Aug 21, 2018

In Pennsylvania, A Reckoning

Crossposted from Reflections Journal.

The headlines alone make make my gorge rise:

Disney World! Who would knowingly help a pedophile get a job at Disney World?!!! The Catholic Church, that's who.

Like people all across the country, and probably much of the world, I have been processing, over the past week, the horrible revelations to come out of the Pennsylvania grand jury report on priestly abuse throughout the state. At least 300 "predator priests" abused at least 1,000 children (their findings acknowledge that the actual number is probably much higher), over a seventy year period. And the Church establishment, as it has done in so many dioceses around the world, conspired to keep it all covered up. They moved offending priests around to different jobs many of which still gave them access to minors, they hid records under lock and key, and they threw the victims under a bus. Same story, different state. Yet somehow this time feels so much worse.

If the Catholic sexual abuse scandal that came to light in 2002 slowly unspooled through news reports, Pennsylvania's grand jury report landed like an atom bomb, dropping its online horrors all at once. With some redactions, the report was readily available for everyone to read and share: the accusations of sexual deviance, shameless lies and deceitful churchmen.

"What we have now is people freely expressing their outrage on Facebook and Twitter," said Greg Kandra, a Catholic deacon in Brooklyn, New York. "The anger is palpable. This is like 2002 on steroids."

The report is unflinching, sparing no detail. The stomach-turning descriptions of horrific and degrading violations are a deliberate choice, on the part of the grand journey.

“As I detail the grand jury’s findings, I will use graphic language from the report that may make some uncomfortable,” [Attorney General Josh] Shapiro said at his news conference. “But these words are the only way to adequately explain the sexual abuse committed by priests upon children. This is not to be salacious. It is to share the truth.”

That language and sheer volume of the alleged abuse it documents is being heralded by advocates for children, even as Shapiro acknowledged that given the ages of the cases, new criminal charges are unlikely. The words compare with what the grand jury insisted was the church’s own “use of euphemisms” to downplay abuse claims — in which church officials would characterize sex assaults as merely “inappropriate contact,” abusive priests as having “boundary issues,” and being removed from service as on “sick leave.”

Altoona attorney Richard Serbin, who has spent a career suing the Catholic Church over abuse, said such “code language” was no surprise to him. He welcomed the report’s graphic details, saying they were necessary.

“We’re talking thousands of children that were sodomized, raped, fondled, subjected to the grossest of sexual acts,” Serbin said. “Only then can the public appreciate the gravity of the offenses against children.”

And while victims and victim advocates are heralding the brutal honesty of the report, some Catholic leaders are even now trying to downplay and spin it.

‘I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis,” said Cardinal Donald Wuerl, the Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., in a statement that could not possibly be more wrong. Speaking three weeks after revelations about his predecessor’s sexual predation against boys and young priests, Wuerl said he was aware that a harrowing Pennsylvania grand-jury report would soon document the sexual abuse of 1,000 children by Catholic clergy and criticise Wuerl’s own treatment of some abusers.

Wuerl allowed that the news about his predecessor, Theodore McCarrick, was “a terrible disappointment”. He also said that “we need to have something that would also be a mechanism for when a bishop has not been as faithful as he needs to be, even if the charges go back 40, 50 years”. Even amid that march of euphemism and evasion, one phrase should leap out. In the context of discussing a predecessor who had done a lot to destroy a boy’s life — who had raped him for years — Wuerl spoke of a bishop who “has not been as faithful as he needs to be”, a comment that could more aptly be applied to someone who had neglected to say his morning prayers.

Let it not be said, however, that Wuerl is slow to appreciate all dangers. He had what can only be described as a P.R. website ready to go when the report was released. It provoked an immediate outcry and was taken down a few hours after launching.

Or blame it all on the gay.

“It was clear after the studies following the 2002 sexual abuse crisis that most of the acts of abuse were in fact homosexual acts committed with adolescent young men,” Cardinal Raymond Burke said in an interview Thursday. “There was a studied attempt to either overlook or to deny this.”

