THIRTY YEARS: WHAT WE’VE LEARNED AND WHAT I’VE LEARNED
Thomas Doyle, J.C.D., C.A.D.C. - DOCTOR OF CANON LAW
July 27, 2013
This year marks the end of the third decade of the contemporary chapter in the Catholic Church’s age-old reality of sexual violation of clerics. In 1983 Jeff Anderson filed the historic case in Minnesota that would launch him on his life-long vocation of bringing not only civil but human rights to the Church’s countless victims. That summer, the bizarre saga of Gilbert Gauthe was exposed to the light in Lafayette, Louisiana.
This nightmare did not begin in Boston in January 2002, as many erroneously believe. It did not begin in 1983 either. It has been a toxic virus in the Body of Christ since the very beginning. The Didache, a handbook for the earliest followers of Christ, written before the end of the first century, explicitly condemns men who sexually abuse boys. There were no “clerics” as such then so the “men” included the leaders or elders of the infant Church.
The Louisiana spectacle generally gets the credit for being the beginning of public awareness of the so-called “crisis.” I daresay though that had Jason Berry lived in Minneapolis and not New Orleans, things might have been different. Either way you look at it, Jeff in Minnesota and Ray Mouton in Louisiana opened a new era for the Catholic Church and in doing so, changed the course of its history.
When I first became involved with the Gauthe case in 1984 I still believed in the Church. I thought the institutional structure I was part of, and the People of God described by the Second Vatican Council, were one and the same. In spite of already having served three years on the inside at the Vatican Embassy I still had some confidence in bishops and shared the hope with my colleagues at the time, Mike Peterson and Ray Mouton, that once the bishops became aware of how terrible sexual abuse of a child could be and the potential for scandal of epic proportions, they would quickly step up to the plate and do the right thing, especially by the victims.
I was dead wrong. Any lingering hopes I may have had were demolished by my experiences in the years that followed. I had no idea back then of the extent of the problem but more important, and worse, I had no idea just how duplicitous and destructive the bishops could be.
Back in 1985 the transformation of the Catholic Church back to a medieval monarchy was underway but not yet in high gear. There were still some good men holding down the office of bishop, most of them remnants from the Vatican II era of hope. John Paul II, soon to be canonized, set about changing the Church by appointing men as bishops who had replaced pastoral compassion with unthinking obsession with orthodoxy that was for most, a thin cover for soaring ambition and lust for power. The unified game-plan for confronting the “nuisance of pedophilia” as one bishop (A.J. Quinn, Cleveland) referred to it, was not so obvious in the first years of this era, but it certainly is now.
The Church’s response is actually the response of the governing elite, the hierarchy, not the community of the faithful. It has been and continues to be shaped by a small number of celibate males, most of them bishops and above, none of whom have ever had any experience of parenthood and all who live in a monarchy significantly isolated from the real world.
I don’t think any of us who were around thirty years ago had any idea where this odyssey would take us. Above all, we had no idea that the stubbornness, shock, conviction, anger, compassion, desolation, fatigue, disappointment and courage that we have all felt at one time or another, would propel the disparate and sometimes unlikely allies in this hellish drama to bring about profound changes in the Catholic Church and in our society.
We have discovered things that have shocked and stunned us that thirty years ago were well outside most people’s imagination.
1. We have learned that it’s not “over” simply because the bishops say it is, and it won’t be over as long as the culture and institution that enabled the systemic sexual violation remains as it is.
2. We have learned that the presenting issue is the sexual violation of children, adolescents and vulnerable adults by clerics of all ranks, from deacons to Cardinals, but that the most outrageous aspect of the scandal has been and continues to be the toxic response by the hierarchy.
3. We have learned that both the Church and secular society had to be forced to look at child sexual abuse straight on and reluctantly accept the reality that it is a profound and lasting violation of a person’s body, mind and soul and to accept the harsh truth that violated children and adults have regularly been ignored.
4. We have learned that the toxic and even vicious response of the hierarchy and clergy is deeply embedded in the clerical culture.
5. We have learned that the root cause of the scandal has been the cover up by the hierarchy and not forces extrinsic to the institutional church such as an anti-Catholic media, a sexualized culture or a materialistic society.
6. We have learned that there is a monstrous chasm between the authentic Christian response expected of the institutional Church and the actual experience of victims and their families.
