During a month of intermittent internet access in France, first working, then vacationing and then on pilgrimage to Lourdes, I had hoped that it would be possible to look at social-media sites and find the revelations of the scale and scope of clergy sexual abuse abating, but not so.
It is not just in the United States. England also recently saw the publication of an independent report into abuse at two famous Benedictine boarding schools, Downside and Ampleforth (the latter known as “The Catholic Eton” because it was the school of choice for aristocratic or wealthy Catholic families generation after generation).
Having worked for some years now with survivors of clergy abuse both in the United States and here in England, I am no longer really surprised by the depravity of anything I read. Disgusted, horrified, yes, but, sadly, not surprised.
We hear similar stories on “Grief to Grace” programs across the globe, and the patterns are depressingly familiar: how the same vulnerable individual might be abused by a succession of priests; of abuse in the confessional; even cases of adults confiding historical abuse to priests only to be abused again by their apparently sympathetic “rescuers.” And so many cover-ups.
I have heard reports that in some dioceses in the U.S., so-called victims’ assistance coordinators arranged counseling for those reporting clergy abuse and then required the counselors to report back to diocesan lawyers anything the victim had revealed in counseling which could be used to discredit their character when they came to testify in court.
Perhaps the saddest thing of all is that it has required the fall of supposedly great men, damage to the reputation of elite institutions and the intervention of civil authorities to hold the Church to account and to expose the extent of the suffering.
I am afraid it will be a while before I can sit through another of those typical lectures on how Vatican II changed the old pyramid structure of a hierarchical Church into a Church of communio. Indeed, the situation in the U.S. would suggest that the top-down approach is the preferred modus operandi when you invent a whole new layer of hierarchical power for bishops’ conferences, which can now exert pressure over individual bishops to toe a party line and not break ranks, particularly when wielding the enormous financial leverage of the USCCB.
Even the response to the scandals betrays a “top-down” approach. Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington said that he didn’t think this was a “massive crisis.” I would respectfully like to suggest to His Eminence that if he wants to know how bad the crisis is, he should ask a victim.
St. Ambrose says that you can see the whole of the Church in the soul of one person. I will say it till my last breath: We will only understand the abuse crisis if we see it through the eyes of Jesus’ little ones, the victims — those who came to priests seeking the Person and ministry of Jesus Christ and who were violated, exploited and soiled and left with chronic and life-altering spiritual, psychological and physical damage.
The Soviet dictator Stalin illustrated the top-down approach when he said that one death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic. When I told a retired bishop recently that the Royal Commission had found that 7% of Australian clergy were abusers, his response was: “Oh well, that means that 93% weren’t.”
Responding with statistics about the incidence of priestly abuse compared to the general population and statements about the progress of measures to prevent it happening again are like salt in the wounds of the victims of clergy abuse. They are not signs that the crisis is over.
The ecclesial priority must be to heal the victims. If the Church is a field hospital, why are its operatives standing around making speeches to the dying patients about how successful the generals have been this month in reducing the number of casualties from friendly fire?
A dictionary definition of the word “crisis” gives its medical meaning as “the decisive point in the process of a disease; the point at which change must come; that change that indicates recovery or death.”
The very fact that clerical abuse of minors inverts the meaning of Jesus’ priesthood ought to alert us to its Satanic origins and the massiveness of the crisis spiritually. Fathers who, when their sons asked for bread handed them a snake, usher in (albeit unknowingly or unintentionally) the reign of the Father of Lies.
This crisis is about the recovery or death of the image of the priest as father. Where the priesthood ceases to model human fatherhood, when its members do not credibly incarnate a father’s love in their dealings with everyone, especially the most vulnerable, then how can the priesthood minister effective supernatural fatherhood in the Person of Jesus, who says, “To have seen me is to have seen the Father?” It morphs into a corrupt, impotent, self-serving caste.