An Israelite Without Guile
Fr. Shawn Ratigan: Catching a Creep in the Circle of Grace
That quote from Ratigan makes up just one line in Hess's report, but it points, I think, toward an even thicker bramble bush. According to National Catholic Reporter, Finn's recent elevation as bishop of Kansas City-St. Joseph preceded an "extreme makeover" for the diocese. This included not only a grand personnel shake-up but a shift in emphasis from "social engagement and lay empowerment" to "Catholic identity and evangelization." With fault lines visible, Fr. Ratigan might have thought he'd picked a better time to complain about being ganged up on.
In fact, it has become popular in certain Catholic circles to brand the whole notion of endemic sex abuse as a Big Lie. In Crisis Magazine, Rev. Robert Orsi disparages the 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, claiming its "one-size-fits-all approach" to allegations of abuse has "left every innocent priest vulnerable to defamation and dismissal from the ministry." In support of that statement, Orsi cites "a retired FBI agent" who had worked with him, investigating abuse charges, to the effect that "about ONE-HALF of the claims made in the Clergy Cases were either entirely false or so greatly exaggerated."
The capital letters are Orsi's, and so was the decision to use an anonymous source in justifying such an extravagant claim. I can't believe he'd have made such a decision—or that his editors would have okayed it—unless the claim confirmed what many readers regard as a self-evident truth. For Julie Hess and the St. Pat's parents to say what they said, in the face of so fierce a backlash, was to toss their reputations to the wind.
In fairness to the skeptics, few longstanding critics of Church discipline have been willing to let the priestly pedophilia crisis go to waste. Women priests, married priests, changes in the theology of the priesthood—all have been proposed, either explicitly as cure-alls, or as salutary climate-changers. If nobody has fabricated the endemic quality of the abuse, no shortage of people has milked it. To make any statement about abusive priests without making a more sweeping one about theology or ecclesiology is nearly impossible. I wouldn't venture a guess how many people really want to try.
Taken together, all of these difficulties—in characterizing certain behaviors, in finding a disinterested accuser or a fair-minded judge—prove the good sense behind the diocesan child safety guidelines. In her report, Hess refers constantly to the Circle of Grace (pdf). Though this term for physical and emotional boundaries was coined for kids in the awareness training program borrowed from the diocese of Omaha, it seems to have entered the vocabulary of the St. Pat's adults. Small wonder—the idea of a magic circle of inviolability is a catchy one, recalling my mother's stories of nuns who would remind slow-dancing couples to "leave room for the Holy Ghost." It enlivens the language of the diocesan ethical code, which discourages adults from "physical contact with youth beyond a handshake."
Max Lindenman is a freelance writer, based in Phoenix. He has been published in National Catholic Reporter, Busted Halo and Salon. His Open Salon blog is here.