Burke went on to emphasize that he believes there is “a very grave problem of a homosexual culture” both among the clergy and within the Church’s hierarchy that “needs to be purified at the root.” He added, “It is of course a tendency that is disordered.”

. . .

Contrary to Burke’s rhetoric, there is no connection between child sex abuse and homosexuality. Pedophilia is classified as a “paraphilia” — a sexual disorder — and has nothing to do with one’s sexual orientation, which refers to the sex(es) a person might be oriented toward. Men are more likely to experience pedophilic disorder, and they are more likely to have access to young boys than they do young girls. This is particularly true in the Catholic Church, in which women have few leadership opportunities.

And even now the Church is scrambling to protect itself legally, spending millions on lawyers and lobbyists.

If the Catholic Church wasn't a religious institution, would we be handling the situation differently?

"They would have been arrested under the RICO federal laws already and they would have been considered organized crime," Pennsylvania State Rep. Mark Rozzi, a Democrat, told Salon. Rozzi is more than just a proponent of passing new legislation to help victims of childhood sex abuse, whether from employees of the Catholic Church or other organizations; he is also a victim himself, one who was raped by a priest in a rectory shower in Pennsylvania when he was 13 years old.

. . .

Yet, as Rozzi pointed out, the Catholic Church has already started fighting SB 261 and other legislative measures — a move that contradicts the church's frequently stated position of sympathy for the victims and a desire to stop future abuses.

"We already hear from legislators that they're already out there lobbying against what we're trying to do. The ink isn't even dry on the report yet and they're already spending millions on lobbyists working legislators," Rozzi said.

But this really feels different. The Church's apologists are being given no quarter in the public square. They are being called out at every level.

A letter on behalf of Catholic theologians, educators, parishioners, and lay leaders calling on all U.S. Catholic bishops to collectively resign in the wake of the new allegations now has over 1,000 signatures. Chile’s 34 bishops similarly resigned en masse over a sexual abuse scandal in May.

“The catastrophic scale and historical magnitude of the abuse makes clear that this is not a case of ‘a few bad apples,’ but rather a radical systemic injustice manifested at every level of the Church,” the letter states. “Systemic sin cannot be ended through individual goodwill.”

The Vatican was slow to respond, declining to comment when the report was released. Their first statement came a full two days later.

A spokesperson for Pope Francis on Thursday broke the Vatican’s silence on a grand jury report outlining sexual abuse allegations against Catholic priests in Pennsylvania, calling the details in the report “criminal and morally reprehensible."

“The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible,” the spokesperson said, according to media reports. “Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith.”

And finally, yesterday, Pope Francis responded directly to the report and the ongoing crisis in the Church.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together with it” (1 Cor 12:26).  These words of Saint Paul forcefully echo in my heart as I acknowledge once more the suffering endured by many minors due to sexual abuse, the abuse of power and the abuse of conscience perpetrated by a significant number of clerics and consecrated persons.  Crimes that inflict deep wounds of pain and powerlessness, primarily among the victims, but also in their family members and in the larger community of believers and nonbelievers alike.  Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient.  Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.  The pain of the victims and their families is also our pain, and so it is urgent that we once more reaffirm our commitment to ensure the protection of minors and of vulnerable adults.

It's a good letter, but it is late. Not only late by nearly a week, but by years. There is much about Pope Francis that I love. I say as a non-Catholic, with no great fondness for hierarchical religious institutions. He has shown more compassion and grace than his predecessors on many issues, but actual changes have been slow. And in his response on the defining issue of his Church, in the 21st century, has been downright tone-deaf. He has moved much more slowly than many would have hoped for, but he does seem to be catching on to the grave importance of this issue. His call for bishops to resign en masse in Chile was a giant step in the right direction, but it came only after his dismissal of the accusations as "slander" had caused international outrage. This has been his blindspot. This has been the Church's blindspot for decades. And I can't imagine a worse thing to be blind to. Let us hope that the courage of Pennsylvania's victims and the grand jury's willingness to stand behind them is exactly the wake-up call the Church needs.

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