My purpose in these posts is to bring a variety of Christian and other writers in a desire to share significant writings that in my estimation contribute to the common good and directly or indirectly give glory to God and extend the Lord's work of salvation to all of humanity. G.S.
I was profoundly moved by the "Culture Project" presentation recently in New York of "The Case Against the Pope" on the Internet after being directed to it yesterday by the "Center for Constitutional Rights". The panel consisted of Gerard Mannix Flynn who wrote and performs "James X' spoke to "How James X Came About", a play that came to him in which he expresses the suffering inflicted on a person by sexual and other forms of abuse and in particular by trusted authority figures such as priests and their struggle to emerge from that dark place into the light; Pam Spees who spoke to "CCR Involvement in James X"; Gabriel Byrne who spoke of his "Motivation for Directing James X"; and Mary Valier-Kaplan who spoke on "How Art Confronts Society".
Each of them also gave personal testimony in the course of addressing their involvement with this 75 minute theater play "James X" which runs without intermission. I was quite taken up by them and found that each panelist came across as entirely authentic, particularly as they confided their personal testimony, and an honest and deeply motivated desire to seek human progress in putting a stop to the abuse, torment, and torture of innocent children at the hands of adults, especially those who are in positions of public trust and for that reason particularly dangerous as predators.
I could not find fault with anything each of them said about the sad realities of abuse and what untold suffering it causes the victims and all those related to them; nor would I want to find fault given that a person's personal experience is of inestimable value. The challenge then for all those who seek to help and intervene in any way and work collaboratively for progress in this troubled area of human existence is to establish the objective truth in both the facts of each case as well as the person's subjective experience of those facts, on the one hand, and on the other hand, to better understand all the players involved, in both their nature and intentions, from the plaintiffs and those representing them to representatives at all levels of the Roman Catholic Church.
I found the experience of listening to this panel very compelling and stimulating in part because they addressed something that deeply distresses not only me but I think most if not all of us alive today on this planet who have any degree at all of sensitivity to the suffering of others, especially vulnerable and innocent children of any generation, whether it be decades ago or only this week. There seem to be many complications around these issues given the time it is taking to achieve workable solutions to the essential problems - both the rescue of and caring for victims of abuse and establishing clear protections for children and other vulnerable people in the present and for the future.
As I listened to the panelists' passionate pleas for progress on these issues - the key motivation in the CCR's action to put the issue to the Vatican officials named at the World Court in The Hague - I came to understand something for the first time: the rampant human emotion of fear on the part of all parties involved in these issues and their attempts to resolve them.
Plaintiffs, those who care for them, and those who seek to represent them, are afraid of the apparent power wielded by the sheer number of individuals and institutions comprising the entity called the Roman Catholic Church - including the "secular arm" called the Vatican City State and the "Holy See" designating the Pope's own ministry and that of all those individuals and groups and services that assist him - and fear for past, present, and future generations of children and other vulnerable people who may risk abuse at the hands of some elements of that authority and power. They fear, and I think rightly so as fear goes, that the harm done may not be redressed and that further harm may be done, and that we may continue to be helpless to stop it. These are legitimate fears that are crying out for our considered attention and timely and concerted action I think.
What was new to my awareness as I listened to the panelists' eloquent pleas for progress in these urgent matters was that fear may also be present and exerting undue influence within the ranks of the Church's own authorities, and servants, and within its numerous international and national primary and subsidiary institutions. Understandably, there may be some fear of being overwhelmed by the sheer number and gravity of the complaints, and some of those fears could likely be assuaged by proper formation and procedures and protocols for attending to the complaints as to both the victims and the alleged perpetrators. Further fears would be generated by concerns for the welfare of the victims of whom many have lost faith in the Church itself, generating a sense of helplessness in those who would be most apt and motivated to offer help. Thirdly, and these fears I think are the ones most likely to obstruct a proper meeting and dialogue with civil entities representing victims and their interests, which fears I would categorize under the impression of a general threat to the very existence of the institution of the RC Church itself.
There exist unquantifiably massive amounts of verifiable evidence and testimony in support of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution bringing untold benefit to humanity - in response to daily human needs as well as to spiritual needs - in just about every nation on Earth, and that in a consistent if progressive way over the past two millennia. When suits are brought to court at various levels by plaintiffs and those representing them, it seems apparent that all too often those suits are brought with such force and in such a way as to trivialize, ignore, or even deny the value of the Church as an institution - as though it were entirely criminal in a totally indiscriminate way or that the fact of the crimes of abuse of themselves could cancel the existence of the entire institution and all of its actors and members - such that one can be justified in taking from these suits and actions and the manner in which they are brought forth the impression that the desired intent or effect, directly or indirectly, intentional or unintentional, of such suit and action would be the destruction of the Church itself.
So on the one hand we have the plaintiffs - the victims - those sympathetic to them and representing them, for the most part afraid of the danger that certain elements of the Church - disturbed and unbalanced clergy or religious or responsible laity - have in the past and continue in the present to represent. On the other hand, we have members and servants of the Church who are afraid that the suits in their lack of discrimination will in effect bring about the destruction of the Church.
Consider those dioceses where the bishops have shown great openness to receive the complaints, to accept responsibility for them, to express appropriate and sincere regret for them, and to accept to fulfill the court's requirement of compensation. Many of them were brought to the brink, if not actually over the brink, of bankruptcy. After all, what is the Church, really? Unlike multinational corporations whose purpose is the amassing of assets, profits, and dividends to shareholders, officers, and employees, the Church's purpose is public service. The vast majority of dioceses have few if any investments, and generally these are to offset obligations of services, often social services, and their only other assets are buildings with their accessories, and people, both employees and members, many of whom are volunteers.
Granted, some church buildings are more lavish than others, but they are generally recognized to contain and represent cultural artifacts of lasting and historical value to the whole human race, not only to those who happen to be using and responsible to maintain them. Then there is the vast range of other assets established for the purpose of public service: hospitals, schools, orphanages, soup kitchens and shelters, to name only a few. Compare the benefits to officers of multinational corporations and you will find that bishops, priests, and religious are working and living as relatively "poor cousins". Some enjoy more benefits than others, but the vast majority of priests and religious live poorly and are horrified by the crimes committed by abusers.
From a civil law point of view, local churches or dioceses are incorporated in the person of whoever holds the office of bishop. The bishop is the corporation, not him personally, but him the officer. It does happen that, human nature being the damaged thing that it is, that on occasion a bishop may not properly fulfill his obligations. In countries where a member of the tribe who succeeds in life is then expected to come to the support and aid of his whole tribe or clan, some ethnic bishops have wrongly used diocesan funds to support their tribesmen. We westerners are shocked by such actions, but it is difficult to judge impartially from the outside of a particular social reality. I'm not condoning such misbehavior but just saying that I understand how it happens that people can do such things.
The point that I am trying to make here is that if the Church has any assets anywhere, those assets are the property of the faithful, the ordinary Catholics - the vast majority of whom are poor - and not the property of the clergy who are alleged to be and when proven to be guilty are in reality the abusers of their long suffering victims. Financial compensation of victims comes about by taking from those ordinary Catholics, making new victims of them, as it were, though certainly not in their persons, but still, in a true way, in their investment in their church. When a suit alleges that one or more bishops failed to take proper action to rescue the victims, prevent further abuse, and to attend to the victims' needs, there again, financial compensation takes from Peter to give to Paul or Pauline.
As long as the whole apparatus of action to seek redress for the victims of sexual and other forms of abuse bases its actions and its legal suits on a misunderstanding of what the Church is as an entity that exists in society for service to that same society, then those suits can be expected to continue to generate fear within the institution, fear among its officials, its members, its servants, and its many subsidiary institutions at every level: neighborhood, municipal, diocesan, provincial, national, and international. We all need to become far more astute in our mutual understanding if we are ever to attain a more open and effective dialogue and subsequently achieve together actions and safeguards that will bring both comfort to the afflicted and safeguard to the vulnerable.
As a Roman Catholic man, Christian, and priest myself, I could see here and there in panelists' words some further lack of understanding of the full nature of the RC Church and how it works. Unlike multinational corporations where directives are sent out from the top to all degrees and levels of the company and its subsidiaries with the practical expectation that they will be carried out, the Church does not and cannot function like that. Employees and officers of a company who do not follow directives are disciplined or fired or transferred, and one way or another, no failure to carry them out is tolerated. People earn a salary and are expected to "tow the line". The CEO and their officers have direct authority over employees at every level of the company.
