When It Comes to the Clergy Abuse Scandals, the Laity Are Not Going to Save Us

When It Comes to the Clergy Abuse Scandals, the Laity Are Not Going to Save Us December 8, 2018

In recent months, as revelations about the depth and breadth of the clerical sex abuse and institutional cover-ups continue to unfold, we Catholics return ever and again to the same question: what can be done about it? What changes are needed in the church, in order to prevent this atrocity ever from happening again, at least on so vast a scale?

For some, only a complete stripping down, overhaul, and reformation will suffice. Others have gone even further, to the point at which they no longer view the church, once their home, as authentic or valid. This is understandable, of course – but even many of us who understand and sympathize feel we must remain and work for change. But what change? What will make a difference. Clearly, greater transparency is needed. It seems obvious that the concentration of power in the hands of a few men – and only men – creates a breeding ground for abuse, on many levels. The church’s failures to deal directly with complex issues about sexuality need to be remedied. And yes, the laity need to be involved – much more involved.

However, simply dissipating the power of the clergy and distributing it among lay-persons is no automatic fix. This is evident in the extent to which lay women and men are themselves complicit in covering up sex abuse, both within the church, in its vicinities, and without.

Take, for instance, the many men who knew about Weinstein’s assaults on women, and kept their mouth shut. Consider the men – including Donald Trump, and Bill Clinton – who turned a blind eye to Jeffrey Epstein’s criminal exploits with underage girls – or even worked to cover them up, leaving his many young victims abandoned without justice.

Or consider the case of the superstar feminist professor Avital Ronell, accused of repeatedly assaulting a student. Did her fellow feminists call her out? Did #MeToo mean being consistent, even when it was a “friend in the field”? Regretfully, it did not. Even Judith Butler, who should have known better, came to the rescue of Ronell..

Now I get that it’s hard to stomach, when the accused is someone you respect of care for. And also, I get that “believe the victim” doesn’t mean “believe the victim without reservations.” It means, listen and take seriously what they say. It means, pay attention and give due process – don’t shut investigations down, and absolutely do not shut victims up.

But people who one minute are up in arms about sexual assault too often click the outrage switch to “off”, as soon as accusations are directed against any person or institution they esteem.

I was recently in a conversation with a number of conservatives who were expressing their horror about Pope Francis’s failings to clean up the mess in the church he inherited (my phrasing: these people didn’t want to admit that the mess predated Francis’ election). At some point in the conversation I made the same point that is indicated in the title of this piece: the laity alone are not going to save us. One woman asked what I meant by this, and I gave the example of Ronell, above – as well as the example of the assault cover-ups at Christendom and Franciscan University.

It was as though someone had rung a Pavlovian bell. The moment I mentioned the names of institutions dear to her, all of her concerns about reform, believing victims, and cleaning up the church vanished. She accused the victims and reporters of lying, and me of being biased (in spite of the fact that I had implicated a fellow feminist academic and her coevals in my charges).

Another instance: recently word came out about the crimes of a priest in our diocese, someone I’d known from teen years. I had no particular reason to think well of this man, nor to think poorly of him – but when I found out he’d confessed to statutory rape of an altar girl, I was sad for his family. Not surprised – just sad. In conversations with several others who knew the man, however, I found that the same people who had hitherto been all “chase the bastards out” were now muttering about “entrapment.” They didn’t want to see him punished.

Similarly, a recent article in Crisis  attacks #MeToo on the basis of the assumption that “believe women” means “believe without reservation.” But does the author argue for a cool suspension of judgment? Not at all.  When it comes to accusations against fraternity alumnus Brett Kavanaugh, or colleges such as Christendom, suspending judgment appears not to be on the books: the author goes so far as to mock and belittle the assault survivors who have been working to bring transparency to Christendom.

If only there had been some way to tie the assault cover-ups at Christendom to Pope Francis…

People are perhaps less rational and prudent than we like to think they are. That’s why populist dictatorships arise, and why movements of religious extremist take off. It’s also why abusers get away with it, in nearly every milieu, although circles where blind obedience and authoritarianism prevail are more susceptible.

Clericalism is a problem, yes, but emotive loyalty to one’s “side” isn’t just a clergy thing; it’s a human thing. I’m amazed by how often people think “I know X, and he’s a good friend of mine” is somehow an argument that X is innocent. Have we learned nothing from recent history? Or from history, at all, ever?

We need to deal with the problem of clericalism in the church for its own sake, and because it is part of the recipe for cleaning up – but simply letting the laity take greater part will be no cure at all unless we can be sure that those involved have a record of standing with the survivors, rather than covering up for the powerful.

image credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hear_speak_see_no_evil_Toshogu.jpg

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