7. We have learned that the exposure of widespread sexual abuse by clerics has brought irreversible changes to the relationship between the Church and secular society.
8. We have learned that John Paul II cared little or nothing for the victims of his priests and bishops but was instead concerned with protecting bishops, preserving the image of the priesthood and finding a focus for blame anywhere but in the institutional Church.
9. We have learned that the clerical elite that runs the institutional Church is abysmally ignorant of the complex nature of human sexuality and therefore of the devastating effects of sexual violation on all levels of personhood.
10. We have learned that the exposure of widespread sexual abuse at all levels of the institutional Church has triggered the exposure of corruption in other areas such as finance and a demand for accountability.
11. We have learned that today’s bishops have a severely limited and deficient understanding of pastoral care.
12. We have learned that the last two popes and the hierarchy have a seriously twisted notion of right and wrong whereby they protect or excuse clerics who violate children but persecute and punish sincere, faith-filled men and women who seek new and more effective ways to bring the Christian message to people in our twenty-first century culture.
13. We have learned that victims who present themselves to Church authorities in a docile, deferential and non-demanding manner……who play nice…… will be tolerated but those who stand on an even level with the bishops and demand true justice will be treated as the enemy.
14. We have learned that the Church’s leaders from the papacy on down have grossly underestimated the impact their action and inaction would have and the mortal blow this would deal their credibility.
15. We have learned that some of the most morally compromised people in our society are lawyers who represent Church entities in sex abuse litigation.
16. We have learned that the clerical subculture than runs the institutional Church is fed by a highly malignant, narcissistic spirituality that requires a docile, controlled and compliant laity to survive.
17. We have learned that the passive-dependent relationship of the laity to the clergy, centered on sacramental rituals, has in general prevented little more than a passive, muted response from far too many “devoted” Catholics.
18. We have learned that the strident defense of the institutional Church is grounded in either an ignorance of the authentic meaning of “Church” as the People of God or worse yet, an arrogant rejection of it.
19. We have learned that blind orthodoxy has replaced courageous charity as the main focus of the papacy and hierarchy in our era. Those who profess their staunch but limited orthodoxy and total loyalty to the pope and magisterium are concerned for their emotional security at the expense of charity towards victims.
20. We have learned that the Church has in fact, responded to the victims with charity and support in their demand for justice, but it is not the hierarchy but rather the fundamental Church, the People of God.
The sex abuse phenomenon has affected peoples’ lives in a variety of ways. It has had a profound impact on my own life on several levels. Most of the impact has been from what I have learned about the institution and its leaders and from my experiences trying to help and support survivors.
1. I have learned that the sage advice I was given in 1972 by a distinguished priest who had been a peritus at Vatican II, who said “with bishops yes and no are interchangeable terms,” is true.
2. I have learned that it is dangerous and naïve to place complete, unquestioning trust in the words and actions of the hierarchy.
3. I have learned that the Vatican bureaucracy and the hierarchy are, for the most part, driven by fear.
4. I have learned that the ontological change that supposedly happens at ordination to the priesthood is a myth that is sustained only to try to support and enhance clerical power.
5. I have learned that constant, obsessive and unchecked anger towards the institutional church, the bishops and the papacy is not only debilitating but also self-destructive.
6. I have learned that as long as I allowed my anger to dominate my emotions, the toxic and dark side of the Church still controlled me.
7. I have learned that I needed to challenge and question every aspect of the institutional Church that I took for granted or believed without reservation, and that to gain a healthy spirituality I needed the freedom to embrace a higher power of my understanding and to reject that which was grounded in fear or made no sense to me.
8. I have learned that the institutional Church, its bishops, priests and unquestioning followers are not the enemy. The enemy is a destructive, heretical and anti-Christian virus called clericalism.
9. I have learned that bottomless pits of money unjustly expropriated from the faithful, legions of lawyers, volumes of empty excuses and seemingly endless public relations verbiage are, in the end, no match for truth.
AN EPIC SHIFT
The contemporary history of sexual violation by Catholic clergy has not had a straight-line trajectory from 1983 to the present. It has been a zig-zag pattern influenced by various factors including the quality of the victims’ interactions with Church officials, the evolution of the response of the secular legal system, developments in the understanding of the range of effects of sexual violation and on the reasons why people abuse. These factors also include the quality of coverage by the secular media and the general recognition of the validity of the victims’ stories.
