Abuse cover-ups about more than a “clergy culture” – UPDATED AGAIN!

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Over on Facebook, our friend James Martin, SJ noted that the National Catholic Reporter, in a long editorial, applauds Archbishop Jose Gomez for his public disciplining of Cardinal Roger Mahony:

Gomez’s words are a direct contradiction of the weak defense that Mahony has advanced for years . . “Nothing in my own background or education equipped me to deal with this grave problem,” Mahony wrote. In studying for his master’s degree in social work, he said, no lecture or textbook ever referred to the sexual abuse of children.

There is, of course, some truth to the “we didn’t know” defense. Few knew, years ago, the seriousness of the disease borne by those who molest children. Much of it remains a mystery today.

But the “we didn’t know” defense quickly wears thin against the details contained in the 12,000 pages of documents recently released by the court in Los Angeles . . .The documents put the lie to the “we didn’t know” defense.

. . .They knew enough to understand they had to hide the crimes and the behavior if they didn’t want to besmirch the good name of the clergy culture. Consideration of what was happening to the abused children and their families was incidental, at best.

What Mahony and others. . . really didn’t understand was the degree to which their moral compasses had been distorted by the strong magnetic pull of the clergy culture. In their fierce allegiance to that exclusive club at all costs, in their willingness to preserve the façade of holiness and the faithful’s high notion of ordination, they lost sight of simple human decency and the most fundamental demands of the Gospel.

You’ll want to read the whole thing. It’s very well done; I think the only point I would take issue with is the repeated suggestion that the cover-ups were motivated solely by a bloodless “clergy culture,” which to me seems like a gross oversimplification.

As I’ve written and said elsewhere, the sexual abuse scandal and coverup is rather like the sort of thing that happens in families where sexual abuse occurs, but on a macro level — and this is experience I can speak to.

Victims of sexual abuse often blame themselves and hide the “secret” because of shame, of course, but — most potently — because of scrambled confusion the abuse makes of their love: the bad parent does this but he/she is also the good parent who does that. The bad priest/church does this but is also good priest/church who does that. The abuse victim spends a lifetime straddling a chasm between the realities and experiences of the good parent/church and bad parent/church.

Sadly — although this, thankfully, has changed — in the past it was all-too-common for the bad parent’s spouse (or the priest’s pastor/bishop) to hide the truth away and keep the “secret” (thus betraying the abused, and putting others at risk) because of the very same sense of shame and confused love, but with deadly pride also added to the mix: “This is our family” the spouse (bishop) thinks, “love is stronger than death, but is it stronger than the shame of exposure?”

When that happens, human beings end up doing the absolutely wrong thing, while telling themselves, and perhaps even believing, that they’re doing the right thing “for the family.” It’s never right. It’s always wrong.

Do not misconstrue me. This is not to excuse any such behavior, either within the family or within the church. I only mean to demonstrate that sex abuse cover-ups are not the exclusive provenance of a detached, calculating “clergy culture” but something much more complex — because anything involving human beings (when their actions are motivated not only by self-interest but also by aspects of love, pride and shame) becomes extremely complicated. In the case of this editorial, I fear that assigning too-narrow a motivation for the deplorable actions of so many, can prevent us from the fullest understanding we may glean from all of this. And we badly need to understand what has happened, how and why, so that it may never, ever happen again.

I think the cover-up can no more be blamed on mere “clergy culture” than the abuses themselves can be blamed simply on those convenient bogeymen “celibacy” and “homosexual priests”. It’s just too easy to find the “one thing” to blame and then ceaselessly flog it.

The Reporter editorial says the bishops “had to hide the crimes and the behavior if they didn’t want to besmirch the good name of the clergy culture.” It’s more than that; it includes the fear that a foundation might be shaken beyond what it can endure; the fear that love might be stronger than death, but not strong enough to be victorious over a deep loss of face.

It takes the complex culture of a truly dysfunctional family to careen so far away from truth and wisdom, while riding an engine full of panicked pride and shattered, deformed and disoriented love. No wonder we crashed head-on against the gates of hell.

UPDATE:
Robert Royal with more thoughts
on the subject, confirming its complexities:

. . .we’ve underestimated the cultural influence of American optimism in the post-World-War-II era. The very success that American Catholics always wanted earlier, and that translated within the Church to large numbers of vocations of all kinds, may have led to a deep complacency – and failure to adequately police the kinds of men entering seminaries long before the disorders that followed the Council.

This cuts across our usual assumptions that wealth and peace make virtue easier – but those are American and secular assumptions, not Catholic or philosophic ones. The reported numbers from the 1950s – high as they are – are probably on the low side, too, given that many victims have probably died or are too old now to want to revisit painful experiences from half a century ago.

No one element, of course, can explain evil of this kind and scale. But it would be wrong to ignore what those earlier numbers may tell us. Complacency is a perennial temptation.

We may be seeing here a confirmation of the line from the Psalms: “Man living in wealth and not in understanding is like unto the beasts that perish.”

(H/T New Advent)

UPDATE II: Rod Dreher has a profoundly interesting take on this question, via a letter from a priest.

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About Elizabeth Scalia