Saturday, April 3, 2010

Has any Room for Gray Survived the Sex Scandal?

The Vatican sex scandal has reached a pitch that seems to have eviscerated any possibility for nuance or ambiguity. Some of us in the church, myself included, have refrained from referring to the Pope as Benedict XVI in favor of his surname, Ratzinger. The Europeans, especially the Italians, have long done this, alternating from Papa Benedetto to Papa Ratzinger. In American Catholic circles, it sounds unfamiliar and, as such, rather sinister, as many of us intend it to sound. The Pope we desperately didn't want got the benefit of the doubt from some of us on the left in the Church, both here and in Europe, led by the reasonable voice of Fr. Hans Kung. His honeymoon ended with the reference to Islam as inherently violent in his Regensburg speech. The gloves have come off in response to his pastoral letter to the Irish, which satisfied nobody in addressing the expansion of the scandal to that profoundly Catholic country, and a not terribly strong case against the handling of a sex abuse case on his watch as Archbishop of Munich.

I have joined some of the "off with his tiara" rhetoric myself, without expecting anything to come of it, least of all Ratzinger's abdication. More ominously, the controversy has reopened fissures along deep-seated fault lines in the Church, basically pitting those like George Weigel who travel in lockstep with the American Council of Bishops, against those, like Nicholas Cafardi and the Administrators of Catholic Hospitals, who see the imperative of obedience as less compelling than that of moral complexity. It seems very late in the day for adducing any ambiguity in all of this. Nevertheless, though I have not felt so inclined in the last few days, I will try.

My reasons for attempting what may seem impossible stem from personal experience. I know two of the priests caught up in the scandal. I admire both of them, for different reasons, as they have very different personalities and histories. Both of them have had their pastoral careers cut short because of sexual abuse they committed as younger men, though one seems to have gotten caught in a once-only case of very poor judgement, whereas the other perpetrated a series of calculated abuses over an extended period of time. Until this morning, I had never wanted to know what he did; I simply knew that he was living humbly and paying a high price for his fall from eminence. After a Google search, knowing some of the details certainly strains the image of him I have held. The other has appropriately suffered a less harsh punishment, able to pursue scholarship and carry on as though he were just another member of his order, but removed from any official contact with minors. He, too, has demonstrated remarkable humility in wearing his cloak of shame.

I have always had one nagging problem with the popular response to the sex scandal. Mercy and forgiveness lie at the center of Christianity. To a substantial degree they set us apart from other great religions. Some of the most maladroit handling of pedophile cases clearly stems from bureaucratic impatience which, repeated often enough, morphed into a heinous disregard for children under a diocese's pastoral care. That description fits Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, who wound up as Archpriest of S. Maria Maggiore in Rome, which he has apparently run with a virtually Benedictine simplicity. Law certainly took some of the most deserved and intense fury as the sex scandal unfolded in Boston, still the epicenter of the scandal in the United States. Law's reassignment by his friend John Paul II to one of the great basilicas of the early Church hardly seems punishment, and does not satisfy many--it certainly struck me as a soft landing at the time, to put it mildly--and yet he seems to have taken it as the opportunity to live in a penitential manner. I have never taken it this easy on Law before, but I can explain why this point of view has some merit.

Every priest or monk, or one such as myself who has tried to live that life, knows its difficulties. I would not call them unimaginable to the lay population, but I would say that the clerical and monastic community will respond with instinctive compassion to one of its fold trying seriously to right a wrong. For this reason one of my reactions to Ratzinger's handling of the sex scandal when John Paul II had him read the case files in the early 1990s may seem counter-intuitive. "Filth!" he said and wrote, acting in one syllable as judge and jury. Many of us may indeed think of these men as filth. Ratzinger had the responsibility to form a more nuanced reaction, such as Cardinal Levada attempted to do in Portland in a case currently in the news. The public and the media tend to see only the Church's pastoral responsibilities, but Ratzinger and Levada had a second responsibility: to try and help men who committed their lives to the Church mend a heinous fault. Within such an attitude, finding the point at which rehabilitation gives way to punishment may present more difficulties than people now have the patience to admit, so far has the scandal gone, and so badly did misjudgment lead them to the abrogation of responsibility in some cases.

