May 4, 2010

The Incredible Creepiness in the Catholic Church

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

"I love the confession game. Tell me your sins."
~ V for Vendetta

After lengthy deliberation, the Vatican has announced that it will take over the scandal-ridden Legionaries of Christ, appointing a special envoy to run the global organization. The decision comes twelve years after decades of abuse were reported directly to Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.

In its statement Saturday, the Vatican said, "the conduct of P. Marcial Maciel Degollado has caused a series of consequences on the life and structure of the Legion, such to require a way of deep revision.

"The very serious and objectively immoral behaviour of P. Maciel, confirmed by incontrovertible accounts sometimes turned into true crimes. They show a life lacking scruples and authentic religious calling. Of this side of life, a great part of the Legionaries were in the dark -- especially given the system of relationship built by P. Maciel, who very skillfully knew how to create alibis, obtain loyalty, trust and silence from those around him and strengthened his own role as charismatic founder."

There is little doubt that the late Maciel was a sociopath and they can be very convincing liars. But it strains credulity to think that there was so little awareness of the comings and goings of a priest who maintained at least two households with mistresses and children, and about whom multiple allegations of sex abuse had been surfacing for years. A two-part profile of Maciel in the National Catholic Reporter covering his creation of the Legionaries, his gift for conning wealthy widows out of lavish contributions, his seduction of vulnerable women, and rape of children -- including his own -- can be found here and here. It's a fascinating read but it's not for the faint of heart.

Despite reprimands for drug abuse and a known predilection for young boys, Maciel not only maintained his cover, but won favor in the highest reaches of the Vatican. This cannot help but raise flags about a larger institutional problem. Says Andrew Sullivan:

This was John Paul II's favored darling of the church, the man feted by Bill Bennett and Mary Ann Glendon and the entire theocon machine. When a church has become so corrupt it not only allows but celebrates the rise of a pederastic cult within it, it needs not just reform but reformation.

Sullivan concludes that it's entirely about money. Maciel threw very large sums around the Vatican and gave lavish gifts of food and wine which, no doubt, greased a few wheels. But there is another variable in this equation; one that makes me increasingly queasy. As I wrote here, the greater part of Vatican culture appears to have been astonishingly cavalier about sexual indiscretions of both the legal and illegal, abusive variety. At the same time, there was an incredible amount of energy directed towards concealing licentious behavior within the clergy.

In a pattern now all to familiar to anyone following this crisis, the case of Rev Marcial Maciel Degollado was stalled for years in a kind of bureaucratic limbo. And once again it was Cardinal Ratzinger who sought to pursue the matter only to be foiled by an internal power struggle that the world beyond the Vatican can only try to imagine.

Cardinal Ratzinger sought out information on the growing list of allegations and met with two Mexican seminarians in 1998. This followed a startling expose in the Hartford Courant in 1997. The seminarians detailed sex abuse claims that spanned decades.

But in little more than a year, Ratzinger — the future Pope Benedict XVI — halted the inquiry. “It isn’t prudent,” he told a Mexican bishop, according to two people who later talked to the bishop.

For five years, the case remained stalled, possibly a hostage to Maciel’s powerful protectors in the Curia, the Vatican’s governing apparatus, and his own deep influence at the Holy See.

Let that sink in for a moment. It wasn't "prudent" to pursue a case that was already a matter of public record. Again, the picture that emerges is of a powerful Cardinal tiptoeing carefully through a web of intrigue and making careful judgment calls as to whether or not it's politic to proceed... against a child molester.

The Rev. Alberto Athie Gallo, a Mexican priest who in 1998 tried to bring allegations of sexual abuse by Maciel to the attention of Ratzinger, said the Vatican allowed Maciel, who died in 2008, to lead a double life for decades.

“This was tolerated by the Holy See for years,” Athie said. “In this sense, I think the Holy See cannot get to the bottom of this matter. It would have to criticize itself as an authority.”

It seems impossible that they didn't know at least a good deal about Maciel's machinations. They just didn't care; not enough to stop the gravy train. Was it just that Maciel was a remarkably talented con man? Or was it that there was so much taint extending to the highest reaches of the Church that they couldn't risk letting Pandora out of the box?

One possible explanation for the total unwillingness to acknowledge the elephant in the sanctuary is the extraordinary level of hypocrisy that has been forced by the policy of celibacy.

Responding to a visiting Margaret Warner's questions about the clergy sex abuse scandal, [Cardinal] Levada at one point said: "I think the causes we will see go back to changes in society that the church and priests were not prepared for, particularly changes involving how to be a celibate person in a time of the sexual revolution."

That is a stunning and extremely noteworthy admission, for several reasons. If we take Levada at his word and go the next step, it meant that as a result of the sexual revolution, there were Catholic priests who became involved in all kinds of sexual acting out, from pedophilia (though that is a psychiatric condition with its own etiology) to sex with minors to the sexual exploitation of young -- and not so young -- vulnerable adults.

. . .

That acting out was a major problem in itself, inflicting horrendous suffering on the victims of those sexual exploits -- girls and boys, men and women. But the real way that celibacy caused this crisis is that it led the hierarchy to go to outrageous lengths to hide the truth: its failure to maintain a pristine celibate priesthood.

Indeed, a celibate Catholic priesthood has long been a myth rather than a reality. In his research, psychotherapist and former Catholic monk Richard Sipe found that an estimated half of all priests were involved in some kind of sexual activity at any one time. Of those, 15 percent were involved with men, 30 percent with women, [Attention Bill Donohue: Still think the church's problem is homosexuality?] and six percent with minors.

Secrets and shame tend to compound over generations; in families and in institutions. The loftier the standard, the more impossible it is to maintain it. The situation can only degrade to the point where it produces complete degenerates whom they can't expose without risking exposure of other secrets. The celibate priesthood also provides refuge for pedophiles because it gives a ready excuse for the lack of interest in adult sexual partners... and access to children.

Nearly half of these celibate priests are engaged in sexual activity. You have to wonder how many of those priests have reached high office within the Church? And how their failure to maintain their vows might be leveraged -- how it might buy silence or even advocacy. The Catholic Church is a very compromised organization and the gentle tweaking of the apparently well-intended Pope Benedict XVI can't possibly be enough. Sullivan is right. An entire reformation is what is called for.

"But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn." ~ 1 Corinthians 7:9

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