Monday, June 4, 2012

People of the Lie: When Church Leaders Lie, and Laity Defend Them . . .

On Saturday, I said that in the near future I'd write more about the lie that the head of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops His Eminence Timothy Cardinal Dolan has told re: his knowledge of payoffs made to priests abusing minors in the Milwaukee archdiocese to encourage those priests to disappear quietly.  When I planned to take up that topic this morning, I had thought that my comments would be Johnny-come-lately remarks, since Laurie Goodstein reported on this story in the New York Times on 30 May, and it has been in the news for almost a full week now.

But now, after having refused for five days to address the claims that he knew about payoffs to priests abusing minors in Milwaukee and has lied to the public about his knowledge of these payoffs, His Eminence finally broke silence just yesterday.  Speaking to reporters after Sunday Mass at St. Patrick's cathedral (on the eve of a trip to Ireland to attend the International Eucharistic Conference next weekend),  His Eminence chose to mount an attack instead of directly addressing the allegation that he has lied to the public.  

As Brigid Bergen reports for the WNYC news blog, in his remarks yesterday, His Eminence attacked two bearers of the news that he has long had knowledge of payoffs to pedophile priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese and has lied about that knowledge.  His Eminence attacked media reports--specifically, it would appear, Goodstein's in the Times--as inaccurate and unfair.  And he attacked the group Survivors Network for Those Abused by Priests, SNAP, as lacking all credibility and peddling "groundless and scurrilous" charges against him to which he refuses to respond.

Which is to say: in his sole statement to date about the question of whether he has lied to the public, and on the eve of a trip abroad, His Eminence chose to attack the messengers of the news about his lying to the public, but did not choose to address the question of whether or not he has, indeed, lied.  And as Peter Isley of SNAP Wisconsin notes in a posting at that group's website this morning, it seems curious in the extreme that His Eminence is focusing his ire on victims of childhood clerical sexual abuse and the media as the bearers of the ill news that he has known about payoffs in Milwaukee and has lied about what he has known, when it was the archdiocese of Milwaukee and His Eminence's longtime chief of staff there, Jerry Topcziewski, who disclosed the information for which Dolan is now lambasting the media and SNAP.

As Isely also notes, when Dolan was first confronted in 2006 with evidence that he had implemented a payoff to notorious Milwaukee pedophile priest Franklyn Becker (see Bishop Accountability's profile page re: Becker for a summary of his record), he wrote, 

For anyone to assert that this money was a "payoff" or occurred in exchange for Becker agreeing to leave the priesthood is completely false, preposterous and unjust.

As Goodstein's article reports, the document which proves that Dolan has long known of payoffs to pedophile priests in the Milwaukee archdiocese--and is therefore not speaking the truth when he makes statements like the one just cited--is in a newly revealed document, the minutes of the archdiocesan finance council for 7 March 2003.  At which Dolan was in attendance . . . . 

Goodstein writes, 

The minutes say that those at the meeting discussed a proposal to "offer $20,000 for laicization ($10,000 at the start and $10,000 at the completion the process)." Instead of salary, they would receive a $1,250 monthly pension benefit, and, until they found another job, health insurance.

And as SNAP has asked about this arrangement (rightly, in my view, though this question has earned SNAP some exceptionally disparaging commentary from a number of regulars at the centrist Catholic blog maintained by Commonweal, who are, as I noted on Saturday, hotly defending His Eminence and assisting him with his diversionary attack on SNAP), 

In what other occupation, especially one working with families and operating schools and youth programs, is an employee given a cash bonus for raping and sexually assaulting children?

As Peter Isely points out in an initial statement about the latest revelation of payoffs to abusive clerics in the Milwaukee archdiocese--with Dolan's knowledge--the archdiocese characterized these payoffs as a "signing bonus" to encourage pedophile priests to leave the priesthood quietly.  That is, they were a financial incentive to relieve the archdiocese of further financial obligations to these priests, who were then cut loose and allowed to . . . . Well, presumably what they were allowed to do after they had signed on the dotted line has not been the archdiocese's business.

