Inappropriate is Inappropriate

Today’s headline in the Daily Telegraph informs us that Keith Cardinal O’Brien of Scotland has resigned because of allegations by four men of “inappropriate behavior” from as far back as 1980. The problem with these allegations is that they are so vague, and yet this new term of universal damnation: “inappropriate behavior” seems to stick.

“Inappropriate behavior”?? What on earth does it mean? Who defines what “inappropriate behavior” is?┬áThe vagueness of the term combined with it’s seeming harmlessness is particularly nasty. It’s like being choked to death on perfume fumes. On purpose. It’s like one of those smiles nice ladies dish out when they’ve got their knives out.

If I hear this in the confessional I correct it. Let’s say a penitent says, “I did something inappropriate with my girlfriend.” I stop them. “Hang on there. I’m afraid you need to be more specific, “Inappropriate behavior for one person might mean rape, murder and pillage, while ‘inappropriate behavior’ for another might mean ‘we held hands in a movie’.”

Vague accusations are poisonous–especially if they were from a long time ago and there is no evidence to support them. People now make accusations against others–using highly loaded, but vague language, and when you stop and try to clarify what they mean they get rather indignant.

Here are a few others from my recent experience:

Work colleague complaining about a boss: “He yelled at me!”

“What you mean he cursed and swore and shouted and maybe threw stuff?”

“Well, no, he didn’t throw stuff.”

“Did he curse and swear and call you names. Really lose his temper?”

“Well not exactly.”

“Did he raise his voice.”

“He told me off.”

“For what?”

“Being late.”

“Were you late?”

“Yes, but I had a good reason.”

“So what you mean is that your boss spoke to you firmly about you not being on time.”

“I guess so.”

Here’s another one:

High school ┬ástudent: “My parents are abusive towards me.”

“That’s terrible. You mean they hit you, burn you with cigarettes, lock you in the closet–or does your Dad rape you or your mother torture you in the basement?”

“Well, no.”

“So they just hit you sometimes?”

“No they never hit me!”

“Do they scream and yell and curse?

“They get mad at me when I’m out late or don’t clean my room.”

“So sometimes your Mom and Dad lose their cool and yell at you to clean up your room?”

“Uh huh.”

Here’s a third:

“I don’t feel safe living with my husband! I need to see a lawyer.”

“But Dave seems like a really gentle person. Do you mean he threatens you with knives and comes home drunk and kicks you down the stairs and threatens to strangle you?”

“It’s the way he looks at me…”

“I see.”

Try another one:

Middle aged affluent housewife: “It’s very sad. I’ve learned that my husband is having an affair.”

“I’m so sorry. You mean he’s been sleeping with another woman?”

“It’s an emotional affair.”

“What exactly does that mean?”

“He’s been corresponding with an old high school sweetheart on Facebook.”

“So you’ve been spying on your husband’s Facebook, and from what I’ve heard you’ve been telling everyone that he’s had an affair, and now his reputation has been destroyed. Who’s at fault here?”

“He is!! He’s been having an affair!”

You see what I mean–with today’s social media level of gossip, and with vague accusations a person’s life can be destroyed in an instant. If the accused protests his or her innocence they are assumed guilty. If they resign and ride off into the sunset they are assumed guilty. This is like the old trial by ordeal. Throw them in the river. If they float they’re guilty of witchcraft and will be executed. If they sink they’re innocent.

It would be nice to think that nobody out there is nasty enough to plan to destroy another person’s career and reputation–getting the person fired and making him an outcast, but in my experience exactly those kind of people are out there, and everybody these days had better watch their back.

To end on a somewhat lighter note, in discussing this with Mrs Longenecker this morning she observed, “Geesh! Who isn’t guilty of “inappropriate behavior” of some kind from thirty years ago?


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  • Paul Rodden

    I think you ought to invite Mrs L to be a guest blogger. Or maybe not, for your sake… :)
    Seriously. Whether true or not, it’s interesting timing, all four conveniently coming to light just now too, eh?

  • Kevin

    Today’s readings provide a striking contrast with the selective outrage of the media. They are unrelenting when someone they don’t like is suspected or accused but can usually find a way to ignore a story that is inconvenient to the secularist or leftist agenda. I’m reminded of words from the song Make or Break It, written in the early 80s by Kerry Livgren & AD:

    And many good men have fallen
    With no defense from the fatal word
    Is this a part of the American dream?

    The details of these accusations might reveal a Cardinal who is another Jeffrey Dahmer, or another Mister Rogers, or something in between. But I find it hard not to see the timing of this story as an attempt to affect the selection of the next pope. But if it inspires a heightened degree of vetting perhaps some good might come of it.