A crucial factor has been the fact that much of the evolution has been carried out in the arena of the civil law. In the beginning victims and their families approached Church officials for assistance and for support. They were almost universally disappointed and in their frustration they turned to the civil courts for validation and accountability. The basic demand made by victims and their families was recognition and belief and that the cleric-perpetrator be dealt with by the Church so that he could never harm another child. In the civil courts the Church was confronted with a power greater than itself.
Prior to 1983 the secular press gave no priority to the few cases of sexual molestation by priests that became known. For example, the story of the trial and conviction of a priest for rape in a southwestern diocese was limited to a short paragraph, buried in the back pages of the local newspaper. That all changed with the revelations of abuse and systemic cover-up in Lafayette LA in 1983. Since then the media has slowly but surely shaken its deference to the institutional Church and has reported cases with increasing detail and with editorial support of the victims.
Once it became clear to the hierarchy in the U.S. that they could no longer avoid publicity and control the victims, the relationship with victims and their supporters became adversarial. In the early years of this era if the victims acquiesced to the bishops and remained silent and graciously accepted whatever small monetary settlements were offered as well as the assurances that “father will be taken care of” the relationship remained uneven with the victims clearly in a subordinate and controlled position.
That quickly changed when victims realized, after presuming complete sincerity, that they were being lied to by the very men they were taught to believe would be the source of help. Once the victims challenged the bishops and religious superiors both in private and openly, things began to change. When the victims approached the civil legal system in rapidly increasing numbers, the sides were hardened.
From the late eighties to the present the relationship in general between victims and the institutional Church has been highly adversarial. Part of this is due to the understandable negative reaction of victims and survivors to the institutional Church and to all of its symbolism and control. Most of this is due to lived experience. They have learned that as long as they play by the bishops’ rules without question of confrontation, the illusion of pastoral caring will remain.
Over the decades popes and bishops have made countless public expressions of regret for the abuse issue and have offered apologies to the victims. The apologies generally take the form of “I’m so sorry for the pain you have felt” or something along those lines. While the individual bishops, bishops’ conferences and the popes are expressing their regret and their commitment to helping victims, they are at the same time viciously attacking them in the civil courts, spending hundreds of millions of dollars to defend themselves and to destroy victims’ credibility. They profess they have committed themselves to making the Church safe for all children and vulnerable adults but only on their terms. All changes made by Church institutions such as background checks, training, review boards and victims’ assistance coordinators have been forced on the bishops. The attempts to change civil laws to make them more favorable to victims have been vigorously opposed, generally by one group only, the Roman Catholic Church.
Their lack of credibility is hardened when some bishops, in spite of their zero tolerance policy, continue to put credibly accused clergy in ministry or cover for suspected clergy doing all they can to thwart any type of effective investigation.
Pope John Paul II ignored victims and openly sympathized with bishops and priests. In the years that intervened between his first known direct awareness of the serious nature of the problem in 1984 and his death in 2005, he never acknowledged much less responded to even one of the thousands of letters and pleas made by victims of sexual abuse. Requests for audiences were simply ignored with no response. At the regular world youth gatherings, the pope met with representatives of all manner of youth groups, but never the victims of his own priests.
So, it is not difficult to understand why the lines are hardened and why trust simply does not exist even in minimal form. When the bishops created the National Review Board in 2002 they populated it with what they believed to be “safe” people. The first board had a victim as a member for one term but there have been none since. They also seriously underestimated the integrity of several of the initial members. Since then they guaranteed the NRB’s irrelevance by selecting members who would not rock the boat or venture to far into the minefield in search of truth. They sponsored the John Jay College’s second study, Causes and Context, but by controlling the focus of the study and the areas of research they made sure it would contribute nothing to the search for the real reasons why this epidemic has flourished.
In the first years after the Boston revelations in 2002, when the landscape dramatically shifted, I made several attempts to engage two bishops who were members of their sexual abuse committee. I wanted to open up lines of real communication and pave the way so that bishops could begin to know victims and thereby gain a true understanding of just how horrific a problem lay before them. I had several polite conversations but every planned meeting was cancelled due to “unforeseen circumstances”. I knew of course that bishops are very busy men and I should have known that understanding sex abuse victims was not part of their agenda.
As the lawsuits continued to expose the systemic nature of the cover-up and deception, and as they prompted more and more victims to come forward, it became obvious that the bishops’ overall strategy had nothing to do with pastoral care or getting to the systemic reasons for the abuse epidemic. Rather, their focus was defeating the victims in court and defeating any attempts at legislative change that would mean more to accountability. The rank hypocrisy was too obvious to miss.
