IN DEPTH — Clerical sexual abuse: deal with the rotten apples but fix the barrel too

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Our new ‘In Depth’ feature is intended to allow writers the necessary space to develop their arguments critically. The first of these is by Mike Pothier, a lay Catholic and advocate of the High Court. Writing here in his personal capacity, he looks at the decision to remove priests and cardinals found guilty of sexual abuse from the priestly state — an action that has been applauded by many. For a number of reasons, however, Pothier finds it problematic and insulting to hear it said that an abuser priest has been returned ‘to the lay state’ or ‘laicised’. Read on as he explains.

The past few weeks have seen three cardinals publicly humiliated. In mid-February, Theodore McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, DC, was removed from the list of cardinals and removed from the priesthood (laicised) after his long double-life as a sexual abuser came to light.

Then, in early March 2019 it emerged that in December 2018 a cardinal in Australia, George Pell had been convicted on five counts of child sexual abuse. On 13 March he was given a six-year sentence.

Again, on 7 March Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyons in France, was convicted of failing to report sexual abuse by one of his clergy. He received a suspended six-month sentence.

Pell’s and Barbarin’s cases on the one hand, and McCarrick’s on the other, are not wholly comparable. There is no real doubt that the latter is guilty of the allegations against him. He has said little more than that he does not recall the incidents and that he is sorry if he hurt anyone.

Pell, on the other hand, has vociferously denied having committed the crimes of which he has been convicted and is appealing the finding. From the point of view of a South African criminal lawyer, the reported evidence against him seems a little unconvincing and the procedure — a second trial after the jury in the first trial could not agree on a verdict — amounts to something indistinguishably close to double jeopardy: we will keep on trying you until we find you guilty. [1] But the Australian criminal justice system is what it is and Pell’s guilt stands, at least until his case enjoys the scrutiny of a three-judge appeal panel.

Barbarin, too, intends to appeal the finding against him. And in any event, as serious as a failure to report is, it is not of the same order as the direct abuse committed by McCarrick and Pell.

Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, Archbishop of Lyon, arrives to attend his trial at the courthouse in Lyon // Vatican Media
Cardinal Philippe Barbarin, archbishop of Lyon, arrives to attend his trial at the courthouse in Lyon // Vatican Media

So, for purposes of what follows, we can ignore Pell and Barbarin and focus instead on Theodore McCarrick (though you can also bring to mind a couple of other Cardinal-abusers from a few years back if you like: Hans Hermann Groër of Vienna and Keith O’Brien of Edinburgh, perhaps).

We need to identify the pernicious sub-texts in the story of how McCarrick has been dealt with by the Church, bring them to the fore, and understand what they mean. Then, we might begin to grasp a little more clearly why the institutional Church is in the mess it is. And why all the bishops’ meetings and Vatican conferences, such as the one held at the end of February, are unlikely to bring an end to the scandal.

My thesis is this: the way McCarrick has been dealt with and the way the Church deals with priest sex offenders generally, does very little to solve the problem. Indeed, it perpetuates it and helps to ensure that more children and vulnerable adults will be exploited in future.

Let’s start by looking at some of the reports of how McCarrick’s case was finalised. The Economist (17 February 2019) wrote that he “was stripped of his priestly rank.” The New York Times (16 February 2019) said he was “expelled from the priesthood” and quoted a canon lawyer to the effect that “bishops and former cardinals are no longer immune to punishment.”

The American Catholic website Crux (20 February 2019) reported that “McCarrick is the highest-ranking member of the Catholic Church to be punished in this way in modern times.” Crux also published an article explaining the various terms used to convey what had been done to McCarrick. He had been “defrocked” or, in more formal language, “removed from the clerical state” or “laicised”. The article noted that in the Middle Ages, “since punishments were milder for clerics, in order to hold priests accountable for the most severe crimes it was necessary to demote them in status, before turning them over to a civil judge. This demotion was called ‘degradation.’” To its credit, the Church no longer seems to use the expression ‘reduced to the lay state’, but the underlying meaning remains.

Closer to home, spotlight.africa published two pieces dealing with the issue. One of them (16 February 2019) described McCarrick’s laicisation as “the most severe measure … returning a man who was once a cardinal to his lay state is unprecedented.” This article quoted the statement of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on its findings concerning McCarrick: it had “imposed upon him the penalty of dismissal from the clerical state.”

