Friday, September 9, 2011

Crookston, Minnesota, Diocese Pays $750,000 Abuse Settlement: Critical Reflections

It has been some time since I've mentioned the case of Father Joseph P. Jeyapaul, formerly of the diocese of Crookston, Minnesota, now working with the Catholic school system in his home diocese of Ootacamund in India.  I last mentioned the Jeyapaul case in this April 2011 posting.  Jeyapaul is facing extradition to the U.S. on charges of having raped a teenaged girl in Greenbush, Minnesota, in 2004.  Criminal charges were filed against him in December 2006, and he promised to return to the U.S. to face them in April 2010--when he says he first became aware that he was facing these charges.

Up to today, however, he has never returned to the U.S., and Catholic officials in India have proven less than cooperative in seeing that Father Jeyapaul is returned to the U.S. to face legal action.

I want to update the story of Jeyapaul now for a number of reasons.  In the first place, it was announced this week that the diocese of Crookston has now reached a $750,000 settlement with Megan Peterson, the young woman who alleges that Jeyapaul raped her a number of times in the confessional and his office when she sought his pastoral counsel as a girl of 14 or 15 considering a vocation to the religious life in 2004.  Several valuable summaries of the story have appeared this past week, as the announcement of the settlement was made: Mike Mullen writes about it here in the twin cities' City Pages; Rose French does so as well in the Star Tribune; and Scott Theisen provides an account for AP which has been uploaded to the SNAP website.  The website of Peterson's attorney Jeff Anderson has a video of his news announcement of the settlement.

So I'm returning to the Jeyapaul story now because it has been in the news just in the past week.  And it happened to hit the news precisely when my partner Steve and I were visiting his aunts, who are nuns in the diocese of Crookston.  Crookston is Steve's home diocese and is full of his devoutly Catholic relatives.  Observing their reaction to the news of the Jeyapaul settlement has given us an on-the-spot slice of contemporary Catholic thinking about the abuse crisis.  We've had a very recent opportunity to see how some mainstream practicing Catholics are processing a crisis that reaches into every corner of the nation's dioceses, even in this rather out-of-the-way rural corner of northwest Minnesota.

Finally, two of Steve's brothers happen to live in the parish in which Jeyapaul was pastor in Greenbush, and are raising their families there.  They have children the age of Megan Peterson.  And so Steve has a very personal family reason for being exceptionally concerned about the Peterson case--for reasons that go beyond anything I can share on this blog at present.

And here are some of my impressions about the latest Jeyapaul news and how we saw some Catholics in the Crookston diocese dealing with it as it broke this past week:

First, I continue to wonder about the role of the Vatican in this story.  For those seeking an exhaustive account of that aspect of the story, with abundant documentation, the BishopAccountability website has a first-rate collection of documents and narratives.  As anyone perusing the documents collected there can easily see, the Vatican has had official notice of Jeyapaul's activities (and warnings about the dangers he poses to minors) since 2005.

And yet Father Jeyapaul continues to function as a priest in India, with continued contact with children in India through the Catholic school system with which he works.  He is under criminal charges in the U.S. and has promised to return to the U.S. to face those charges.

But he has yet to return to the U.S.  And it would be difficult to convince me that if the Vatican really wanted to see that Jeyapaul fulfilled his promise to return to the U.S. to face the criminal charges against him, he would still be at liberty (and in contact with children) in India.  The Vatican's role in this story has been typically obstructionist, vis-a-vis the justice system and protection of children.

My second observation: when Steve told his mother of the Jeyapaul settlement, the very first words out of her mouth were, "But is Megan Peterson telling the truth?"  In other words, her initial response was a defensive response inclined to give the benefit of the doubt to the priest--to any priest--and to suggest that girls or young women reporting sexual abuse by a cleric might well be fabricating their reports.

This is an initial response from a devoutly Catholic church-going woman of the Crookston diocese.  I daresay it is the initial response that many Catholics with similar profiles in dioceses throughout the U.S. give to reports such as the report of the Jeyapaul settlement.  And it's a profoundly troubling response--part of the problem and not part of the solution, when it comes to the abuse crisis.

In the case of Steve's family, there are perhaps deeper layers that might not be there with other Catholic families in other places.  One of the layers that deserves attention is the sharp turn to the political and religious right several of his siblings have taken in recent years, a component of which involves the attempt to return women to their divinely ordained place in the world as submissive help-meets of men.

And one of the prices that right-wing subculture of Catholicism seems perfectly willing to pay when women report sexual abuse by male religious authority figures is to explain away or excuse the abuse, while doing everything in their power to assure that the uppity woman breaking silence is punished and returned to her silent and submissive role as quickly as possible.  There's more I could say about this--much more--but I won't, out of respect for Steve and his family and their privacy.

Finally--and this relates to my previous point--the attempt to reestablish hard and fast gender roles in these cultural enclaves of right-wing Catholicism has a strongly homophobic edge to it.  Bashing the gays, including gay family members, is a corollary of the strong impulse to return men and women to their divinely ordained roles (qua Catholic orthodoxy of the theology of the body variety).  Uppity gays are akin to uppity women, insofar as their claims to a humanity equal to that of heterosexual men threaten the authority structures of a male-dominated, heterosexist culture.  

And both have to be kept in their place at all cost--including the cost of shunning and exclusion from the family circle, or outright repression if they persist in asserting their humanity and claiming the same rights enjoyed by heterosexual men.  And the shunning-exclusion-repression are reinforced by ironclad codes of silence and denial, in which certain topics simply will not be discussed, and in which those calling for open and honest discussion of them are made scapegoats.

All of these ideological penchants play right into the cover-up of clerical sexual abuse in the Catholic church, since it's men, after all, who are being accused of abuse.  And those men are authority figures whose authority has never been questioned in quite this way in the past.  

The reactionary imagination assumes that permitting these authoritative men who uphold a heterosexist and male-entitled worldview to be questioned will cause the whole cosmos to fall to bits.  And so in the Crookston diocese, where this imagination seemingly has a firm hold on the imagination of many Catholics, we see the strange spectacle of a parish priest denying communion to an openly gay couple in precisely the same year Megan Peterson says Jeyapaul was raping her.  So that it seems the real problem the church should be facing at this point in history, if it really wants to address its most pressing problems, is not looking for gay folks to bash, but dealing with priests abusing minors--including female minors.

And now the same diocese, which is said to have sent more money (money donated by parishioners for the upkeep of churches and schools and works of mercy) per capita to the far-away state of Maine in 2009 to remove the right of civil marriage from gay citizens than any other diocese in the nation, is forced to shell out $750,000 in a settlement in a case in which a priest has raped a teenaged girl.  Which suggests, again, that blaming the gays for all the problems in the world is perhaps not the most productive way of addressing the most serious moral problems confronting the church today, and that we spectacularly waste money when we shell it out to take rights away from our gay brothers and sisters when the real moral problem right in front or our own noses is the abuse of children by priests.

As I say, the Vatican is a serious part of the problem for those who want to address the Catholic abuse crisis effectively.  But so are many lay Catholics who buy into the diversionary misogynistic and homophobic gender politics of the Vatican, which scapegoat gays and try to keep women in their place.  And those Catholics are still well-represented throughout the U.S., and are impeding the solution to the abuse crisis by blaming the wrong people for the crisis (gays and those reporting abuse), and exonerating those who are actually responsible for it (church authorities and the clerical system in general).

The graphic is Father Jeyapaul's mug-shot from the Interpol website.

No comments: