Thursday, March 03, 2016

Clerical Child Sex Abuse: The Realities of the Past Don't Exonerate the Church

This is an excellent blogpost by Austen Ivereigh reflecting on Cardinal Pell's testimony on child sexual abuse.

Cardinal Pell's declarations that he had heard rumours of priestly sexual activity with children, but didn't take those rumours seriously, were met with gasps and accu sations that he was callously indifferent.

Although he was not party to those decisions, Pell confessed, with admiral candour, that he was not inclined at that time to pay attention to rumours of priests molesting children. “If a priest denied such activity, I was strongly inclined to accept that denial,” Pell said.

What we forget when we look back to ages past, is that it was a completely different world when it came to the issue of child sexual abuse. 

Yet Pell has honestly named the point which consistently gets ignored in the coverage of child sex abuse, especially in relation to the Church — namely, the vast gulf of moral awareness and empathy that separates our time from the 1970s-80s.
Back then, people didn’t much know or care about child abuse. There was a generalised social silence. Victims hardly ever complained. It wasn’t seen as a police matter, and if the police were informed they tended to pass the matter onto the bishop to deal with.
To the extent it was a problem — as it was, clearly, for bishops at the time who had to decide what to do with their priests — the focus was always on the perpetrator, not the victims. It was seen as a sickness that needed treatment and time away on leave, like alcoholism, followed by rehabilitation in the form of another parish assignment. When Cardinal Pell recalls the discussion about Ridsdale being conducted in vague, euphemistic language, he exactly captures the time. The words “paedophilia” or “child sexual abuse” barely existed in common parlance.

Everything I highlighted confirms my memory of what child abuse was when I was a kid in the early eighties. There were vague mentions. I lived near a major mental hospital in Quebec City, and there was a mentally ill man who used to roam the streets of my neighbourhood and he was rumoured to be sexually interested in children. It was suggested so vaguely that I can't even remember the euphemisms that were used to communicate this information. I have no idea whether it was true. But there was never any notion, in my mind, that this sexual activity would be criminal. Creepy, to be avoided, but nothing anyone would go to jail for. I would have been about nine years old at the time.

These accusations struck me as vague and defamatory. The kind of thing you peg on people who just looked mentally ill or for whom you wanted to get back at. I had heard of the notion that priests were diddlers well before the child sex abuse scandal of the 1990s. But it struck me as baseless defamation, on par with the idea that the Vatican really wanted to take over the world or priests lived in luxury while the people lived in squalor. It struck me as a piece of baseless propaganda. You have to understand that nobody ever produced irrefutable evidence of that claim, and I was more inclined to believe priests, whom I'd known since my earliest years, than the Church haters (because it was usually haters) who  made the claim. And if someone had made the claim to me, I would have chalked it up to mental illness (again, I lived near a mental hospital where lots of mentally ill people roamed the streets and said all kinds of weird things.)

It was only around the mid 1980s that the subject of child sex abuse came to the fore of the public's consciousness through a series of investigative journalism and talk shows, especially the Oprah Winfrey show. And even then, people were slow to react. I think that many people deplored the behaviour, and wanted it to end, and there was a kind of morbid curiosity to the whole thing. People wanted to learn more about it so they could go "ugh." And maybe make themselves feel morally superior because they rejected it, either in their minds or aloud. But I think, in real life, the subject was so disgusting, that if they came in contact with it, they didn't want to deal with it. I think it's the same attitude that we have today towards child p*rn*graphy:  it grosses us out, but very few of us would want to be the investigators who actually had to look at the evidence and track down the scum who make it. (Because it does psychologically damage people.) Nobody really wanted to touch the problem because of the strong ick factor. Also, straining relations with the perpetrator, dealing with police and law courts, dealing with parents, dealing with the victim, it's a lot of strain. Who wants that in their lives? A lot of people don't want the bother.

And even when the claims of abuse were accepted and dealt with, the perpetrator was treated as someone with a mental illness who could be rehabilitated. I remember this very well.  Psychologists at the time worked with the theory that pedophiles could be sent into treatment and then out in the community. When I consider how often people who seek treatment for other issues relapse once they are out in the community, we should have known this was a bad idea. But we trusted what the experts said. Sometimes bishops who shifted pedophiles around after treatment acted in good faith (though stupidly) on this matter. Because they were only doing what secular experts had told them.

Another aspect to the coverage that I haven't seen is what effect the camaraderie of the priesthood had on the willingness to believe claims of sexual abuse and the desire to deal with them. One of the moves that I think was brilliant on the part of Cardinal Pell while he was bishop of Melbourne was to create a lay committee, led by a lawyer, to examine claims. Because I strongly suspect that the fact that priests all attend the same seminaries and run in the same circles tends to prejudice any investigation because it's human nature to believe people you know more than people you don't know, especially when you can impute negative motives for the accusations (i.e. "he's only trying to get money out of the Church!"). The secular world tends to think of a bishop and a priest as an employer-employee relationship. That's the wrong way to look at it. A bishop is a father to his priests. And like in other families, they tend not to want to deal with "family" matters as judicial matters. I'm not saying it's right, I'm saying it's human nature. A lay committee cuts through that issue, and tries to get to the bottom of the issue, instead of wanting to protect people that you've known and care for for decades.