The second spotlight.africa article (18 February 2019) spoke of McCarrick as the “highest-ranking priest in modern times to be dismissed for sexual misconduct”. And said that many observers of the situation were hoping that “any priest or religious who abuses so much as one minor or vulnerable adult will get the same treatment as McCarrick.”   

Lastly, though there are a number of similar examples. Bishop R. Walker Nickless of Sioux City, Iowa was quoted in the National Catholic Reporter (27 Feb 2019), admitting “‘with a heavy and sad heart’ … that some priests and bishops had abused the grace and beauty of the priesthood, ‘sexually abusing innocent children among us.”

The Mars rover, 'Opportunity' // Pixabay
The Mars rover, ‘Opportunity’ // Pixabay

Embark on a thought experiment with me.

A recently-arrived visitor from Mars would have little difficulty working all this out. Clearly, someone of high rank had committed a serious offence which rendered him unfit to continue in that rank and, as punishment, had been deprived of it.

The visitor would also notice that the other expressions used meant much the same thing. The person had been “removed from the clerical state” and “returned to the lay state”, such removal being, obviously, a dreadful punishment very much akin to demotion.

At this point, the visitor maybe — as a Martian — having some familiarity with military matters, would hear a bell ringing. In the army, when an officer messes-up badly enough, he is ‘reduced to the ranks’. He is no longer fit to hold elevated office, to be in charge, to give orders. He is good enough only to occupy the lowest rung on the ladder, as part of the undifferentiated mass of footsoldiers.

The visitor would also know very well that part of the reason for reducing officers to the ranks when they do unpardonable things, is the need to uphold the standards of integrity and dependability expected of the officer class as a whole. And in no small measure to maintain the mystique and status that attach, in the eyes of the footsoldiers, and certainly in the eyes of the officers themselves, to members of the officer class. We can imagine the gruff tones of the colonel: ‘We can’t have chaps like that around here!”’

When the officer is reduced to the ranks he loses many things: pay, position, power, status, prestige — and the chance, if war should come, to make a stab at worldly glory.

The Martian would understand that this is exactly what has happened to this McCarrick fellow. And the Church would have to explain patiently that, ‘no, it’s not like that at all’; McCarrick has not lost position, power, prestige and worldly glory, and the Catholic Church is not like an army.

Except that it is.

The Church is certainly not meant to be like an army but that is the model it has adopted.

The Church has taken on the trappings of rank and hierarchy and effectively made idols of them. It separates and elevates a ruling caste and places it in power (not just in authority) over the rest.

This caste is educated and formed separately, as in officer-training schools, and is taught that it is special. Its members wear special uniforms, generally more intricate and grandiose as they progress in rank. They are also given exaggerated titles which reinforce the notion that they somehow personify ‘lordship’, ‘grace’ and ‘holiness’. Some of them — such as McCarrick — even achieve ‘eminence’.

The meeting on the "Protection of Minors in the Church" in session in the Vatican, February 2019 // Vatican Media
The meeting on the “Protection of Minors in the Church” in session in the Vatican, February 2019 // Vatican Media

The recent scandals have shown once again, to the surprise only of those who know no Church history, that the trimmings of power cannot be separated from the temptations of power. And there are too many men in the Church’s officer corps who seem unable to manage the former without succumbing to the latter; in whom power finds perverse, unwholesome and sometimes criminal expression.

McCarrick is being singled out as some kind of worst case, his demotion ‘unprecedented’. But although what he did was despicable, it was nowhere near as bad as the priest who — as reported to the Vatican conference a few weeks ago — forced his 15-year-old victim to have three abortions and beat her when she failed to cooperate with his demands for sex. And no worse than what hundreds, probably thousands, of priests have done.

(According to the Crux 20 February 2019 article “in 2014, the Vatican reported that 848 priests had been ‘defrocked’ in the preceding decade for the rape and molestation of children.” We can add quite a few since 2014. And we have hardly begun to unearth the scale of the problem outside of Western Europe and North America.)

McCarrick’s case stands out only because we have enslaved ourselves to the rank idol. That a Cardinal could do such things! Catholic News Agency in the USA went so far as to describe what happened to him as a “luciferian fall from grace”. Talk about putting people on pedestals.

If we go back to the media quotes I mentioned earlier, three themes are apparent: rank is clearly a central concern; the focus of attention is priesthood or, if you prefer, the clerical state; and going from the clerical state to the lay state is a punishment.

