Oct 3, 2009

More Centrist Denial of Sex Abuse in the RCC

I am on retreat at the moment at Stara Boleslav, without the crowds and without the Pope, but still with my laptop computer. As the content of the following post is part of my meditations on church at Stara Boleslav (because of the approximately 500 altar boys at the Pope's Mass last Monday) here it is.

(As a supplement to this rant of mine below, might I refer the reader to the wise and compassionate words of Andrew Hamilton on the Polanski affair and the  abuse crisis in the RCC at
Eureka Street.Com.)

Since I posted earlier today about the sex abuse crisis in reference to powerful exposes by William Lindsey on his blog Bilgrimage, I then came across this disturbing passage at the 'centrist' Catholic blog, Vox Nova, in a posting commenting on the recent arrest of Roman Polanski in Switzerland.

As for the priestly comparisons, I think we should all take a step back. I have not been sympathetic to the priestly abuse witch hunts over the past two decades. Having said that, there is such a degree of moral difference between knowingly moving a priest through several parishes and enabling him to accrue ever more victims and honoring a man that made a despicable choice three decades ago for his film making. The difference is a few orders of magnitude. The evidence is certainly not exculpatory that systematic abuse of minors was aided and condoned by high levels of some dioceses. While much of the ‘abuse’ was consensual and between late to mid teenage boys, there was also abuse that was clearly felonious. There is also strong evidence for the cover up of that abuse. 

While this is not an extreme version of the 'denial' I was referring to in an earlier posting, since at least the abuse and cover-up are both admitted, it does constitute a classic example of the mitigation of horror. What disturbs me about this passage is the attempt to mitigate the nature of the abuse and temper the sense of moral outrage through an adroit use of  tone and vocabulary, and the assertion that "much of the 'abuse' was consensual and between late to mid teenage boys.

The evidence is certainly not exculpatory is a rather polite way of avoiding the fact that the evidence is overwhelmingly inculpatory, offering clear evidence of guilt. Clearly felonious is also a polite way of admitting that the law was broken, but the clinical, legal term removes most of the moral outrage that we should feel from the testimony of victims whose lives have been irrevocably damaged. It is a very subtle, clever manipulation of language designed to reduce the impact of the admission. Well, yes, it happened,  in some cases, here and there, but...it's not really too too serious so let's not get too too excited about it. The most disturbing tactic, however, is placing the phrase "much of the 'abuse' was consensual and between late to mid teenage boys," at the beginning of the sentence, thereby implying that 'most' of the abuse was consensual, and while not ethical, was also not really that serious in terms of psychological damage. Excuse me? How many cases on record involve 'consensual' sex? Next to none, to my knowledge, because why would such individuals come forward to protest and seek redress. The overwhelming number of charges of sex abuse have been made by individuals who claim they were coerced, manipulated, forced into unwilling sexual relations with priests, if not actually raped, with lasting traumatic damage. Nor is it just in 'some dioceses.' As Tom Doyle has so eloquently testified, the abuse and its cover-up are systemic worldwide, it is found just about everywhere in nearly every diocese in the Roman Catholic Church. Priestly abuse witch hunts is another manipulative phrase, without denying that some genuine injustice has been done to innocent priests. In context, however, it implies that most of the energy devoted to exposing the true nature of the crisis has been of an hysterical nature, and misplaces most of the weight of indignation upon the accusers. This is the primary defense mechanism of the two present and  previous Popes. It is all part of a devious plan to attack the good name of the church.

But to return to the issue of 'consensual sex' between adult male priests and mid to late teenage boys, (and girls)  no doubt there are many such cases in existence, but these cases constitute another hidden dimension to the whole abuse crisis because we are simply not hearing about them. Add them to the equation and who can say how high the percentages will soar of priests involved in abusive sexual situations (and violating their vows of celibacy). The abuse may not equal the trauma of coercive sex, but speaking as a teacher of young adolescents, it is still abusive for an adult in a position of moral leadership of his community to involve an adolescent in a complex, deceitful relationship that violates the express moral norms of that community. Even eighteen to twenty year olds are not yet capable emotionally of dealing with the subtleties of such an ethically compromised situation. It induces cynicism in the young and Lord knows they are cynical enough as it is about church leaders and their trustworthiness. Therefore there is no need for the quotation marks put around the word 'abuse.' If your 'thing' is for late adolescent or young  adult males or females, then you had better get out of the priesthood fast or any position of leadership or responsibility for the young.

At the risk of being repetitious, I come back to the main point. Employing a phrase such as, 'Much of the 'abuse' was consensual and between late to mid teenage boys' is a classic example of denial. It testifies to an inability to detach oneself from a certain image of the unsullied Church and to face facts head on and deal with them in an honest manner.

As Colleen Kochivar-Baker has put it most eloquently, in reference to the testimony of Tom Doyle,
Catholicism would be well served if more clergy would voice their true horror at what is and has been done to the People of God in order to protect the prestige and power of the clerical priesthood.


John said...

When I was a Jesuit Novice, I remember wondering why our teachers and counselors never said anything to us about how to be celibate. They never gave specific practices, be it a mindful practice or a physical activity or something we could do to help deal with the onslaught of feelings and attractions that arose in community. I never heard practical explicit advice on how to be a spiritual being while being a sexual being. I wonder if they thought if they mentioned sex in any way it would be a threat to our celibacy and so they decided silence was the better course. The teaching I remember was simply "don't think or do anything sexual with yourself or anyone else." This teaching was not explicit either. It was hidden in phrases like "beware of particular friendships" or in penances such as "permission is granted for flogging yourself." I think they were setting us up for failure while intending to do just the opposite. As a result, I think many developed abnormal sexual practices.
I remember scolding the Master of Novices once during a private colloquy about some of the penances we were taught to practice. I was frustrated by my inability to ignore or chase out sexual thoughts or feelings and I was angry that there was so little explicit or direct information about how to do what seemed impossible, only to practice penances. The Master answered me with a long period of silence while looking out the window. Then, in a voice that seemed angry but controlled he asked me to recite the 5 reasons written in our Novice handbook as to why we practiced penance. I had them memorized word for word and recited them back to Fr. Master (one was to identify with Christ crucified on the cross.) He then told me to meditate on them. That was it.
His answer felt condescending and I remember thinking, maybe he just doesn't know and so better pretend that the answer is too mysterious for a mere novice to understand. I think that was the closest I ever got to talking with a Jesuit teacher/counselor/director about how to practice the vow of celibacy.
This was in the late '60s and I believe that this way of dealing with questions about how to practice the vow of celibacy was pretty much how most spiritual directors handled it.
This "ignorance" and "repression" and keeping any common sense teaching "hidden" or "off-limits" is most likely one reason why so many priests became sexual predators. Sexual energy doesn't go away and so instead of talking about it in the light it came out in the darkness. This isn't to excuse the priests who sexually abused children, teenagers and/or adults. It's simply to say that the way young men were taught to be celibate did not help them be celibate. Instead, it probably encouraged them to act out in some pretty terrible ways.

Jayden Cameron said...

Thank you for this great comment, John, which I've cross-posted at Terry Weldon's blog, Queering the Church, to give it a wider reading. It is so to the point.