Monday, June 20, 2011

Minnesota Priest Challenges Law: New Apologetic Excuses Violations of Pastoral Relationships

It looks as if this may be a new trend among Catholics who continue to view the clerical abuse crisis as something manufactured by the media and attorneys, and as largely a matter of gay priests abusing pubescent boys: Fr. Christopher Wenthe of St. Paul is suing to have charges against him dismissed, in a case alleging that he abused his pastoral authority and a counseling relationship to seduce an adult woman.

Minnesota law criminalizes clergy abuse of pastoral relationships with those seeking "religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private."  Wenthe's attorney is arguing that this law is unconstitutional and is "an overly broad attempt to regulate sexual behavior."

Attorneys for Ramsey County, Minnesota, have replied that the constitutionality of the law has been previously upheld in court, and that it would be dangerous and inconsistent to grant license to pastors which is not granted to other professionals--such as doctors, therapists, or social workers--in their interaction with clients.  County prosecutors write,

Like statutes prohibiting sexual relationships between patients and doctors, therapists, counselors and social workers, the power imbalance created in the clergy-counselee relationship lies at the heart of criminalizing any sexual relationship that may develop.

It's mind-boggling to me that apologists for the Catholic clerical system as it now stands, who want to discount abundant evidence that the Catholic church has an exceptionally serious problem with clerical sexual abuse and the clericalism from which this abuse stems, are now seeking to argue that priests should be exempt from laws that govern the behavior of members all other helping professions in their interaction with the public.  The emerging new argument we see on full display in the Wenthe case is, implicitly, an argument for clerical exceptionalism.

It's an argument which maintains that when a priest does it, it's different than when a psychiatrist, a doctor, or a social worker does it.  In the case of each of those other professions, there are strict professional codes that prohibit violations of boundary lines with adult clients, and which assure that anyone in the profession proven to have violated these boundary lines is immediately punished.  In a number of states (like Minnesota), legal codes mirror these professional codes and provide state penalties for abuse of the professional relationship with an adult.

The belief of Catholics who continue trying to sweep the abuse scandal under the rug that priests ought to be given a free pass as they abuse their pastoral relationship with adults (particularly with adult women), when other professionals would not be given a free pass, speaks volumes about the ugly clericalism that lies beneath the abuse crisis.  The sense of unmerited clerical power and privilege in this argument is astonishing.

And that astonishing clericalism is on full display not only in the clerical club itself.  It's on full display among lay Catholics who march, as some Catholics did yesterday in Kansas City, to try to shut up survivors of clerical abuse asking that bishops be accountable for covering up abuse.  It's on full display among the many lay Catholics now logging in to websites to attack the yet-to-be-named woman who alleges that Fr. Corapi sexually abused her, and the woman who made similar charges against Corapi's spiritual director Fr. Thomas Euteneueur.

Behind the particular kind of clericalism exhibited by the supporters of Corapi and Euteneuer one frequently finds reprehensible misogynistic and homophobic justifications for the behavior of priests abusing their pastoral relationship with adult women.  One encounters slurs about the unreliability of women's testimony, the axes that scorned women are said to grind when they expose men of the cloth, the "healthiness" of priests who abuse adult women, as compared to the unhealthiness of priests who abuse adolescent boys, etc.

Look for more of the clerical exceptionalism, with its misogynistic and homophobic corollaries, to bubble up now in the wake of the Corapi story--to enter mainstream Catholic discourse as a last-ditch attempt on the part of Catholic apologists to avoid facing and dealing with what's really wrong with the Catholic system: with its clericalist roots.  With the astonishing assumption of unmerited power and privilege for priests.  With insinuations that priests abusing their pastoral relationship with adult women ought to be given a free pass for their behavior.

We've long seen this apologetic of misogynistic and homophobic clerical exceptionalism at work in the ranting and raving of Archbishop Timothy Dolan's crony Bully Bill Donohue.  I predict now we'll see it at work more broadly, in sizable sectors of the American Catholic laity, who are outraged that the abuse crisis is no longer being blamed solely on gay priests, and that even rock-star priests who abuse their pastoral privilege to seduce adult women will be held accountable for their behavior.

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