At the Vatican, Up Against the World
By FRANK BRUNI
Of the many heartbreaking details in the latest round of outrage over child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, one stands out as particularly emblematic: a tidy window into Church leaders’ mindsets; a bracing glimpse of what went wrong.
It traces back to 1975, when the Rev. Sean Brady, now a cardinal at the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, was tending to two boys who had been molested by a priest. By Cardinal Brady’s own admission, he did not report what had happened to the authorities. It was his understanding, he said, that the church would not want that. Instead, the boys one 14, one just 10, both surely reeling were forced to sign an oath that such notification would never be made.
It is doubtful that pledge helped them heal, or that he or anyone else in the church thought it might. It certainly did not safeguard other children, many of whom the priest went on to molest.
But it served a purpose and illustrated a priority: to insulate the church from outside interference and condemnation. And it distilled the church’s profound defensiveness toward the secular world, a longstanding posture and a prominent theme in abuse cases that have recently attracted attention.
The church’s fundamental and deliberate separation from secular society in terms of how it sees its mission, protects itself and interprets human misbehavior explains much of its leaders’ response, or lack thereof, to the child sexual abuse crisis. Time and again they have sought to police their own ranks in their own ways, due largely to fears of persecution that are embedded in the very genesis of the Church, supported by much if its history and evoked by its signal symbol: the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
There are enemies of the faith, no question. And so there is a powerful impulse to protect it that can override all else that can lead to Pope Benedict XVI’s edict in 2001, when he was still Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and leading the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, that exhorted bishops worldwide to aggressively report abuse cases directly to the Vatican but offered no comparable encouragement for them to report crimes to the police.
There is also a decidedly nonsecular response to wrongdoing that paves the way for second and third chances and serial abuse. In the secular world, the molestation of a child is labeled a crime, and a heartfelt apology for it doesn’t obviate jail time. In the Catholic Church, it is discussed as a sin, to be confessed and then, by the grace of God, forgiven. Penitence may well supplant punishment.
“There’s the idea that you can reform yourself and be forgiven and that any confession is a true confession if you believe in your heart that you’re not going to do it again,” said David France, author of the 2004 book “Our Fathers: The Secret Life of the Catholic Church in an Age of Scandal.” That is one of the beauties of the faith, and the fury of journalists and prosecutors can come across as an assault on it.
David J. O’Brien, a professor at the University of Dayton who specializes in Catholic history, said that the church had so often perceived itself to be at odds with, and under siege by, the world around it that when it seemingly let down a few defenses with the reforms of the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, “There was a funny column by someone that asked: what will we do if we have no enemies? We won’t know who we are because we’ve always defined ourselves as over and against others.”
Professor O’Brien and other Catholic experts noted that in Europe, the continent that harbors the Vatican and has produced every pope of the modern era, there has been a pronounced history of sometimes vicious anti-clericalism, including attacks on the Catholic Church during the French Revolution and threats posed by Communist and totalitarian governments in the early 20th century.
“Certainly, Pope John Paul II had that experience,” said the Rev. Thomas J. Reese, a fellow at the Woodstock Theological Center in Washington, referring to Benedict’s predecessor, under whom the child sexual abuse crisis initially festered. “His experience in Poland was that the secret police would accuse priests of sexual abuse and other crimes just to hassle them.”
Meanwhile, in the United States, the Catholic Church has at times been regarded as a minority religion of immigrants and the working class. When John F. Kennedy ran for president in 1960, his Catholicism was considered a liability.
In addition, Father Reese noted, Catholic teachings about homosexuality, contraception and abortion, along with the church’s insistence on an all-male clergy, put it in ever sharper conflict with the values of many Americans, who in the thinking of some church leaders will amplify and exploit any messiness within the church to undermine it.
That fear is suggested by the language that Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee used in the 1990s to try to persuade Vatican officials to defrock a priest who had serially abused scores of deaf boys over many years. As reported by The Times last week, Archbishop Weakland made his case by warning, in one letter, that “true scandal in the future seems very possible.“ In a subsequent letter, he articulated the hope to “avoid undue publicity that would be negative toward the church.”
The words of an unsigned editorial last week in L’Osservatore Romano, the Vatican newspaper, capture the church’s suspiciousness of secular critics even more pointedly. The editorial said that Benedict had always handled abuse cases with “transparency, purpose and severity,” and accused the news media of acting “with the clear and ignoble intent of trying to strike Benedict and his closest collaborators at any cost.”
In the German, Irish, American and other abuse cases, the decisions by church officials not to involve the police and courts and not to conduct public, transparent inquiries weren’t simple matters of coddling individual priests and bishops or blunt acts of criminal evasion. They were motivated by an array of factors, chief among them a belief that handing secular critics ammunition to be used against the church would jeopardize its outstanding work.
“For the whole life of the Roman Catholic hierarchy, they have dealt with this question of scandal as if it were a sin in and of itself,” Mr. France said. “You can go back to the year 400 and see writings in the Catholic magisterium about avoiding scandal.”
Partly because of that, and partly because of its resistance to yielding to secular expectations, the church has not made gestures that a corporation or government in its embattled situation would feel compelled to make. Cardinal Brady has not been stripped of his leadership position. And in a public letter of apology to the people of Ireland, the pope did not call for, or specify, disciplinary action against any of the many church leaders who covered up an epidemic of abuse there.
But when an institution is girded so thoroughly against threats from without, can it address and remedy the threats from within? The persistence of the child sexual abuse crisis, intensifying once again, suggests that the church’s defensive posture may in fact be a self-defeating one.
Frank Bruni is a co-author of “A Gospel of Shame: Children, Sexual Abuse and the Catholic Church,” published in 1993, with a revised edition in 2002. He reported on the Vatican for The Times from 2002 to 2004.
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