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Catholic system of power: rule by priests

The growing state of crisis in our Church leads Fr Chris Chatteris, a Jesuit priest who has held many positions of leadership in the Order, to critique the Catholic ways of power. He chastises religious superiors, bishops, formators and mentors who have allowed abusive ministers to stay in the system for so long. They desperately need to review the instruments of accountability which have clearly failed.

Every unaccountable system of power will attract abusers – embezzlers, bullies and sexual predators. The thing we are painfully learning about the Catholic system of power, the hierarchy (it means ‘rule by priests’) is that it provides the perfect camouflage for such nefarious activities because the common assumption has been, that the bishop, priest or deacon is a man who is above such things. Indeed, he is called by God into a vocation of selfless service.

It seems that our hierarchical system of government in the Catholic Church has become functionally unaccountable. There is very little oversight. The bishop, whose first job is to care for and oversee (Bishop means ‘overseer’) his priests, sometimes does not do this or is unable to do so.

Most diocesan priests and many religious ones live alone today. There is precious little day to day supervision, even of the young and inexperienced. We are all human; if the gaze of another person is not routinely upon us, we can quickly move to the dark side, even if we have the best intentions. If we have the worst, or if we have some subconscious pathology, we will move there even more quickly.

The system is also stricken with a mentality of unaccountability, the kind of attitude that says that I am only accountable to the man above me; not to my peers in the priesthood and certainly not to my parishioners or the people in my diocese.

If a bishop thinks that he is only accountable to the pope (who is a long way from him and has many other things to think about) then who checks up on whether he is doing his job properly? And who supports him in the midst of his problems? To paraphrase St Basil, who washes his feet?

Jesus came to serve and not to be served. He worked with his disciples. They lived as a community, even on the road. He sent them out in twos. He constantly warned them about ambition and the blandishments of power. He washed his disciples’ feet to drive home the point about serving and not being served. How is it, then, that we now have a system which can so easily be hijacked by the self-serving?

And another question is pertinent here – how did we allow spectacularly destructive, self-serving men into a way of life which was supposed to be selfless and self-emptying after the example of Jesus himself? A colleague of mine once put it to me very brutally thus: ‘I didn’t join this way of life to deal with abusers and thieves’.

The gatekeepers, ultimately superiors and bishops, but also their delegates – vocations directors and seminary formators – have failed to take that aspect of their role seriously enough.

We have not got our head around the idea that it is a good thing if we dismiss someone who might have abused the system and the vulnerable people the system is supposed to serve. We have not got our heads around the idea that ‘giving him a chance’ is not good enough and that we need positive, concrete evidence of his capacity for ministry. We have failed to understand that we have to give the People of God the benefit of the doubt, not the individual.

The clerical, hierarchical mentality has frequently trumped the needs of the Church, i.e. the People of God. The minimalist pastoral notion that all we need is someone to say Mass, to fill a gap, is not enough. As a result of this feeble idea, we have ordained serial ‘parish wreckers’, men who go from parish to parish, dividing the community, bullying parishioners, stealing money and even worse.

The ‘even worse’ was the abuse of children. And part of our shame is that it is the secular arm of society has called us to account, we who so often sanctimoniously criticise the secular authorities.

For some time now we have been frantically jumping around writing codes of conduct for clergy and establishing structures and procedures to ensure that children and vulnerable people are protected. All well and good, but documents won’t do the job. Unless they have the teeth of constant oversight from both the inside and outside, the dyed-in-the-wool abuser will certainly not stop his abuse, whatever form that may take.

Unless we have a way of actually sacking priests who fail to minister satisfactorily, we will continue to juggle them around in the vain hope that they will somehow come right. Unless we allow laypeople to have a serious say in whom they are going to get as their parish clergy, they will always be vulnerable to this dangerous, unaccountable hierarchical juggling act which can result in them having foisted upon them a bully, an embezzler or even a sexual abuser.

The fact that documents are not enough is demonstrated by the fact that we already do have sanctions which can be used to check clerical misbehaviour – they are called faculties. But a priest has to misbehave pretty spectacularly before his faculties are withdrawn. His punishment is often to be sent to a poorer parish, which prompts the question: what did the poorer parish do to deserve him? It also raises questions about the option for the poor if we use poorer parishes as places of banishment.

Realistically, the institutional Catholic Church is not about to become Presbyterian and dismantle the ‘rule by priests’. That would be tantamount to dismantling itself and sweeping away centuries of tradition. But what it can and has to do is to understand itself better and humbly look at the shortcomings which are being so painfully exposed to the light. These have now been laid bare by a new, democratic world, a world concerned about human rights and a world in which the media make it impossible to sweep these things under the carpet.

We now understand the dangers of an unaccountable hierarchy. How we handle this; how we create real checks and balances; whether we invite laypeople and secular institutions to advise us and work with us and even supervise us; how we deal with bullies, embezzlers and sexual predators and how seriously we conduct our ‘gatekeeping’ to keep them out, is how history will judge us.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.