  • Fr Levi

    there’s something odd about this story in any case: four men have come forward at the same time … acting through the same lawyer as far as I can make out … the usual scenario is that one person speaks out first & then other jump on board … makes me wonder how this one got started … & is the timing significant?

  • Michael

    Let the legal process work it’s way through. And I would have thought the assumption of doubting the accuser is a bit tacky. It’s not as if this type of accusation has proven totally without merit. In Canada they are an all too frequent an occurrence ( ).

  • Peter Brown

    Yes. The allegation is so vague that Cdl. O’Brien could be guilty of anything or nothing.

    One wonders if the alleging priests’ lawyers (with such a high-profile allegation, there almost *have* to have been lawyers) had anything to do with the vagueness, no doubt mindful of the possibility of a suit against them for libel and/or slander. Still, the vagueness does no real service to anyone. If anything, it’s a substantial obstacle to the *real* prize here, which would be reconciliation–it’s tough to reconcile with someone if you’re fuzzy about what it is that you’re reconciling about.

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  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    The post is about dealing in hard facts. Did the cardinal do anything illegal? If so, let him be prosecuted by the police. If not, what legal process is there to work through?

  • Michael

    Sex between consenting adults is legal, but in employer/employee relationships it can become an issue if there was pressure placed on the employee. But it’s best not to cast dispersions on alleged victim in cases like this.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    Nobody was blaming anybody. The post simply called for the case to be tried on facts, not vague allegations.

  • Larry White

    Cdl. O’Brien is presented by the media as head of the Catholic Church in the UK. His resignation will probably be seen by most, certainly most non-Catholics, as an admission of guilt. It seems to me we must at least await a further statement by Cdl. O’Brien clarifying the charges and his innocence or guilt before we jump to conclusions. God willing.

  • Jennifer Fitz

    My assumption based on reading the reports was that the Cardinal had made a pass at each of the men at some point or another. (Which presumably had been rebuffed?) It’s the only thing I can think of that fits the descriptions and the context.

    I want to say I read that the complaints were filed prior to the pope’s announcement of his resignation? Which would suggest the timing was a coincidence.

    That the four would compile a complaint as a group does not surprise me at all. If the Cardinal had molested a minor or were guilty of all-out criminal action (sodomy, etc.), a single adult (or parent) might come forward with a criminal complaint. But when something of a less clear-cut nature occurs — particularly when the overture is rebuffed at the outset — it is very difficult for the victim to know how to respond. It would make sense that only after the men had managed by some coincidence to compare notes, and think carefully about whether they wished to take action, that they would want to come forward. They may chosen to wait until the Cardinal’s impending retirement specifically because three of the four men wanted to minimize the impact on their vocation.

    That’s my reading between the lines, could be entirely wrong. I agree with you Father L., that more details would be more useful. On other hand, if my take is a successful guess, the vocabulary used really does sum it up. Not criminal, exactly, setting aside any workplace sexual-harassment laws that might apply, but highly inappropriate.

  • Jessica Hoff

    The Cardinal had resigned because he does not want everyone calling for his resignation. Whatever happened to the presumption of innocence until guilt is proven? Or does that not apply to Catholic priests?

  • midwestlady

    Inappropriate can also mean the real thing too, and it’s unfair not to make that clear. Otherwise, you wouldn’t ask the questions that you do. Some people actually do monstrous things to each other, and I’m sure you realize that.

  • Michael

    He wasn’t legally forced to resign. That as his decision Maybe he resigned because the allegations were true or were false and he resigned “for the good of the Church”.

  • Old man

    Father, who are you complaining about? If the Cardinal is guilty of something bad, he should resign. If he is not guilty, he should say so and fight the charges. Should he provide more details? Perhaps. Should the Daily Telegraph not print the story? Should they only print the story if they have more details? Did they make this up?

  • Mark UK

    The Cardinal resigned weeks ago because he is 75, he was to take part in the conclave and then retire in a Month or so.
    The timing of these revalations is too specific to be other than deliberate and vicious.
    Having said that it was the Pope who sacked him early.
    Dear God who will stand up and protect the honour of Holy Mother Church, The Bride of Christ is suffering domestic abuse from those closest to her, Out of the depth Lord, Out of the depths.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    If you read the post I’m complaining about a general issue–not just the problem with the cardinal.

  • Survivor

    While I find the timing of the allegations highly questionable, I am aghast that misconduct would be minimized by the readers of this blog.

    During my years in religious life, I suffered sexual advances from one superior and several community members. Living in an environment where I never felt physically safe, and where my personal boundaries were constantly threatened, destroyed my vocation. The scars of my experience, which manifest themselves as post-traumatic stress, mark my life to this day.

