help parishioners understand this and to speak out against this desperate legal move by one of their priests.

In several comments to the previous thread about the Wenthe case, Bob Schwiderski, Minnesota's SNAP director, has noted that the argument Wenthe and his attorney are using to attack the current Minnesota law is one diocesan officials in Minnesota have used in other similar cases in the past.  If that's the case, then it appears that David Clohessy is absolutely correct when he implicates Archbishop Nienstedt here.  

It appears that what is going on with the Wenthe case is an attempt on the part of some church officials to chip away at a state law that punishes inappropriate pastoral behavior, violation of pastoral boundaries in which a pastor abuses his/her pastoral relationship to take advantage of a vulnerable adult receiving pastoral ministry.  When one considers that another U.S. bishop, retired bishop RenĂ© Gracida of Corpus Christi, has just gone to bat for Fr. Corapi, as Corapi leaves the priesthood after allegations by a woman in his employ that he sexually abused her,* then it appears that a worrisome trend is developing among some U.S. Catholic bishops right now.

This is certainly not a new trend.  But it definitely appears to be a spike in an ongoing trend that has been part and parcel of the bishops' response to the abuse crisis for some years now.  It is part and parcel of a persistent attempt to chip away at laws that prohibit and punish abuse of pastoral authority by priests involved with both minors and inappropriately with adults.

In the case of Gracida, what we're seeing is a broadside slam at the entire mechanism by which the U.S. bishops have tried to deal with the abuse crisis in recent years.  In the case of Wenthe--if, as David Clohessy proposes, his archbishop, Nienstedt, is tacitly consenting to his current tactic--we're seeing an attempt to undermine a state law governing inappropriate pastoral behavior.  

These are trends that should worry faithful Catholics who still imagine that the bishops really do want to face the abuse crisis honestly and proactively.  These trends indicate, unfortunately, precisely the opposite intent on the part of the bishops in their continuing response to the crisis.

*See Colleen Kochivar Baker's excellent update of this story at her Enlightened Catholicism blog today, noting Gracida's intrusion into the story.

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