But one issue that I think is missing is from the Catholic coverage of the issue (so far as I'm concerned) is the idea that while this is all true we should have known better. Now the popes and bishops said as much. But I don't think they've elaborated enough on this point.

Some of the reason why this was allowed to continue, in spite of all the information is that I think the Western clergy has lost the sense of sin. How is it that priests could behave this badly? You don't need a psychology degree to understand that sexual activity with children is horribly wrong. It took many decades for priests to be disciplined. Were any of them sanctioned or even excommunicated by their bishops? To my knowlede, it was not until the pontificate of John Paul II when we began to uncover the situation that priests started to pay. Some priests were suspended. Some were defrocked by Pope Benedict. But how long did this all take? 

When women dissidents try to get themselves ordained, it doesn't take a freakin' canonical trial before they're excommunicated. 

Child abuse should be punished with the spiritual version of the death penalty. We lay excommunication on people who collaborate in an abortion. Why isn't child abuse treated the same way?

When bishops don't make public gestures to stress the seriousness of child sexual abuse, and leave it to canonical --re: bureaucratic-- formalities, the claim  to want to defend children and rid the church of abuse comes off as rather hollow. We don't burn people at the stake any more, but the public wants the metaphorical equivalent to it when it comes to sexual abuse. The bishop has to be the father to his diocese, and when he doesn't act decisively, when he acts like it's all just a matter of institutional acts, as opposed to personal acts, the people don't feel cared for and shepherded, they feel abandoned. 

I'm all for mercy, but mercy is empty when there's no sense of horror, no thirst for justice. We're busy avoiding judgement, and to a large degree that refusal to judge is self-interested, so that we can deflect the rightful judgement of others. ("You can't judge me!") I get that in ages past, we were so ignorant of child sex abuse that we didn't believe it and so it went unpunished. But when the bishops knew, they should have swiftly punished the guilty. In ages past, clerics were deposed for all manner of misbehaviour. Why can't we bring that back? 

I'll give you an example from my own parish. A priest who had pled guilty in 1996 in British Columbia to having sex with a thirteen-year-old was able to somehow re-integrate into the priesthood and managed to exercise a ministry without anyone saying anything. If his superiors had had a strong sense of the horror of sin, he should have been immediately suspended and excommunicated. One strike and you're out. There should be no doubt about the trustworthiness of any priest. This would have never been able to make his way east under the diocesan radar. People in his order must have known. But nobody said anything. He wasn't under any penalty as far as I know. How is this possible?

We care more about "mercy" than justice. We have lost the sense of sin. The institutional Church just "mercied" him, treating his escapade with a thirteen-year-old as an "erreur de jeunesse", as if a twenty-something priest wouldn't have known any better, or it's just so lame to treat such a grievous act proportionally to its moral depravity.

The Church is supposed to be a divinely appointed moral guardian. When your instinct is so off that you can't even swiftly punish an egregious and grave violation of Catholic moral doctrine, how do you expect to be taken seriously as a defender of divine truths?

So yes, there were mitigating factors in the way the institutional church handled priestly sex abuse, but at the very bottom of it all, in spite of all these good points, we should have known better based on a sense of sin. The outrage we show to economic exploiters and environmental polluters we should have showered on the abusers and then some. The Church haters use these tragedies to advance their hatred of the church and the rejection of Christianity and yes, unfairly distort the facts, unfairly make fallacious judgements, but the truth is, we handed them to rope to hang ourselves. We have nobody but to blame but ourselves for this situation.

And I hope that when people reflect on priestly sexual abuse, they don't just make it a matter of canonical processes, legal mechanisms and background checks. Ultimately it was a spiritual failure. That's the point that I want to drive home. That it's not ultimately about who knew what or what society was like or what experts said. The clergy failed to internalize basic notions of holiness, like the horror at grievous moral sin on the part of their brethren. The clergy should be the moral elite of the Church, but they were far from it. I hope that the priestly abuse case can  shed some light on the need for the clergy not just to adopt the right "ideology" in terms of orthodoxy or dissidence, but to commit themselves to the Church's spiritual tradition. Let's face it, the clergy of the 1970s and 1980s were not, for the most part, shining examples of traditional Catholic spirituality. They were more inclined to be into liberation theology and "interior healing" than the quest for heaven, saving souls, mortification and union with God.  If we really want to stamp out child sex abuse, we need to ordain only those men who have internalize those standards. It's like marriage, when you marry your spouse, you can't expect someone will become better after marriage because they often don't. It's the same with ordination: if the seminarian hasn't adopted traditional Catholic spirituality now, there's no guarantee he will in the future, and ordination can't be undone (at least the sacrament can't.) We really need to go back to the basics in terms of priestly formation before we worry about whether a priest is "pastorally sensitive" or environmentally conscious.