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The Associated Press is running a story today which reveals an obvious flaw in canon law that required a priest to willingly request removal from the priesthood following accusations or criminal prosecution. But it also highlights a more profound problem: the callous disregard of bishops for our children.  A few examples: 

  • Bishop Mattiehsen of Amarillo hired a priest who was on parole for abuse of two boys.
  • Bishop Hoffman of Toledo appointed a convicted child molester, upon his release from jail, as a pastor to one of his parishes.
  • Bishop (now Cardinal) Theodore McCarrick of New Jersey appointed a convicted rapist to a parish with an elementary school.
  • Archbishop Justin Rigali of St. Louis retained a priest who had pleaded guilty to sexually abusing a child during the Sacrament of Confession.
  • Bishop John McCormack of New Hampshire lied about his knowledge of the sexual misconduct of now infamous accused multiple rapists Fr. Shanley, a public supporter of man-boy sex.

In none of these cases were the parishioners made aware of the convicted offenders who were ministering to their children. These and many other cases were listed in an article in the Dallas Morning News, June 12, 2002 and are available on the Bishop Accountability web site if you search “Catholic Bishops and sex abuse.” 

This is the most offensive aspect of the abuse scandal: the behavior of our bishops. And it is becoming clear that such behavior was sanctioned, even encouraged, by the Vatican authorities. Cardinal Angelo Sodano, who served for 16 years from 1990 to 2006 as the Vatican Secretary of State (like a Prime Minister) was recently accused by Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna of having a documented track record of covering up and covering for abusive priests

However, one could view this accusation as Schönborn’s attempt to ride the crest of public outrage into the position of next pope, which would make it simply a political maneuver and “government as usual” Vatican style. I want to believe it is more altruistic, I do.  But?

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 I dream of a future church –
 – where leaders can be identified by their humility and spirituality not by the color and opulence of their medieval-styled dress
– where gender is not a factor in the discernment of vocation, and celibacy is not a pre-requisite to ordination
 – where the response to people hurt by priests and religious is guided by compassionate ministers of God’s love and justice, and not by members of the legal profession mandated to protect Church property and reputation at all costs – where I can trust that my children and grandchildren will be safe from known predators, because I can be sure that anyone found hurting children or young adults will be turned over to the civil authorities and not protected and reassigned to unsuspecting communities
 – where I can once again pray, celebrate the sacraments, weep and be consoled, find spiritual nurturing, and rediscover hope.

I dream, I hope, I pray.

A few weeks ago, as I sat in a Catholic church waiting to read for my niece’s wedding, I was troubled by many questions: Should I receive communion? Should I join in the prayers? What does all this mean to me any more? I found myself automatically joining in the responses even while the debate continued in my head. I remembered to edit the Creed, “for us … and for our salvation …,” and to use “God” instead of “He” whenever possible — personal standards of theological authenticity. But, today, on the “Lord’s Day,” I cannot ignore the debate any longer, especially if I want to get a better night’s sleep tonight.

Family members, friends, and more recently ex-students, have asked me the questions I now ask myself. My response used to be that my abuse by Catholic priests as a child was a personal horror that actually led me to the study of theology, where I met my husband, and to a career in religious education that provided immense personal satisfaction for nearly thirty years. In other words, it was a personal experience of the evil that humans are capable of, but the Catholic Church was not responsible for it. And in fact Catholicism had been a spiritual and intellectual saving grace in my life. The bad people in my childhood were Catholic priests, but all the good people in my life have been Catholics, too.

But didn’t my abusers represent the Church? No, not to me. They represented their own perverted sexual desires and addictions to alcohol, and their personal rejection of Catholic values. They were the antithesis of Catholicism, like dark matter is to matter.

I didn’t understand the irony of that analogy until recently.

Although dark matter remains a theory, many astronomers now believe that it makes up over 20% of our universe and that something called dark energy more than 70%. That would mean that the universe is dominated by dark matter and dark energy. That is how I currently feel about the Catholic Church. From the pope down to local bishops, from official documents to internal memoranda, the evidence is that darkness is at the heart of the Catholic Church sexual abuse crisis.

In Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness Marlow knowingly lies to Kurtz’s fiancé when he tells her that Kurtz’s last words were of her. Marlow’s motive was kindness. He didn’t want her to know the truth of the darkness in the soul of her beloved. And today, in the midst of this Catholic horror, I wonder what has been the motive behind the behavior of Catholic officials? Has it been the protection of property, which some also argue is the main reason for denying the option of marriage to Catholic priests? Were they callously and knowingly putting the Church’s reputation before the protection of children? Or were they protecting the innocent and naive faith of the Catholic community? Was it kindness or calumny?

How is history going to judge our leaders for their failure to hold their own actions up to the standards of morality so readily imposed by them on the members of the Church community: honesty, integrity, atonement for wrong-doing, advocacy of the suffering, especially children? Will the last words on this debacle echo Kurtz’s own cry “that was no more than a breath – ‘The horror! The horror!’ ” Or will we look back at this dark moment and realise it was the turning point in the life of the modern Catholic Church?

Catholics are comfortable with the metaphor of a church that is our “mother,” it is comforting, consoling. And on Mother’s Day the poignancy of that metaphor is striking.

How does a loving mother respond to her children when they are being attacked? She defends them in any way she can, putting herself at risk if necessary.  A loving mother would react in defense of the youngest, especially.

How does a loving mother raise her children? A loving mother would raise her children to fulfill their potential, to have strong morals, and to develop the skills to become independent of her, able to make decisions on their own, able to survive on their own.  A loving mother would want her children to become responsible adults and would encourage critical thinking, respect in dialogue with others, open-mindedness.

How does a loving mother respond to a child who becomes a criminal? She does not enable the child’s criminal behavior; she seeks help for the child. She supports the child as that child takes responsibility for crimes committed. She continues to love the child even as she encourages the child to submit to punishment that follows the crime. Because she wants her child to heal and change, and change can only come after taking responsibility for one’s actions.  A loving mother would always stand by her child, but she would not sacrifice other mothers’ children to keep her child’s crime a secret.

Perhaps it is time for our church leaders to consider the “Holy Mother” metaphor more closely.

Doubting is but the forefront of faith,
a faith in the infinite growth
of an unbounded creation.

A doubting age is one of restlessness
and discontent with what is current;
a doubt is an idea that is still alive.

To doubt that the past has uncovered all things
is to express faith
that many things are still to be uncovered.

To doubt that we have grown
to our full stature and knowledge
is to express faith that we may develop
into beings of such power and dignity
that we cannot as yet imagine what shall be.

From “The Mishkan T’Filah, a Reform Siddur” (p.405) the prayer book used in Reform Judaism.

 

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