How ought we respond to
sexual abuse in the Church?

How ought we respond to sexual abuse in the Church?

January’s edition of Quadrant has an interesting article by a lapsed Catholic about the clerical abuse scandal: ‘Father Scapegoat,’ by Joe Dolce.

(That link will take you to the article in its entirety, which surprises me. I thought you’d have to buy the magazine! It’s worth subscribing to Quadrant. It’s good for the life of the mind — your own specifically, and Australia’s more broadly.)

Anyway, Joe Dolce’s missive teems with insights. His recollection of prurience in the confessional is mortifying, and thankfully alien to my own experience. His perception of the Catholic priesthood’s “unique spiritual cul-de-sac” is enlightening. And his exposition of the sexual abuse of children in contemporary society is horrifying.

The article makes excellent reading, and I recommend it to everyone.

But I take issue with Dolce’s critique of the Church’s media response. I agree with him that the press has engaged in an irrational and dishonest campaign against the Church. I get what people mean when they suggest “the Church should thank the media.” Without external pressure, internal reform seldom occurs. It’s impossible to thank the media though, when its anti-Catholic prejudice blinds it to abuse occurring elsewhere, and hinders responsible debate about where popular culture has gone wrong.

The pedophile priest, Dolce writes, has become the scapegoat. All our guilt and blame is projected onto him (and the Catholic Church by association and implication), and everyone else is absolved. Dolce cites a slew of studies which demonstrate that the problem is much larger than the Church. And he wonders why more Catholics don’t speak up and refute media distortions.

I think there are a few answers to that. I think some Catholics are so mortified by the scandal, that they now tune out of the media coverage, and hope for the day the storm passes. And I think many Catholics are mortified by the hierarchy’s inadequate response to victims, and are loathe to defend the Church’s record on this issue, even in the face of media mendacity.

And then there is Dolce’s appeal to a martyr complex:

Unfortunately, there is also a historical proclivity amongst some Catholic clergy—an almost suicidal romantic yearning—for martyrdom, in the spirit of the martyrdom of Jesus. The contemporary Catholic saint Maximilian Kolbe once said that he looked forward to being sent to “heathen” Japan where if priests were fortunate they might be martyred for their beliefs. To me, that is passive and cowardly. Real martyrdom would be more along the path of the social activist, the path that Jesus actually walked, speaking out against the lie and taking whatever consequences.

Dolce’s greatest strength is also his greatest weakness. His outside view affords him refreshing insights into the popular perception of the celibate priest. But it prevents him from understanding an authentically faithful response to the Gospel.

Just such an account is provided, however, by Fr Ron Rolheiser’s ‘On Carrying A Scandal Biblically.’ (A survivor of sexual abuse read this article and recommended it to me. They quibbled over minor points, but from their perspective the sum of it is excellent.)

Rolheiser suggests that the Church’s response to the sexual abuse scandal should be focused exclusively on healing:

To carry this scandal biblically means too that healing, not self-protection and security, must be our real preoccupation. Sometimes for bishops, provincials, religious superiors, and church officials there’s a real (and understandable) danger of losing perspective in the face of accusations of sexual abuse. Many times, in fact, we have lost perspective.

In the vortex this crisis, what has to be our primary preoccupation? To protect the innocent and to bring about healing and reconciliation. Everything else (worries about security, lawsuits, and the like) must come afterwards.

Rolheiser echoes Dolce’s claim that the pedophile priest, even the Church, has become a scapegoat. But where Dolce sees an outrageous injustice which must be put right, Rolheiser sees an outrageous injustice and prophetic opportunity:

Right now priests represent less than one per-cent of the overall problem of sexual abuse, but we’re on the front pages of the newspapers and the issue is very much focused on us. Psychologically this is painful, but biblically this is not a bad thing: The fact that priests and the church have been scapegoated right now is not necessarily bad. If our being scapegoated helps society by bringing the issue of sexual abuse and its devastation of the human soul more into the open, than we are precisely offering ourselves as “food for the life of the world”, and we, like Jesus in his crucifixion, are helping to “take away the sins of the world.”

. . This is not a distraction to the life of the church, it’s perhaps the major thing that we need to do right now for the world and our culture. There are very few things that we are doing as Christian communities today that are more important than helping the world deal with this issue. If the price tag is that we are humiliated on the front pages of the newspapers and that the Anglican, United, and Roman Catholic Churches of Canada end up financially bankrupt, so be it. Crucifixions are never easy and they exact real blood! It might well be worth it in the long run if we can help our world come to grips with this.

I can see why the world might call this a martyr complex. But it strikes me as profoundly supernatural in its outlook. Which is another way of saying that far from being passive and cowardly, it is good and true.

