Thursday, December 15, 2011

Father Wenthe of St. Paul, Minnesota, Gets Year in Jail, Judge Zeroes in on Clerical Narcissism

Father Christopher Wenthe

Readers may recall the case of Father Christopher Wenthe of St. Paul, Minnesota, about which I blogged several times earlier this year (here, here, here, and here).  In early February, Wenthe was arrested on charges that he had abused his pastoral relationship with a young woman, a recent convert to Catholicism,  whom he lured into a sexual relationship when she came to him for counseling and confession.  Diocesan officials had known about the situation for over five years at the time of Wenthe's arrest.  

Minnesota law criminalizes clergy abuse of relationships with those seeking "religious or spiritual advice, aid, or comfort in private."  Wenthe initially responded to the charges by suing to challenge the constitutionality of this law.

And here's the latest about the Wenthe story: yesterday, Ramsey County District Judge Margaret Marrinan sentenced Wenthe to a year in the county's correctional facility.  She also levied a fine of $90,000 of restitution money.  

In sentencing Wenthe, Marrinan stated that, in a pre-sentence interview with her, Wenthe exhibited dishonesty and she came to the conclusion, as she observed him, that he was "an extremely narcissistic individual."  She also informed him that what he has done is disgrace to his church.

These judicial observations seem significant to me.  As I've noted a number of times of late, critiques that were once largely the contribution of survivors of clerical sexual abuse to the discourse about the abuse situation have now gone mainstream.  Catholic officials have lost the battle to control public discourse about and media accounts of the abuse crisis, as the moral analysis of survivors and those standing in solidarity with survivors has gone mainstream.  This discourse has gone mainstream because it clearly represents the moral center of the Catholic tradition in a way in which the self-serving clerical discourse that protects priests at all costs decidedly does not.

Powerful analysts of the abuse crisis from the inside of the Catholic clerical system have been talking for some years now about how clerical narcissism is at the root of the abuse--and how that narcissism links to the clericalism that is the very heart of the culture of abuse.  These include Tom Doyle and Richard Sipe.  

When Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny excoriated the Vatican this past summer for seeking to undermine norms produced by the Irish bishops that require bishops to report priests abusing minors to criminal and state officials, he spoke of the narcissism of the clerical system.  Last month, the popular centrist journalistic commentator on matters Catholic, Fr. James Martin, echoed this meme about clerical narcissism in a posting at the America blog site.

And so it's interesting to note that Judge Margaret Marrinan zeroed in on the narcissism that she saw exhibited by Wenthe in his dealings with the court, and the narcissism that appears to have led to his decision to enmesh a vulnerable young woman seeking his pastoral counsel in an exploitative relationship--for which he's now paying a criminal penalty.  Those providing cover for the clerical system of abuse, those aiding and abetting the hierarchy in its coverup: they've lost the battle to control public discourse about the abuse crisis.  There's now widespread recognition that something within the Catholic clerical system is deeply awry, and that this something is rooted in narcissistic clerical presuppositions that priests are a breed apart--men who live on a higher plane than the rest of us, who have been lifted up to a new ontological status through ordination.  And who therefore deserve special power and privileges--and the right to exploit--as a result of their ontological transformation . . . . 

And on the Catholic-officials-in-court theme: the situation in Kansas City continues to unfold, with an announcement yesterday that the first hearing in the criminal case of Bishop Robert Finn has been moved from December 15 to January 12, at the request of the bishop's lawyers.  The increasing frequency with which priests and bishops are now being arraigned before judges: that, too, strikes me as a very strong sign that the Catholic hierarchy has lost the battle to control public discourse about the abuse crisis, and to present itself as the exemplar of moral values in the abuse crisis.

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