And If you happen to have been a priest of exalted rank then the punishment of being made a lay person is ‘unprecedented’ and worthy of many headlines.

In the thinking of R. Walter Nickless of Sioux City, it is the “grace and beauty of the priesthood” that has been abused. It is not a cheap shot to observe that the rest of the world is under the impression that, in fact, it is the grace and beauty of so many thousands of children that has been abused. It all depends on what matters most to you.

Report by Salt+Light TV on laicisation of former cardinal, Theodore McCarrick

It seems clear enough that the institutional Church’s actions against McCarrick have been first and foremost concerned with protecting the institution and its rank structure. He is ‘one of those chaps’ whom ‘we can’t have around here.’ Just like a disgraced officer, he is stripped of his rank, of his title, of his uniform, and of the power and prestige that goes with it.

In formal terms, he has been conveniently “laicised”. He was one of ‘us’ but now he is just one of “them”. Problem sorted — he’s not ‘eminent’ any more.

(As an aside, it would have been nice, hypothetically, if the laity had been asked how they felt about having McCarrick sent down to join their ranks. But as in an army, accountability in the Church runs only upwards. The officers don’t particularly care what the footsoldiers think about institutional matters.)

So, how should the Church deal with McCarrick and similar cases? How should it respond to the crisis?

Firstly, we know that abuse of this kind inevitably involves an unequal power relationship — schoolteacher and pupil, film producer and aspiring actress, priest and altar-server, bishop and seminarian.

The Church must face up to the fact that McCarrick and the thousands of other abusive priests did what they did as priests and, to a large extent, because they were priests. Priesthood provided them with the necessary power. Priesthood created the unequal power relationship.

Laicisation, apart from being something of an insult to lay people, is an attempt to deny this and to wish it away.[2] It places the blame entirely on the individual. And, by expelling him, attempts to exonerate the institution.

Two things flow from this. One is that abusive priests should not be laicised. Let them be removed from public ministry, as indeed many have been, or let their priestly faculties be suspended. But let us give up the pretence that this is a problem of ‘rotten apples’ and that the solution is to banish them from the barrel.    

The other is that the Catholic priesthood must be divested of its power and status. A way must be found to preserve the spiritual authority that is proper to the clergy while abandoning the institutional power that it has arrogated to itself over the centuries.

Authority and power are not the same thing, but in the priesthood they have become conflated. Or to put it another way, legitimate clerical authority has become infected by worldly and self-serving power.

Too many priests have turned out to be unable to handle the corrupting power that comes with the position of priest. The solution up to now has been to remove such people from their positions but we need instead to remove the power from the position.

Secondly, in the case of McCarrick, he was able to do his thing longer and more damagingly than most abusive priests because he happened also to be a bishop and, latterly, a cardinal. His increasing status and power brought not only more opportunity but also a compliant coterie of aiders and abetters. It is beyond doubt that numerous other priests, bishops and cardinals knew what he was doing and gave it a nod and a wink.

This is the caste mentality at work. There is always a strong sense of solidarity between members of a higher caste, especially when one of their number is compromisingly embroiled with a member of a lower caste. Courtiers turn a blind eye to the peccadilloes of the King. This attitude must be eradicated but we need to recognise that that will not happen until the Church stops treating the clergy as an aristocracy, an officer class.

Laicisation also entrenches the pernicious dichotomy at the heart of the abuse crisis. It reinforces the notion that clergy are somehow better, holier, worthier, closer to God, than the laity. And that laicisation is therefore a degrading punishment. By implication, a priest who does certain evil things is no longer fit to be a priest but he remains fit to be a layperson.  

The accretions of clerical mystique and specialness, encouraged over centuries by the institutional Church, must go and, along with them the worldly titles and forms of address that reinforce this ‘closer to God’ notion. These things come mostly from Roman, Byzantine and mediaeval European civic practices and traditions. They are at best a diversion from the real role of the clergy and at worst highly malignant.

At the same time, lay Catholics must stop being enablers — showing obsequiousness, bowing and scraping, treating the clergy as if they were God. Just as some people have a need to lord it over others, some have a need to be lorded over. Both groups are well-represented in the Church and both need to grow up.   

Sr Veronica Openibo, SHCJ, gives her address at ‘The Meeting on the Protection of Minors in the Church’, February 2019

Lastly, the Church as a whole must be allowed to speak. It is mind-boggling that it was regarded as some kind of breakthrough to have three women address the recent meeting of Bishops in Rome.