Perhaps one needs to live in a religious community for a year to understand that point of view; or perhaps I want to hold in tension two responses too inimical to each other. Certainly doubts about Ratzinger and his central role in aggravating the fault lines in the Church ever since his years as Prefect of the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, through the miscalculations of his papacy play a role complicating this task. I would simply ask one thing of those standing in judgment of Ratzinger and the Church as the sex scandal deepens. Warning: it will sound hopelessly naive. Remember that the best of the administrators tried to treat these men as individuals with a calling, as they were taught by tradition and example to do. All their instincts as priests told them to hold this respect in balance with the advice of mental health professionals. The worst cases of both sexual abuse and administrative incompetence do not involve this concern, and they should be judged accordingly. But no more than all the abusive priests should be lumped under one heading as "filth," neither should all the administrators be asked to relinquish their office. As in Ratzinger's case, we would need to worry as much about what one bishop has done as about what his successor might do.


  1. I know that we come at the Catholic faith from different angles, but I also know way more about this than I should ever want to, but different from your personal knowledge of some of the priests involved. My husband is second in command for our Virginia diocese in the Office of Child Protection and safety. I lose him most Saturdays to go out and train parents and volunteers in state and federal law, diocesan policy and ways to recognize abuse in children and abusers. I wanted to share a couple of articles. One is on Pope Benedict in particular written by a Lutheran theologian, one is an accounting from the judge in the Fr. Murphy case and one is an article from an Italian sociologist on the scandal as an example of moral panic. I offer them as maybe another viewpoint.

  2. mistress tess--

    thanks for your comment and your restraint. my post does not reflect my full range of thinking on the scandal, as you might have gathered. i simply wanted to point to a tension that often gets dismissed or overlooked. i do not want to ignore the pain suffered by the victims and the families, or by people such as you and your husband in the trenches of the fight against abuse. my spiritual director has specialized in counseling victims of abuse, so i know something of that side, too, though not nearly as well as you do. i warned you it would sound naive... but as i say, thank you for responding. i'll read the articles you cite. my prayers for you and your husband.

  3. thanks for the articles, which i have now had the opportunity to consider. you're right, we come from very different wings of the church, and yet both enable it to fly. fr. murphy sounds like geoghan revisited; he is beyond defense, though we have to reserve judgement to God. the article on ratzinger caricatures the least responsible of his press coverage, while overlooking his mystifying focus on boff and curran, neither of them either radical or the most prominent figures of their schools of thought--randomness in that kind of prosecution hardly deserves a pass. have you considered the fact that ratzinger went easy on kung because as former colleagues he retains great respect for his work, its provocations notwithstanding? remember, kung very early came out arguing that liberals give ratzinger a chance as pope, and visited him at castel gandolfo shortly after his election. that is a difficult relationship to get right; the pope has actively supported kung's world religions project. the right demonizes kung as much as it feels the left demonizes ratzinger. if that seems a blasphemous comparison, remember that neither of the principals would think so. they've known each other since vatican ii, and kung hired ratzinger at tubingen, where they worked together for three years until the revolution of 1968 became too much for ratzinger to bear in liberal and ecumenical tubingen. he was furious over a demonstration by students--lutheran students, not catholics. i want to agree with the premise of the article suggesting the hyperbole in covering the scandal--there has ben a feeding-frenzy quality to it--but at the same time, as the fr. brown story makes clear, lives have been wrecked. i probably should have said that more bluntly in my piece, except that i wanted to ask a specific question about the responsibilities of superiors, and remind people that the label sexual predator, while accurate, is also in some ways a caricature of an otherwise productive and religious life. in some cases, i think we have to entertain forgiveness; in the worst, obviously we cannot out of responsibility to the children. but a defensive charge that the press is out to get the church makes the church, not the press, look hysterical and out of touch with reality.