Monday, November 28, 2011

VOTF Report on John Jay Study: Clericalism and Abuse Crisis (And Liturgical Reforms)

Before this month gets away from us, I want to take note of a report that the group* Voice of the Faithful (VOTF) released early in November.  The VOTF statement responds to the John Jay College report* about the causes and context of sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests in the last half century published by the U.S. Catholic bishops this past May.  It's entitled "Voice of the Faithful’s Conclusions about the John Jay College Report, The Causes and Context of Sexual Abuse of Minors by Catholic Priests in the United States, 1950-2010."

VOTF's assessment of the John Jay report is that, despite its highly publicized "reliance on non-independently-verified data supplied by diocesan leaders" (that is, the data John Jay used to form its conclusions about the abuse crisis in the American Catholic church were supplied by the bishops), the report is "highly credible" and will remain an "invaluable resource" for anyone wishing to understand clergy sexual abuse of minors.

Nonetheless, VOTF concludes that some of the deductions towards which the John Jay report moves based on the evidence supplied to its researchers are flawed, and that, more importantly, the report skirts some of the most significant and compelling causative explanations for the abuse crisis.  Above all, it skirts the issue of clericalism, which, in the view of VOTF, is perhaps the single most salient explanatory factor to account for what has happened in the abuse crisis, why it has happened, and why the crisis continues to manifest itself.

As the report maintains, 

VOTF also believes that the findings support some valid alternative conclusions, particularly with regard to hierarchical officials’ roles in the occurrence and persistence of clergy sexual abuse during this extended period. Too often the report seems to attribute client-friendly characterizations of the bishops’ behavior, or lack thereof, when other characterizations might equally apply.

"Client-friendly" is, as I read the report, a polite circumlocution to describe the effect of the bishops' sponsorship of this report on the outcome the bishops got as they paid for more than half of the costs of the report (and as they supplied the data on which the John Jay researchers chewed as they reached their conclusions).

The VOTF response is divided into the following sections: an overview (parts of which I've just summarized); findings regarding victims/survivors; findings regarding abusers; findings regarding hierarchical leaders; findings about the peak and decline of sexual abuses; and conclusions.  In what follows, I don't intend to provide a comprehensive summary of everything the VOTF report says.  I'm focusing on what, to my way of thinking, remains the heart of the matter--above all, on VOTF's conclusion (which is, to my mind, undeniable) that the Catholic abuse crisis is and remains inextricably connected to a clericalism that the John Jay report tends to ignore, and which must be addressed forthrightly if the institution expects ever to deal effectively with clerical abuse of minors.

The preceding argument is set forth for the most part in the VOTF report's valuable concluding remarks, about which I'll have more to say in a moment.  In the meantime, I do want to take note of a set of observations in the section entitled "Findings Regarding Abusers" that I find fascinating--and which, as far as I know, have not received the media attention they deserve.

This section of the report cites two conclusions the John Jay study reached re: the causative role of homosexuality in the abuse crisis.  These are as follows:

"The data do not support a finding that homosexual identity and/or pre- ordination same-sex sexual behavior are significant risk factors for the sexual abuse of minors" (p. 64 of John Jay study; emphasis in original); and 
"Priests with pre-ordination same-sex sexual behavior were significantly more likely to participate in sexual activity with adults" (p. 62 of John Jay study).

These two assertions strike me as extremely important, especially when taken together.  The first flatly refutes the meme that the hierarchy and the political and religious right sought to push when the crisis broke: namely, that it was a manifestation of the growing presence of gays in the priesthood, and we'd see an end to the crisis when we succeeded in barring gays from seminaries and ordination.

But, though the fatuity of these claims (and their diversionary, hierarchy-sheiding political intent) have now been more or less definitively exposed, I haven't seen much media commentary at all on the second half of the set of observations above--namely, that priests who come to the priesthood with some history of same-sex sexual behavior are more likely to have sexual contact with other adults than with children, more likely to involve themselves with adults than are . . . well, who?

To my mind, the preceding statement points to a further possibility: this is that priests entering the priesthood with either a heterosexual or homosexual orientation that has not been frankly acknowledged may be more apt to engage in sexual behavior with children than priests of either sexual orientation who know their orientation and have come to terms with their sexuality prior to ordination.

There is, I suspect, lurking behind the preceding set of observations a further deduction that hasn't been sufficiently explored by the media as they comment on the clerical abuse crisis: that the crisis is rooted in a lack of psychological development among many of the ordained, abetted by the way in which clericalism gives clerics the unwarranted belief that they achieve a new ontological status through ordination.  The two conclusions outlined above, taken together, appear to me to suggest that ordaining gay candidates who have come to terms with their sexual orientation honestly and maturely is better than ordaining gay candidates in denial about their nature, or straight candidates who have no inkling at all about what human sexuality means, than is denying ordination to openly gay candidates.  That is, it's better if we really want to resolve this crisis.

(This is not to say I am in favor of consensual sexual relationships on the part of celibate clergy.  As I've often noted on this blog, my own view is that as long as celibacy is a requirement for the Catholic priesthood, it's better--it's healthier for all concerned--if priests who find they cannot abide by this requirement leave the priesthood.  There is simply too much room for abuse otherwise, given how power is allocated in the Catholic governance system.)

And moving on: two sections of the VOTF report--the section on findings regarding hierarchical leaders and the one about the peak and decline of sexual abuses--prefigure the report's conclusions about the damning effects of clericalism in the church, and the connection of clericalism to the abuse crisis.  As the first of these two sections notes, for instance, 

The report’s data and findings indicate that bishops collectively mismanaged the persistent evidence of sexual abuse of minors by clergy, the corporate response to it, and the treatment of victims, their families and the faith communities for which they bore pastoral responsibility.