Wherever the abuse crisis has reared its head, the initial episcopal response has varied from dithering ineptitude to hubristic callousness. Only after public and media pressure has demanded that some kind of responsibility be taken, have the bishops done so. In many parts of the world they are still pretending that there is no problem. The ecclesiastical inferiority of laypeople only facilitates this denialism. 

Discussions about abusive priests and what to do about them must feature laypeople (including women) as the rule rather than the exception. The views and suggestions of a layperson must carry equal weight to those of a cleric and the laity should be present in large, not token, numbers.

Will any of this happen? Almost certainly not. The vested interests are too strong. Power has become too deeply institutionalised in clerical hands. Far too many of the laypeople — and not a few of the clergy — who realise the nature of the pathology have chosen to leave the institution rather than try to rescue it.

At the same time, even among the best-intentioned, there is a continuing failure to grasp the nature and probably the extent of the problem.

Francis himself, so brave and radical in many respects, has been worryingly myopic and tone-deaf when it comes to the abuse crisis. But thankfully, he is not in denial or ignorance like some of his recent predecessors.

Up to now, evidence of the crisis has emanated primarily from the USA, western Europe and Australia.

There have been sporadic reports from Latin America and eastern Europe. Hardly any have come from Africa and Asia. There is little reason to think that the Church in these latter regions will escape unbesmirched.

It is far more likely that abused people in these areas are keeping quiet due to a deeper sense of fear and a more naïve acceptance of ecclesiastical power relations than that of their northern and western counterparts. But that will change with time.

It takes no insight to predict that horrific stories will emerge from places like Poland, Mexico, Nigeria and the Philippines.

It must certainly be acknowledged that sincere efforts have been made to address the problem and that there is evidence of success.

The rates of abuse in some places have come down significantly. This may be due to stricter selection criteria for candidates for the priesthood or to better training and formation. Perhaps, it’s simply due to a greater fear of being caught. No doubt there are also many priests who, though tempted, have had the courage to use the crisis constructively in their own lives and to eschew this kind of behaviour.

There is also the argument that, at its height, the abuse in the USA and in western Europe was carried out mostly by ‘pre-Vatican II priests’ and that their younger colleagues are less inclined in that direction. They are less likely to regard their priesthood as entitling them to exploit their unequal power relationship with potential victims. This is not an argument, as far as I know, that has been demonstrated empirically.

It seems certain that the scandals will accelerate the rate of abandonment of the Church, by educated socially aware Catholics all over the world, especially the youth. They will argue, often rightly, that the emperor has no clothes.

The Church’s credibility and moral weight — especially on matters connected with sex — will continue to plummet. Tragically, that will include its credibility regarding arguments around abortion since the secular world regards procreation as linked more to sex issues than to life issues.

PBS News Hour report on Catholic Church’s crisis of credibility ahead of clerical sex abuse meeting at the Vatican.

It has become almost commonplace to remark that this crisis is the worst that the Church has had to face since the Reformation.

If so, there is a sad irony in the fact that many of the roots of the current crisis can be found in the militancy, pride and self-righteousness of counter-reformation thinking. Far from considering that people like Huss, Tyndale and Luther might have had a point or two, the reaction was to damn them. A position from which the Church has been steadily, if cautiously, retreating only in recent decades. Is it too much to hope that lessons might be learnt?

The sexual abuse crisis presents the Church with a singular opportunity for introspection and renewal.

Up to now, the predominant response to the crisis has been to try to identify rotten apples, like McCarrick, and to get rid of them. This approach fails to understand the real nature of the problem.

It is not about the individual apples. The barrel that has housed them, protected them, and nurtured them is itself rotten.

Let’s deal with the barrel.        


[1] If the first Pell jury had been a judge and his or her mind had been split 50/50 or even 80/20 on the question of guilt, that would have constituted reasonable doubt and Pell would have been found not guilty. We do not know what the split was in the first jury.

[2] The fact that Canon Law — specifically Canon 1387 — may prescribe laicisation as a penalty for some of his transgressions is neither here nor there. This canon, and many others, merely codifies and exemplifies the caste rules that are at the heart of the current crisis. As a whole, Canon Law, like any system of law, tends to serve the interests of the institution that shapes it and applies it.

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* 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.

 

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IN DEPTH — Clerical sexual abuse: deal with the rotten apples but fix the barrel too