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Saturday, April 19, 2008

Secrecy, Conspiracy & Lies: A Case of Arrested Development

I've found myself "stewing" every time another news story comes on about the Pope's visit to America. That's not surprising, really. I'm not unlike many former RC's who grit their teeth at the adulation given to this 'foreign curia.' What surprised me, however, is the anger I felt when the Pope met with the victims of child abuse.

I wrote this piece in May of 2002. I found it archived in a monthly column I used to do for The Witness Online. Then, I remembered why I was so angry that the Pope apologized to the victims.

His apology didn't go far enough. The proposed changes to Vatican law will probably not go far enough. He should also be deeply ashamed that the perpetrators of the abuse are also, more often than not, victims themselves of child abuse who are perpetuating the system of secrecy, conspiracy and lies which, I have no doubt, continues today - in the American Church and elsewhere in the world.

It's what I call A Case of Arrested Development.

Here's my essay from 2002. It's a bit long, but heck, it's Saturday. Take your laptop outside on the lawn and read it. That this piece has held up fairly well over time is a real indictment of just how badly the institutional church has responded to this terrible situation.

Secrecy, Conspiracy & Lies: A Case of Arrested Development

The Roman Catholic Church of my youth broke my heart. I thought I had been healed. The current crisis of widespread allegations of child sex abuse involving Roman Catholic priests has opened old wounds — for me and for many former Roman Catholics who are now Episcopalians. I, like many former Roman Catholics, have recovered memories I didn’t even I had.

Even though it was part of the reason for my leaving, I am still astounded by the arrogance of some members of the Roman Church’s hierarchy who think they are above the law. As young adults, we used to jokingly call the moral code of the church "truth by blatant assertion." Even so, my jaw drops as another of those "Princes of the Church" innocently looks into the camera like "Bambi in the headlights" and openly admits his complicity in the crime by continually transferring known pedophiles to other churches and dioceses. All in the name of "forgiveness" — which they now assume will be extended to them — and "absolve" them of any criminal charges.

Even though I know the dynamic all too well because it exists in our church, it breaks my heart to witness the scapegoating of the entire tragic situation on gay men. The now-enlightened men of the Church’s hierarchy have suddenly seen the light with regards to pedophilia, but some remain completely in the dark with regards to human sexuality.

These otherwise intelligent prelates seem to have their ability to reason inhibited by fear and are unable to understand that there is absolutely no connection between homosexuality and predatory child sex abuse — indeed, medical reports and criminal records indicate that most pedophiles are heterosexual.

Like many former Roman Catholics, I’ve known some of these men. Some were priests in the parishes of my childhood. Others were contemporaries and colleagues in ministry. Ironically, some of us even have childhood memories of the boys who received "special attention" from Father, and at the time, we — especially the girls — were jealous. Only now do I understand the look some of those boys gave us when we teased them about being "Father’s special boy." Only now do I remember the worried look on Sister’s face when Father came into the classroom to fetch his "special boy."

I also remember — and worked with — the now 71 year-old Roman Catholic priest who was recently extradited from retirement in San Diego to Boston where he faces charges of three counts of rape with a child. He had an "apostolic ministry to street people" in Boston and maintained a weekly advertisement in the local gay paper, "Bay Windows" claiming to have a "ministry of pastoral care and counseling to the gay community." Everyone "knew" that he was sexually active — often with the very gay men who came to him for his "ministry." Everyone "knew" that he espoused sex between men and boys. But no one asked, so no one told. And now, some of us are feeling the burden of the complicity of our silence.

The "moral monsters" like this are the exception to the rule — mostly because "the rule" protected them and, in so doing, enabled and perpetuated their life of crime. As many of us former Roman Catholics know, most of the other priests who are being implicated were good men. Good men from good, devout families. Young men who entered the priesthood filled with altruism and noble impulses about service to God and humankind. Some were gay. Some were straight. Most were too young to have any clarity about their own sexual identity.

I, like so many former and practicing Roman Catholics, am plagued with questions. What went wrong? Why are there so many predatory pedophiles in the Roman Catholic Church? Does it have anything to do with an all-male priesthood? Is this a by-product of the mandatory vow of celibacy? Is the mechanism of institutional accountability too remote, having its locus in Rome where the cultural understanding of human sexuality lags definitively behind progressive American thought? Is this a case of "don’t ask, don’t tell," which has taken a uniquely bizarre and unexpected path?

After experiencing the words of one of the prayers of my youth, "mourning and weeping in this valley of tears," a theory has emerged — one that helps to explain, but does not, in any way, shape or form, intend to excuse. Many who spent our youth in Roman Catholic schools know only too well the boys who were chosen for "junior seminary." "Father" or "Sister" chose one or two of these boys per class to be part of a special educational track which would be more rigorous academically, elevate their class status, and involve what we then knew then as "priestly formation." They were to spend their junior and senior high school years preparing to travel the path that the wisdom of their elders informed them would lead to seminary and the priesthood.

What we now know is that many of these young men experienced what psychologists term "arrested development." They were not allowed to develop their own emotional and psychosexual potential because of what was then termed "priestly formation." For many of these young men, it became their destiny to grow into men in adult bodies whose emotional and psychosexual development remained arrested at 12 or 13 years old.