"Collectively mismanaged . . . the corporate response to [the abuse of minors]" strikes me as quite right.  And it's a damning indictment.  It's damning not merely because, as the VOTF report points out, the bishops have almost always chosen this option as pastoral leaders, rather than focusing on victims, their families, and the entire faith community damaged by revelations of abuse.

It's a damning indictment as well because it implicitly (and, again, rightly) charges the bishops and Rome with undertaking "collective" action, a "corporate response" that amounts to complete mismanagement of the abuse crisis.  The way in which church leaders have responded to the abuse crisis has been orchestrated from the top.  It has been collective and coordinated.  It's akin to how a defensive, morals-challenged secular corporation and its leaders might respond to damaging revelations about the behavior of its most important representatives.

And to the extent to which the corporate and collective response of the Catholic hierarchy to the abuse crisis has mirrored the tactics of secular corporations and their leaders, this response has sold out the Catholic people.  It is morally unsustainable.  It represents a complete abdication of moral leadership.

And it radically undermines anything the leaders of the Catholic church now want to sell the Catholic people or society at large about morals.  Or about liturgy and the correct way to invite the Lord under our roofs and to proclaim the consubstantiality of Jesus with God.

In the section entitled "Findings about the Peak and Decline of Sexual Abuses," the VOTF report further asserts, 

However, VOTF believes that the same factors that led to abuses and cover-up prior to the peak period remain largely in place in the clerical culture today, as evidenced by recent revelations in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Kansas City and multiple dioceses in Ireland.

It's not over by a long shot.  It's not over even though, on the very day before the top leaders of the church ordered English-speaking Catholics to start babbling on about consubstantiality and the Lord coming under our roofs, Pope Benedict sought to inform the world that the Catholic church has led the way in combating abuse of minors and that other institutions now need to be the target of the critiques that have been exclusively focused on the Catholic church.

It's not over, in other words, because even now the top leaders of the Catholic church remain utterly defensive about their lack of any adequate pastoral response to the abuse crisis.  They continue to deny and obfuscate.  And, above all, they refuse to admit that the unmerited power and privilege the system to which they have mortgaged the future of the church gives to clerics (who can even dictate the words we use to pray to God) is at the very heart of the abuse crisis.  And that the abuse crisis will never be effectively resolved until we address (and change) the system of clericalism that Catholic leaders continue fighting to keep in place.  At all cost.

And vis-a-vis the clericalist system and the John Jay study, here's what VOTF concludes:

Conspicuously absent from the researchers’ analysis and conclusions is any clear reference to clericalism (the lived belief that clergy are different, separate and exempt from the norms, rules, and consequences that apply to everyone else) as an influence, much less a major one, in explaining why priests sexually abused minors and the hierarchy enabled it to continue.  The report comes close to identifying the clerical culture in a couple of places but assiduously avoids calling it "clericalism."  . . . Unless there is a substantive modification of the clerical culture, VOTF believes that the harm to victims and their families, to the members of faith communities, and to clergy who remain faithful to their commitments and ministries will remain unresolved. Recent revelations of familiar patterns of clericalism patterns in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia, the Diocese of Kansas City, and multiple dioceses in Ireland bear out this conclusion (emphasis in original).

And, as if this report published in early November was written as a rejoinder to the papal statement of 26 November, which maintains that the Catholic church has set the bar for proactive response to the abuse crisis and other institutions must now be held accountable, the VOTF report states, 

In turn, secular institutions began to modify their patterns of response to embarrassing or illegal actions by their employees out of vulnerability to media exposure, lawsuits and liability.  VOTF believes that religious institutions, particularly Catholic Church officials, largely maintained their patterns of trying to keep comparable failures of priests and hierarchy secret as much as possible and favoring canon law provisions over criminal or civil requirements. Even after the highly publicized commitments made by bishops in the Charter to Protect Children and Young People, bishops often ignored or violated them in face of incidences of sexual abuse of children. In sum, the patterns embedded in the clerical culture continue to trump requirements of law or voluntary commitments.

The patterns embedded in the clerical culture continue to trump requirements of law or voluntary commitments.  It's not over.  Not by a long shot.  Philadelphia and Kansas City are not flukes.  

They're a manifestation of the collective and corporate response to the abuse crisis that has been and continues to be orchestrated from the center of the Catholic church by its top leaders.  By the same men who instruct us in the right language to use to pray to their God, and who claim to have unilateral access to the mind of God.  And whom leading Catholic media mavens and centrist intellectuals continue to assist with one disingenuous representation after another about how the secular media are out to get the Catholic church.  Or with blowsy blog postings about how the stunning new liturgy is not so bad after all, which completely ignore the most pressing pastoral issue of our time: namely, how to address the needs of the thousands upon thousands of Catholics who have walked away from the church at this point in history due to our pastoral leaders' total abdication of responsible moral leadership vis-a-vis the abuse crisis.

Which no amount of consubstantialing or proclaiming the grievousness of my faults is going to rectify, as long as we pretend that those fellow Catholics are bad Catholics who deserve to be ignored, since they do not follow the moral and doctrinal leadership of the pope and bishops.  And as long as we pretend that the reverend gentlemen leading us in prayer deserve our commendation and respect as moral and spiritual leaders.

The graphic is a display created by survivors of childhood clerical abuse outside USCCB headquarters, photographed by Pablo Martinez Monsivais.

*Pdf files.

No comments: