It has been almost 10 years since the bishops of the Roman Catholic Church in the United States mandated accountability and transparency in regard to the sexual abuse of children, but how that accountability and transparency was defined was ultimately left up to individual bishops, as was their application.
Examining the Crisis
Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach, or prime minister, of Ireland, addressed the Irish Parliament about a judicial report released last week on how the Cloyne diocese responded to the clergy sex abuse crisis. That report found that the church's own guidelines were "not fully or consistently implemented" in the diocese as recently as 2008. It also accused the Vatican of being "entirely unhelpful" in the crisis, charging in fact that the Vatican "effectively gave individual Irish bishops the freedom to ignore [those] procedures."
Kenny told the Parliament "the Cloyne Report excavates the dysfunction, disconnection, elitism … the narcissism that dominate the culture of the Vatican to this day."
The publication of the most recent John Jay study of sexual abuse in the church has been met by predictably impassioned binary responses. Church leaders seem to idealize the results, feeling vindicated in at least some of their responses to sexual abuse. Victims and advocates, on the other hand, lambaste the research as a dismissive invalidation of their pain. It is always difficult to speak dispassionately about sexual abuse; the crimes at issue involve passion, denial by perpetrators is standard fare, and brittle experiences of new betrayal are at the ready for victims expecting their suffering to be minimized. It is worth trying, however, to put passion aside temporarily to make room for reason. I hope to do a little of that here.
Before unpacking specific aspects of the John Jay study, it is important to put the entire project into a research and scholarly context.
In the last few days I have carefully read the entire 143-page John Jay report on the causes of clergy sex abuse in the United States and have again reviewed the executive summaries and conclusions of 17 of the 27 reports on clergy sexual abuse that have been published between 1989 and 2011.
Most of these are from official sources such as the U.S. grand juries, the three Irish reports (Ferns, Ryan, Murphy) or the two Canadian reports that resulted from the Mt. Cashel debacle of the eighties. Others are from Church sources such as the National Review Board Report of 2004, The Bernardin Report of 1992 or Church sponsored reports such as the Defenbaugh Report (Chicago, 2006) or the first John Jay Report from 2004. Most of the reports contained a section on causality.
None of the reports said anything about the effect of the culture of the sixties or seventies as a factor of causality but every one of them pointed to the various kinds and levels of failure by the bishops as the essential cause of the phenomenon of sexual abuse of children and minors by clerics.
In a circular letter to the world's bishops released today, the Vatican's Congregation for Doctrine of the Faith has asked every bishops' conference in the world to prepare "guidelines" for dealing with cases of sexual abuse of minors by clergy. (See Vatican guidelines seek consistency on sex abuse.)
I believe that the guidelines will change very little in how the Catholic church handles these cases. Here are 10 reasons why I think that:
Across the Middle East and in North Africa, courageous citizens are calling to account dictators. In Philadelphia, the second grand jury in 6 years issued a second scathing report highlighting the moral corruption we have come to expect from the Catholic hierarchy. Once again, a prince of the church stood at a bank of microphones apologizing for harboring alleged sexual predators. Is there anyone left who believes this hackneyed and heartbreaking theater of hypocrisy?
In a Jan. 4 letter to the members of the Catholic Archdiocese of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Archbishop Jerome E. Listecki explained why he felt forced to file for bankruptcy, explaining “priest-perpetrators sexually abused minors, going against everything the church and the priesthood represents.”
This is true as far as it goes, but it is hardly enough to address what many experts have described as the most significant crisis in the Roman Catholic Church’s over-2,000 year history, possibly even eclipsing the Reformation.
Every time Pope Benedict XVI says something about the never-ending sex abuse nightmare, he inches closer and closer to the dark reality that has been like a black cloud over the church for more than two decades. And although he is slowly moving forward, he always stops short of the most important and no doubt for him, the most painful issue: the complicity of the world's cardinals and bishops.
Recently I was in the process of cleaning out some files and ran across a July 1991 letter from Henri Nouwen. He and I had spent a year together during the mid 1960s in Topeka, Kansas at the Menninger Foundation’s training programs for clergy counselors. We had kept in casual contact afterward. He moved on to professorships at Notre Dame, Yale, and Harvard and traveled the troubled world while I settled into clinical practice, married life, and part time work at a Catholic seminary, college, and medical school in Baltimore.
By the time Henri wrote this letter he had already become a huge spiritual resource through his writings, retreats, lectures, teaching, and personal contacts. Most of his 40 books had been published. In contrast I had just recently (in 1990) published my first book, A Secret World: Sexuality and the Search for Celibacy.
When Belgium authorities moved in on the offices of the Roman Catholic church to obtain documents did they do the correct thing? The world press recorded the operation on June 26: In an unprecedented move, Belgian police authorities raided the offices, private residences, and the graves of Belgian Catholic church officials who may be linked to the ongoing sexual abuse scandal.