There has been extensive commentary in the past several days about the latest news re: Dolan and his knowledge of (and dishonest statements about) payoffs to pedophile priests in the archdiocese he headed before going to New York and becoming president of the USCCB.  I won't rehearse all of this commentary, but will provide links to some of it, noting as I do that much of the commentary is appearing in non-Catholic publications and on non-Catholic websites--and this is part of what gets the Irish of Catholic centrists at blogs like Commonweal up: they want in every way possible to keep these discussions confined to in-house parameters.  And they're quick to depict any secular publication, the New York Times, in particular, that deals with these stories honestly as anti-Catholic and motivated by animus against the Catholic church.

Here are statements I've found well worth reading in recent days:

2. Alessandro Speciale at La Stampa's Vatican Insider, "Paedophilia Scandal: Shadows Are Cast over Cardinal Dolan's Actions"

3. Fred Clarkson at Talk to Action, "Cardinal Dolan's Payments to Pedophiles"

4. Valerie Tarico at Truth Wins Out, "Head of Catholic Bishops Paid Pedophiles to Disappear"

6. Andrew Sullivan at the Dish, "Cardinal Dolan, Brazen Liar?" and "Dolan Still Silent."

I'm particularly taken with Sullivan's unflinching willingness to identify Dolan's lying as the central topic for discussion in this sordid story.  As I wrote Saturday, a group of believers who become a people of the lie have, it seems to me, nothing of value to offer to the world as a sacramental sign of God's all-embracing salvific love in the world.  You cannot credibly proclaim your central values as a faith community--above all, the core Catholic value that God's salvific love is all-embracing and comprises all of creation--when your word means nothing at all.

You can't proclaim salvific words, or embody those salvific words in the sacramental way that Catholics claim to do through our communal life of faith, when your words are depleted of meaning, because members of your faith community no longer expect its leaders to tell the truth.  When we permit our leaders to lie, and even--and I'll admit that this boggles my mind--defend them as they lie, and assist them in attacking the messengers who bear ill news of their whopping lies, we fashion our faith community into a community of people of the lie.

This is why I remain particularly disconcerted by the continued game-playing of some of the "liberal" Catholic academic and media commentators who hold court at places like the Commonweal blog.  As I wrote Saturday, that highly placed Catholics with heads on their shoulders and academic degrees are apparently unable to see these points--that their defense of the indefensible is undermining the most crucial claims of all that we make about ourselves as a faith community--speaks volumes, it seems to me, about how little many "liberal" Catholic academic and media spokesperson in the U.S. understand what Catholicity is really all about in its core meaning.  Even as they tout themselves as the premier interpreters of Catholicity and pre-emiment definers of who is or is not authentically Catholic.

I expect the educated, academically astute and media-connected Catholics who dominate at blog sites like Commonweal to do better and know better.  To be more self-critical about their parochial knee-jerk tribal mentality.  

The suggestion of a number of contributors in the Commonweal thread to which I point readers above that a blatant lie by the head of the national Catholics bishops' conference shouldn't count or is a minor thing or is even, God help us!, justified since it might be like a lie told by someone hiding a Jew in Nazi Germany, and that anyone trying to call Cardinal Dolan to accountability for his recent lie is attacking the Catholic church: all of this is deeply corrosive to the core values of the Catholic community.  

I'm grateful to those who push against this corrosive tribalism that can find no fault in pastoral leaders who eminently deserve serious critique, including Lisa Fullam, who authored the posting to which the thread I'm discussing here responds, and who has (this is usual, when Professor Fullam posts at Commonweal) incurred some ugly digs from the centrist apologists for the hierarchy.  I'm also grateful to others with powerful voices who have logged into the thread to support Fullam and to push back against the truly shameful lie-pedding.  

For the rest, I'm highly disappointed at their inability to overcome a defensive parochial tribalism that was already antiquated in the middle of the 20th century, but which couldn't be more wildly misplaced in the first decades of the 21st century, when the moral credibility of the Catholic church is (justifiably so) in tatters in the public square, and when Catholics are leaving the church in droves due to this noxious game-playing.

And because they expect a faith community that professes itself to be a sacramental presence of God's all-embracing salvific love in the world to be something more than people of the lie.

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