Not so with the Roman Catholic Church, at least, not entirely. While it is true that the Roman Pontiff or his officers do follow up on some outstanding issues or roles carried out by certain individuals such as bishops, priests, Catholic professors, this tends to be in response to complaints that regular authorities have tried and failed to obtain redress. The Vatican in that sense is a kind of ombudsman. The Pope or any other officer of the Vatican - whether the City State or the Holy See - have no authority whatsoever over any bishop or priest's salary, not directly. It is true that a bishop or priest can be disciplined with varying degrees of severity and that these sanctions would then have some practical effects. However, this authority is only morally binding and not legal with civil force.
When a company fires someone, that employee generally has little recourse if the firing was handled astutely and properly in accord with the law. A guilty priest or bishop could be suspended and even excommunicated, but such severe sanctions have rarely until now been employed to stop abusers in their tracks and for understandable reasons. We enjoy in our day unprecedented progress in how we understand the human person and the functioning of all our faculties. Until some decades ago, sexual misconduct was seen entirely as a spiritual problem, one that required confession, penance, and repentance. The fact that sexual abuse by its nature tends to remain hidden and difficult to prove if not difficult to believe in great part led Church leaders to take the part of the accused.
Progress in psychotherapy and counseling has brought to light the experience of the victim and has also brought to light the different kinds of profiles of abusers, the most dangerous being pedophiles - those who abuse prepubescent children - who typically are living in total and unconscious denial. It is even impossible for experienced therapists to help them because they are clinically unaware that they have done anything wrong. Unlike them, those who abuse teens or adults are generally completely aware they have done wrong and generally deeply guilty and repentant, though still in need of help. All this to say that the time has come to assure that authority figures at all levels of the Church are brought "up to speed" on these issues and that proper protocols are put in place and proper formation given on a continual basis, because the Church is an institution in constant transition of personnel as well as of members. People age, become experienced, grow old, die, and are replaced. Those who die bring their wisdom with them and the task must begin ever anew.
The reality also is that each diocese throughout the world - there are currently some 2,846 diocese or local churches worldwide - is autonomous and independently responsible for its normal and ongoing operations. It would be literally impossible for the Pope or the Vatican offices to "micromanage" these dioceses which offer services to the world's 1.2 billion Catholics. Nor would it be in accord with Jesus' will that the bishops be controlled by a central autocrat or autocracy. It has always been understood by Catholics that Jesus gave his authority in name to Peter so that it be exercised by all 12 apostles under the leadership of Peter at the service of all. Peter himself was wrong when he denied Jesus and later when he was corrected by Paul, and it is understood that Jesus' guidance continues until today and will continue until the end when the apostles act as one under Peter. It is Catholic understanding that Jesus continues to unfailingly guide his Church and that this can be seen in the unity of the bishops with the Bishop of Rome and the faith of all the faithful.
So what do people do in the face of sexual and other forms of abuse with complaints against priests in particular? How can we understand how the various instances of the RC Church have handled such complaints in the past and how they are handling them today, and what redress can we seek when the response of Church authorities is deemed to be insufficient or even non-existent? I believe that we will make significant progress on these urgent matters only when both parties - the complainants and the representatives of the Church - manifestly show their agreement on the value of the Church as this value is already manifest worldwide and on the timeliness and need of their concerted collaboration on the healing of the abused, the protection of the vulnerable, the strengthening of the innocent, and the prompt and effective containment, treatment, and sanctioning of abusers.
These thoughts are offered in the interest of advancing the cause for the benefit of all parties and of humanity as a whole. Peace to you, reader, and to one and all. Please feel free to comment here or on my Facebook account.
© 2004-2021 All rights reserved Fr. Gilles Surprenant, Associate Priest of Madonna House Apostolate & Poustinik, Montreal QC
© 2004-2021 Tous droits réservés Abbé Gilles Surprenant, Prêtre Associé de Madonna House Apostolate & Poustinik, Montréal QC
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