Monday, May 21, 2012

Richard Sipe on Sexual Abuse as Product of Clerical Culture

Richard Sipe's presentation to the recent conference at Santa Clara University whose theme was "Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis, 2002-2012" is now online at the Voice from the Desert site.  As with everything Sipe writes, it's clear, insightful, and powerful.  Testimony from someone who was formed by and once lived within the clerical system that he now rightly sees as the dark heart from which the abuse crisis proceeds--a voice that system sorely needs to hear, but to which it does not intend to listen . . . . 

Because to listen adequately is to entertain the possibility of acting on the basis of what one hears, to reform oneself as a result of the process of active listening . . . . And the current leaders of the Catholic church do not intend that kind of reformation of themselves and the clerical system on whose preservation they have staked the future of the church, to the woe of many Catholics.

Sipe begins his presentation with the flat, unalloyed declaration, "The context of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic bishops and priests is the culture of the priesthood."  And then he goes on to repeat that claim in one way or another throughout his presentation, unpacking it in tightly written examples which show how unchecked monarchial power and privilege corrode the souls of clerics, how the seminary system fosters the assumption of the ontological superiority of the ordained and their monarchial right to control and use (and abuse) non-clerics, and how clerical culture centers on the maintenance of a club whose boundaries are impermeable to non-ordained outsiders and are premised on the assertion that everything one does to keep those boundaries intact is done for God and the church--even when that "everything" comprises keeping noxious secrets, telling toxic lies, and maintaining absolute silence when faced with demands for transparency and accountability.

Sipe writes: 

If a priest is apparently compliant with the demands of the culture he receives automatic status regardless of any individual merit. The culture provides an assurance of employment and continued material compensation for the duration of his life. The identification with the power system and subordination to it relives individuals of responsibility for the consequences of their individual actions. Truth telling is curtailed and subjected to the welfare of the organization (the good of the church). The prevailing rationale is that clerics’ first duty is to the higher law of God. Secrecy and loyalty are essential binding elements operative to the function of clerical cultural. Men within the clerical culture are labeled "special" since ordination confers an "ontological" superiority. Clerics thus incorporated into the culture often demonstrate qualities of dependency, entitlement, superiority/arrogance, variable degrees of psychosexual immaturity, but in many cases "they possess enormous powers of empathetic discernment—albeit for purposes of self-aggrandizement."

And he concludes:

The fundamental causes of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy are within the clerical culture. Only an honest examination and Reformation of that culture will address adequately the problem of clerical malfeasance about which sex is central (citing Anson Shupe, Spoils of the Kingdom: Clergy Misconduct and Religious Community [Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2007]). 
I repeat what I said in 1992: "Difficult as it is to accept, we are certain that the hierarchical and power structures beneath the surface of dioceses and religious societies form the essence of a secret world that selects, cultivates, supports, and will continue to produce and protect child abusers within the ranks of the Catholic clergy. These hidden forces are elements far more dangerous to the sexual health and welfare of Christ’s Church than those already identified" (citing "The Passivity of the Catholic Church," Washington Post 6 May 2012)].

I am very grateful to Richard Sipe for continuing to state the obvious, over and over, in his hard-hitting testimony from the inside of clerical life, as it were--from within a system in which he himself lived for many years.  As my opening statements say, I'm also strongly persuaded (along with Sipe) that the system Sipe opens up to critical analysis through such powerful statements is bent towards self-maintenance at all costs, and not reformation.

If anything other than the abuse crisis itself might convince us that this is the case, we American Catholics have only to look at the charade playing out before our eyes in the 2012 political cycle, as the American Catholic bishops threaten to hold an entire nation hostage over issues such as marriage equality and contraceptive coverage--as they inform the nation that any attempt to infringe their monarchial "right" to dictate public policy is an attack on religious freedom itself.

And to state all of this--to state the obvious about who we now are and what we have made of ourselves as a church at this point in history--is to state the anguishing problem all of us who are lay Catholics in places like the U.S. (and Ireland, and Austria, and Germany, etc.) now face: how to relate to a system of absolute clerical power and control run amok, run off the tracks, which professes to be the church in its entirety, and over which we as non-clerics have no power other than our ability to withhold financial support from this system.

My own response is to let the running amok continue until the train wrecks.  And to remove myself as much as possible from being within or near the train as it careens to its last disastrous end.  And I suspect an increasing number of Catholics in the U.S. will be making that decision as the next acts in the theatrical and absolutely politically partisan "Fortnight for Freedom"are staged this summer by the USCCB.

That is, after the gentlemen running things get done with their bashing of Girl Scouts.  And gays.  And women in general and nuns in particular.  And abuse survivors.

Anybody but their own sweet selves.  And the super-rich right-wing men on whose behalf they are doing all this theatrical staging.

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