In the 1960s movie, “Hud,” the title character played by Paul Newman, resorts to lying to ward off the man whose wife Hud has been bedding.
Hud halts the jealous husband by raising his right hand like a traffic cop halting traffic and telling the man he’s aware of the problem and knows his 17-year-old nephew is the guilty party and he will severely discipline the boy and ensure the boy will never see the woman again.
The reaction of Catholic Church bureaucrats to the widespread reports of sex scandals involving priests and bishops reminds me of Hud’s approach—Don’t worry; we have the situation under control and the best way to handle it is through internal sanctions. Sorta like the internal investigation the Iran government initiated to determine whether the presidential election there was fair.
Unlike the Iran government, the Catholic Church does not have the power of a secular government (except in the smallest country in the world, Vatican City). Instead, the church relies on influence and on help from its friends.
Friends such as the Irish police according to reports that the cops there colluded with church officials to cover up widespread sexual offenses by priests and the bishops who sheltered them. I don’t know if that has been going on in this country, but in a heavily Catholic state like Massachusetts, similar collusion with secular authorities there wouldn’t surprise me.
Up to now, I have refrained from commenting on the scandal because I had nothing to add to what has already been said. I saw no point in stating the obvious—I oppose using power to seduce adults and especially children. Aside from murder and rape, that is one of the most heinous crimes I can think of—especially when the perps hide behind the spiritual authority of the church.
The scandals here in Alaska have been especially painful to me. Four close personal priest friends have been accused of sexual offenses. The first two priests I ever met in Alaska have been accused along with co-workers in my first two jobs in Alaska.
I visited one such priest friend in 1977. I remember seeing him openly go to a female volunteer worker and kiss her on the lips in front of everyone. I remember thinking that I hoped he knew what he was doing because I sure didn’t.
My trust in my friend’s goodness and in his priesthood trumped my confusion over his behavior. The idea that he was doing something wrong never occurred to me. I implicitly believed if a priest ever used his status to seduce women, he’d be defrocked immediately. Since my friend was not defrocked, I concluded he could not be doing anything wrong. In retrospect, I now understand three decades later I was guilty of idolatry. I confused the human with the divine.
That’s the problem as I see it. We expect our priests and bishops to behave better than the rest of us because we believe they work for God. We tend to ignore the fact that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. I have no reason to believe that priests and bishops are generally more evil than the rest of us. But my nearly 70 years of experience have taught me that religious training doesn’t automatically make me a better person. I have never seen conclusive evidence that my fellow Catholics, fellow Christians, fellow believers in God, for that matter, on the whole behave themselves any better than devout atheists. Bishops and priests have more power than the rest of us, not the power of government, but the power of influence and persuasion, and, sometimes, financial power. That power makes them more vulnerable to corruption.
I make no excuses for the priests who molest children and the bishops who cover them up. These acts are despicable and the perps are 100% responsible for their crimes. So I don’t hesitate to identify spin and call it what it is. This summer, the local Catholic newspaper, the Catholic Anchor, ran a two-full-age-ad paid for by some outfit with a fancy-schmancy name but apparently the work of some disgruntled bishop (not in Alaska) and his supporters. That ad lambasted anyone who condemned the behavior of priest child molesters as anti-Catholic bigots. I have no more problem calling that an obvious ad hominem attack similar to the tactics employed by Brian Sweeney, Jr. and his cronies who accuse me of being an anti-Semite who hates their favorite foreign country. For some reason they confuse criticism of behaviors I consider immoral with hatred. That kind of spin illustrates the point I made in a previous paragraph: all that religious training and years in the church doesn’t prevent a bishop from the same kind of phoniness we see from Brian and his buddies.
I am writing this essay because I haven’t seen anyone else make these simple points:
1) We have to recognize that Catholic priests and bishops are not necessarily any better than the rest of us; their religious training does not guarantee that they behave any better than the rest of us.
2) They are in some ways more powerful and more influential than the rest of us and therefore are more vulnerable than we are to corruption.
3) Church officials need to recognize those two facts and act accordingly.
Some fellow Catholics like to point out the church is not a democracy. That is true, but that does not excuse church bureaucrats from irresponsible behavior. There is no church teaching, no Biblical passage I know of that keeps the church from recognizing its failings and taking positive steps to share its power.
The very nature of bureaucracies in my experience leads such bureaucracies to seek and select leaders for their ability to protect the interests of the bureaucracy instead of the interests of those the bureaucracy was set up to serve. Church officials, in my view, need to understand that tendency and that reality and work to ensure its leaders serve the people they're supposed to. The leaders need to understand the bureaucracy is not the church. The people are. When bureaucracies lose sight of the reason for their service and become self-serving instead, it's time to get rid of such bureaucracies. What Jesus said about our eyes is true about our bureaucracies: If they lead us to sin, they must be plucked out. That principle is just as true for church bureaucracies as well as secular ones. Church officials are as likely to forget that as secular bureaucrats are.
Too often, bishops have tried to get away with their coverups by worrying about "scandal"; they worried about the image of the church more than about the victims of the crimes committed and covered up by church officials. To me that's like the Exxon officials more concerned with cleaning up the corporate image after the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill than with cleaning up the oil. There's only one way to deal with bishops more concerned with sanitizing the church's image than in cleaning up the spiritual pollution. Fire them.
Which brings me to my final point. Those in power in the church need to understand that they cannot address the problem without understanding that at its root it is a structural one. The relatively small number of priest and bishop criminals have been able to get away with their crimes because the church did not create an adequate system of checks and balances. Instead of having a system that deterred these criminal behaviors, the church bureaucratic structure worked to enable them to commit and get away with such crimes.