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

(Image courtesy of Shutterstock.com)

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.

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.

About Elizabeth Scalia
  • Teresa S

    Very good article. People look for a “one size fits all” answer to the abuse problem, and there is none. It is a very complex issue that needs to be addressed from seminary formation to bishop education. We lay people must educate ourselves to learn to recognize signs of abuse. Having experienced abuse by a priest, I would have been most grateful if someone had suspected something was amiss and helped me see my way clear of the brainwashing and out of the longstanding abusive relationship. Our Church is big on prevention right now, as it should be, but victim support is essential. There are a LOT of us walking wounded trying to navigate life. I’ve had the benefit of a Catholic psychologist, a good spiritual director and a psychiatrist who finally found the right antidepressant for me to address the effects of PTSD. Not many have that luxury. Reach out, gently, ever so gently, for most victims are very fragile. To feel like God Himself has abused you is the ultimate betrayal.

  • http://www.dymphnaswell.blogspot.com Dymphna

    I would like to hear more about your thoughts on this issue, especially the idea of the “complex culture of a truly dysfunctional family.” What, in your opinion, can be done about this?

    What would you say to those who would take issue with your terminology here, in terms of respect for the Church, bishops, priests, etc.?

    [I'd say I'm making an argument that the church is a macro of the micro dysfunction you see in families where this pattern of abuse/cover-up exists. People can draw their own conclusions. If they take issue "with terminology" I'm not biting. I'm weary of that sort of baiting. I let my yes be yes and my no be no. It's amazing how many people think that that's some kind of scheme. -admin]

  • http://domesticvocation.wordpress.com Christine the Soccer Mom

    I have often wondered, especially in light of the Penn State scandal (where there was no clergy culture), if there is a generational attitude of reluctance about facing the problem of sexual abuse. It’s all tangled and messy, but I know about families being torn up over problems that come to light, especially when it’s discovered that those problems were known and ignored until things got worse.

    I think I’m being vague, but I see far less of it in younger generations (maybe among those of us who fell prey to someone who was being covered for in one way or another?), and I wonder if there’s something about that generation – with Cardinal Mahoney and Joe Pa and all the rest – that made them more vulnerable to the idea that saving face was more important than saving children.

  • http://www.dymphnaswell.blogspot.com Dymphna

    Interesting question, Christine. With the onslaught of the 24/7 media and social networks, the younger generation is much more used to things necessarily coming to light more easily.

  • archangel

    In Cardinal Mahoney’s case, IMO, there is a ton of arrogance. He is still a “prince” of the church and is accorded the respect that entails. That being said, we’re talking about a Cardinal who deemed it appropriate to acquire a helicopter for his use. We’re talking about a Cardinal who desired a monolithic cathedral because (and I paraphrase) the diocese deserved it. He paraded around here for decades, like a peacock and the liberal press in L.A. lapped it up… until now. Please remember, or know if you do not already… Archbishop Gomez is a member of Opus Dei. He is correcting from the heart. Nothing occurred in the Orange diocese and in L.A.’s archdiocese without Cardinal Mahoney’s knowledge. Whatever “clergy culture” there was, Cardinal Mahoney was the personification of it.

    If archbishop Gomez had any further power to discipline, I have no doubt he would. Its up to the Vatican from here on.

  • Bertha

    Anchoress, interesting that you should take this approach with the topic. My husband and I were talking just yesterday about how the clergy can fall the the “secrecy” trap in order to “protect the Church”. We have some experience with this mindset; not with sexual abuse, but with drug abuse and addiction in our family. In the beginning it was very easy to deny and cover-up and keep silent for “love of the family.” Maybe it will just go away. Maybe no one will find out how bad it is. But love for family (or Church) means confronting the demon face on. Initially it is a fearful and very difficult thing to do. In my opinion, only prayer and trust in God can turn things around. If that doesn’t happen, the family culture (or clergy culture) eventually cannot withstand the reality of the wrongness of it all. Trying to hide evil always backfires.

  • http://www.catholicpediatrics.org Kathleen Berchelmann, MD

    In his statement Bishop Gomez promises to act immediately on any “credible complaints” of child maltreatment. But why does the church get to decide what is “credible”? I am a pediatrician, and if anyone makes any child maltreatment complaint against me, no matter how ridiculous, I cannot practice until the state clears me. For physicians, teachers, etc., the state gets to decide what is credible, not their employer. Why are priests different? I love the Catholic Church, but I don’t trust their track record on child abuse to permit them to decide what is “credible.”

  • Victor

    (((Maybe no one will find out how bad it is. But love for family (or Church) means confronting the demon face on. Initially it is a fearful and very difficult thing to do. In my opinion, only prayer and trust in God can turn things around. Trying to hide evil always backfires.)))

    So true Bertha and long story short, I’m thinking that things are getting better and at this time, I also believe that what we should be doing in reality is keeping all of U>S (usual sinners) in honest check with as much sympathy that we can muster UP. Spiritually speaking, I’m sure that sinner vic would probably be asking, how are ya going to must her UP enough forgiveness for Eve without letting SIN win until “The Judgement Day” NOW?

    I could go on and on my dear learned well educated brothers and sisters in Christ but I must ask if what “i” have said so far makes any sense?

    Hey Victor, we’ve never had “IT” so good so why look for trouble?


    Ya really think so sinner vic? :)


  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    I pretty much agree with you and with Rev Martin’s commentary. My only quibble is with this statement by Martin:
    “Few knew, years ago, the seriousness of the disease borne by those who molest children.”

    I wouldn’t call child abuse a disease. Murdering someone is not a disease. Like murder, child abuse is a moral failing. By calling it a disease Martin is softening the immorality. I know it’s just language, and I’m sure he doesn’t mean it this way, but it’s an indirect way of also excusing the act.

  • frisco eddie

    You rightly compare the clerical culture in keeping ‘secrets’ to family. I would add, Penn State, Police, Military units, HS football teams etc. any bonding group. Bonding with a group is a good human function, but we should be warned in early education that some bonding ties can become toxic … same as with food. Psychopaths take affinity groups for a ride all the time… say hello to Madoff.