    If you were a parent and knew that your son’s religious superior/seminary rector/bishop behaved in the manner described – even if it were thirty years ago – would you be so quick to dismiss them?

    Perhaps this is simply one more way for the filth to finally be expunged.

  • Fr. Dwight Longenecker

    I’m not quick to dismiss anything, simply making the general point that “allegations” or “inappropriate behavior” is not necessarily serious or criminal. My post is no comment on the allegations themselves, but on the vague and general terms which are used in many different ways which end up being untrue, cruel and which can destroy a person’s life for no reason. I am also aware that these accusations have sometimes been totally fabricated and motivated for all sorts of evil reasons. Justice demands redress for victims–both those who have been abused, and those who have been wrongly accused–and there are both.

  • Oregon Catholic

    I tend to believe that an innocent cardinal wouldn’t resign so quickly and the pope wouldn’t accept his resignation if the allegations weren’t true. Regardless of whether he was retirement age or not, a blot on his reputation and on the Church would not be, and should not be, so lightly accepted.
    Coming as it does, right on the heels of his initial denial, one has to wonder if he was given further info about what the men were prepared to reveal or what evidence they might have, and that changed his mind.

  • Mary

    At least he had the good grace to say he didn’t want to go to concave because he didn’t want to take the focus off the pope and give the media scandle to focus on. Now if those other two would see that clearly as well…The Cardinal from Boston has said he will twitter while there, or so I read… he will get a surprise because, if it is like the last conclave, they have jamming devices, under the floor, which they raised for the purpose of installing the jammers. :-) guess they dont trust, with modern electronics, that the conclave would remain secret without electronic jamming. I really wonder if that was simply an unfounded rumor, prehaps a joke gone wrong, about him twittering while there. Bet he never said it.

  • Jason

    This is a very sad story. Even if the Cardinal is innocent, the fact that the accusations were made by priests sheds a very bad light on the clergy in general. Once I read that if priests do not manage to destroy the Church, then nobody will.

  • jean

    I’m impresed by your technical prowess, how’d you get that smiley in there?

  • jean

    I think Fr.L is highlighting how words can be used as tools of manipulation, or themselves be used inappropriately; therby inviting vague and inappropriate conclusions.
    Its good that the church is going through a purging or purification – that is always a painful process. It does concern me though that anyone thinking of vocation to the priesthood may be very tempted to have second thoughts because of the pressures..perhaps?

  • Struggling

    Drip, Drip, Drip.. yes the media is unfair, yes the timing is suspect and these are very tough times to be Catholic in the UK. Today I am struggling and very low. When I go to the USA, or Rome as I did recently, I can allow my shoulders to drop and relax for a week or so , then back to the ridicule in the workplace, children finding it very difficult at school and now University. We are being hunted by a rabid, secular media. Every night the potential for yet another awful program on the Church. Every morning the news may lead with another abuse story and confidence in any Catholic appearing successfully in the media is undermined ( although signs the Catholic Voices initiative is working) . The country seems to be devouring itself in sex scandal

    Cardinal O’Brien is a target because he vocally opposed SSM, if the alleged inappropriateness occurred he needs to brave enough to say so and explain how it shaped his views and why he not a hypocrite 30 years later, if untrue he must take on the three serving priests and the seminarian – I fear he will disappear and leave it up to us to take the flack.

    I pray for our new Pope and my God we need real leadership, at all levels of the church, yes including this weakened scribe, please pray for me and all Catholics in the UK. Father thank you for your blog and newsletter. I pray tomorrow I may be stronger.

  • Mary

    Hi Jean. In answer to your question, you just need to put it in with the correct symbols. : – ) (I added spaces so you could see what I put in. ) ;-)

  • Charles e. Mac Kay

    The timing is appropriate. Last week the Cardinal spoke about married priests. His view gave us the impression that his thoughts were opposite to the teachings of the church. Many were hostile to his approach. Maybe it was the catalyst

  • michael

    I wish I could do that. :-(

  • Eric D Red

    You make this sound like the problem is the priests shedding light is the problem “even if he is innocent”. Especially when you talk about the priests destroying the Church. If the accusations are true, then the problem is the Cardinal’s actions, and the priests have done right to bring the accusations to light.

    Now, if the accusations are false, then yes, the priests have clearly done wrong.

  • Michael

    I guess you can lose the quotes around inappropriate. ( ) Although this FB post might be the best response ( )

  • u3

    Satan is the one and only trying to destroy the Church…not the priests! No priest, no Eucharist. No Satan, then that means we’re in heaven.