Again, this is not to excuse behavior, but to try to understand the extraordinary phenomenon of so many so-called pedophiles in the Roman Catholic priesthood. I do not believe this to be the case. With the exception of one or two, I do not believe that these men are true pedophiles, as sound medical research will indicate this to be a statistical improbability. I believe that, when these men entered into sexual relationships with 12-13 year old boys they were, in fact, having sex with their emotional and psychosexual peers. Often, they were repeating the behavior which had been perpetrated on them when they were that age — as part of their "formation" as priests.

There is, of course, no excuse for this behavior and this is not intended to provide such an excuse. It is to say, however, that while the criminal justice system should, indeed, hold these men accountable for their crimes, it should also hold the institution which created them accountable — and, in fact, should provide some measure of punishment for their participation in these crimes. Unfortunately, that will end up manifesting itself in punitive monetary damages, and may, in fact, bankrupt many Roman Catholic dioceses, just as it has the Anglican diocese of Caribou. I’m not an advocate of that, but I do see it as a distinct, albeit unfortunate, probability.

As if things couldn’t be worse, the witch hunts and scapegoating of male clergy whose sexual orientation is gay has already begun. This dynamic is, of course, a way to deflect attention from the real crisis, but the sad truth is that the institutional church is now revealing its own arrested moral development. This is most clearly evident in the culture of secrecy, conspiracy and lies by priests, bishops and cardinals which has become part of the climate of the institutional church.

Secrecy, conspiracy and lies are the elements of the environment in which the seed of predatory sexual behavior is allowed to grow and flourish. It is a deep insult and embarrassment to the entire Body of Christ. It is breaking the heart of those whose faith and sense of ministry was born in that church, even as it convinces us of the rightness of our decision to leave it.

My own deep concern is that scapegoating gay men in the church will be interpreted by those on the Christian Right as an "Open Season of Violence" on LGBT people. When cardinals — like Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia who called homosexuality "an aberration, a moral evil," or Adam Maida of Detroit who said "it’s not truly a pedophilia-type problem but a homosexual-type problem," or the Pope’s spokesman, Joaquin Navarro-Valls who suggested that the cause of the "scandal" was "too many homosexuals in the priesthood," or Bishop Wilton Gregory who discussed the "on-going struggles to make sure the Catholic priesthood is not ‘dominated’ by homosexual men," — provide the media with that kind of rhetoric, it can only lead to an increase in emotional, verbal and physical violence against LGBT people.

As those who have studied the sociological issue of domestic violence have learned, violent language always leads to a violent expression of that language.

One positive note is that, as difficult as it has been for the Episcopal Church to enter into discussion about human sexuality in general and homosexuality in particular, I think we are in a healthier place for it. This is not to brag or boast, or to diminish the pain many lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and straight people have had to endure to keep the conversation open and on-going. It is to say that while many would say that we have paid a very high price for these conversations, and wish they would end, we have, in fact, been participating in our own health and well being.

To those who say that these conversations about sexuality have been at the expense of mission I say that our mission has greater clarity, and our church is in a healthier place in order to carry out the mission of Christ Jesus because of these conversations. Our Presiding Bishop likes to point out that in the gospel stories, conversion is always a result of conversation. In many ways, we’ve only just begun the conversation about human sexuality. Indeed, if true conversion is to happen, if the church — small ‘c’ — is in the process of the second great reformation, as many have pointed that the tragedies of the Roman Catholic Church are indicative of, then on-going conversation about the full range of human sexuality becomes even more imperative.

We have learned that when violence or abuse has occurred, the best salve for the wound is this: for the truth to be told, for authentic apologies to be made, for punishment, if merited by the extent of the crime, to be administered, and for honest efforts to make certain that the abuse and violence will never again be perpetrated. There can be no greater indictment of the policy of "don’t ask, don’t tell" than the current crisis in the Roman Catholic Church. Silence, we know, does nothing to protect anyone — neither the victim nor the perpetrator. Enforced silence, we are learning, leads to arrested development — of our hearts, our minds, our bodies, our spirit, our faith, our moral and ethical codes of conduct, and the mission and ministry of the church.

We would do well to remember the prophetic words of Audre Lourde. "When I use my power in service of my vision, then it becomes less and less important whether or not I am afraid. Your silence will not protect you."


David |däˈvēd| said...

If he is going to talk the talk, he needs to walk the walk or it is empty lip-service to an adoring world.

He needs to order the return of all international fugitive priests hiding in plain sight to the USA to face the charges at peril of excommunication of the priest and the bishops, archbishops & abbots who are allowing them to hide in their diocese or religious order!

Especially those here in Mexico. They are reportedly continuing their devilish deeds on the children here.

Muthah+ said...

I wish there was as much of a stir about those women who are being abused by clergy as a regular thing and then blamed for "leading the clergy astray.

No one makes any noise about the 12-14 year old girls that are abused by clergy of all denominations. It is only what happens to boys that seems to count--and I think the gender bias is so much a part of this that we cannot even approach the issue.

ulrich said...

Thanks for excellent insights; myself moved from RC to anglican. The fact that some anglicans become RC's are often publicized, but not those from RC to anglican.
I also love the sea, but do not share your musical preferences or books, or live theatre/er.(this is a bit of lightheartedness!)
thanks for your insights. Oh by the way I'm a solitary contemplative/hermit for the last few decades.
A good list for monastic subjects at Yahoo is

FranIAm said...

There is not much for me to say Elizabeth, other than thank you.

Your words - from today and from 2002 say many things that I have a hard time articulating.

When I can articulate more, a contributing factor will be not only your words, but the support I have found here and in the TEC blogworld in general.