There is no reason to think the landscape will change in the near future. There are stories of bishops who have shown compassion for victims but these are exceptions and certainly not the norm. On the other hand the only bishop in the United States, Tom Gumbleton of Detroit, to stand publicly with the victims was removed from his post by the Vatican only weeks after his first public witness. The excuse given in the letter from the Vatican’s Congregation for the Bishops said that he had “broken communio with his brother bishops.” That short phrase explains the strategy of the institutional Church. Protect the bishops at all cost even at the expense of the innocent boys and girls whose souls were demolished by the clergy.
Tom Gumbleton’s alignment with the victims was remarkable in that he was and remains the only bishop in the United States to publicly choose victims over the protection of the governing structure. His witness is both profoundly important because of what it symbolizes, and at the same time powerfully disappointing because he was not publicly supported by or joined by even one of the other 450 bishops in the United States.
The real beginning of what hopefully will be an epic shift came in 2003 when Bishop Geoff Robinson (Sydney, Australia) publicly criticized Pope John Paul II’s lack of leadership in the abuse crisis. In 2004 he retired from his position as auxiliary bishop of Sydney “for reasons of health,” an obvious euphemism. Like Tom Gumbleton, he was fired because he “broke communion” with the bishops but he, like Tom, did something that was far more important and far more in keeping with the mandate given them by Christ: he joined “in communio” with the men and women whom the Church’s priests and bishops had violated and whose trust they had mocked and betrayed.
Geoff published a remarkable book in 2007. Confronting Power and Sex in the Catholic Church (Garrett, 2007) looked deeply into the two key areas that have driven the sex abuse phenomenon from being an isolated crisis to a part of a toxic culture. His witness is remarkable because he publicly challenged the two main supports for the toxic clerical culture. He has continued his public witness through speaking tours, especially here in the U.S. In coming here he refused to be intimidated by the Vatican or by the bishops of every diocese where he spoke, all of whom told him to abandon the tour and prevented him from speaking in any Catholic venue.
Most recently he has been joined by two other bishops, Pat Power, auxiliary bishop of Canberra and William Morris who was removed as bishop of Toowoomba for suggesting the Church think about ordaining women. Together they have circulated a petition worldwide asking for a new general council to try and bring about the deep structural and ideological changes needs to truly confront the evil of sexual abuse. In conjunction with the petition, Geoff has published another incredible book, For Christ’s Sake: End Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church for Good (Garrett, 2013).
Catholics have asked why the priests have not spoken up. The common answer is fear. But that fear has been broken by the creation of a “Whistleblowers Forum” of priests and religious women, active and retired, who have banded together to speak out, support one another and openly challenge the ecclesiastical system.
What I believe is a unique and revolutionary step has been the decision by the Capuchin Franciscan Friars of the St. Joseph Province (Detroit) to conduct a complete audit of their files and a review of the way their province has responded to reports of sexual abuse by its members. The bishops have patted themselves on the back for their annual “Audits” every year but these are no more than self-evaluations with the same degree of integrity and credibility one would find in the Wall street financial institutions if they conducted their own in-house financial audits and volunteered to the IRS how much they thought they should pay in taxes.
The provincial, Fr. John Celichowski, took a major risk in starting the process because he knew it would open the province to complete exposure. He took another major risk…when he asked me to be part of the audit-review team.
We worked together for over a year and produced the most complete report of its kind anywhere. Furthermore this was the only ecclesiastical entity, diocese or religious order, in the world to open itself up to an outside study of how each and every report of sexual abuse had been handled and then to make results available to the public.
The Capuchin venture is historic and a fundamental move in a positive direction because it is not the enterprise of an individual standing independent of the ecclesiastical world, outside the gates of the monarchy, but that of an official body that is an integral part of the institutional Church. Where will this epic shift lead? We hope it will prompt other religious communities to give serious consideration to opening themselves to a similar, completely independent review. My personal hope is that this momentous move may somehow prompt bishops to begin to see that there is only one truly authentic Christian response for the institutional Church and that is to honestly acknowledge the unchristian way victims have been treated and to reach out to those who have been harmed and offer honest compassion. Nothing short of this will help the institutional Church find its way back to the community of Christ, the People of God.