The NCP Convention

The NCP Convention

The current edition of The Swag reproduces a blog post by Fr Norm Langenbrunner, one of the founding members of the newly formed Association of United States Catholic Priests.

The AUSCP styles itself as an association of ‘Vatican II priests’ who wish to keep alive the Spirit of the Council. By way of clarification, Fr Norm relates in his post the content of a talk he heard at a recent AUSCP regional meeting:

In his presentation Father Bacik clarified the difference between Vatican II priests and JPII priests under two operative models of priesthood: servant/leader (inspired by Vatican II) or spiritual father (inspired by Pope John Paul II).

The servant/leader model tends to see a priest in terms of ministry shared with the laity, of witness to social justice issues, of exploring how the Gospel is to be translated into today’s world.

The spiritual father model tends to see a priest in terms of directing the laity in their service to the Church, of piety in prayer, of maintaining orthodoxy.

Bearing in mind that I didn’t have access to the actual text of Fr Jim Bacik’s talk, and Fr Norm wasn’t attempting to reproduce Fr Bacik’s talk in any detail, I shook my head as I read these paragraphs.

I consider myself a ‘JPII priest.’ John Paul was still pope when I discerned a priestly vocation and entered the seminary, and his writings and spirituality have had a big influence on me. Nonetheless, although I happily identify with piety in prayer and with orthodoxy, I certainly don’t pretend to “direct the laity in their service to the Church.” That’s a brand of clericalism which I’ll always reject. I suspect most ‘JPII priests’ do likewise.

Knowing your adversary

It’s never an easy thing to faithfully describe an adversarial position. I’ve failed at it myself. People sometimes ask me why I wear a clerical collar, and why many other priests don’t wear the clerical collar. My answer was always thoughtful and charitable, but for a long time it was wrong. I misread the motives of the older generations of priests who eschew the collar. I realised that when I asked a priest whom I respect why he had taken off the collar. His answer startled me, because his motivation to hang up the collar was identical to my motivation to take it up again: “It opens doors.” That’s not a reason I had attributed.

Because I get it wrong myself, I am patient with people who misrepresent an adversarial position. Misunderstanding one’s adversary is not on its own sufficient grounds to discount a voice, which is typically more authoritative when expressing more sympathetic positions. I persevered with Fr Norm’s article, and the rest of The Swag, for the insight it can offer on “Vatican II priests.” What are they thinking? What are they feeling? I did this, not only because they are my brother priests and it’s good to take an interest in family, but also because this past week, I attended the NCP Convention in Warrnambool.

Warrnambool 2012

I like to think I’m open minded, and that I went into the convention with a positive attitude. One of my favourite quotes comes from James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake:

Catholic means, ‘Here comes everybody.’

I can deal with the fact that I disagree with other priests on many things. Nonetheless, walking into the convention room that first evening, I was very tentative. To my mind, The Swag is often beyond the pale, and the NCP excessively negative. Apart from that, any large clerical gathering can become something of a minefield. An old saying — often repeated by priests — came to mind:

Priests are like manure. Grouped together they produce hot air and bad smells; spread out they do a lot of good.

At best, I expected to receive deeper insight into the minds and hearts of self-styled “Vatican II priests,” while enduring unfair and inaccurate characterisations of my own generation.

But I received much more than that. I received the hospitality of priests who were sincere in their welcome, and quite willing to engage. And in the keynote addresses by Fr Timothy Radcliffe I received universal insights into the Church and the world. Radcliffe showed himself to be not only a clear and deep thinker, but someone who is able to understand and express his adversaries’ positions as well as his own. He set the tone for a convention which was not pessimistic or self-obsessed, but hopeful and supernatural in its outlook.

My differences with many in the NCP remain. I think I may have cast the sole dissenting vote on one motion. (I didn’t look around at the show of hands.) But all Catholic priests share a lot in common. I learnt a lot at the convention — from its speakers, and from its attendees. And I enjoyed the week immensely.

In many ways, I was more “at home” at last month’s ACCC Conference. But I felt a welcome guest at the NCP Convention, and I will go again. I recommend it.

A priest for ever

A priest for ever

Last night, on the feast of Ss Peter and Paul, Michael Gallacher was ordained a priest of the Archdiocese of Melbourne.

Michael and I started in the seminary together, and I count him among my closest friends. We should have finished in the seminary together, but midway through our fifth year, Archbishop Hart sent Michael to Rome for further study. That is testament in itself to Michael’s intellect, dedication, and leadership.

It was very moving to see Michael ordained a priest last night, and to be there this morning when he offered his first mass at his home parish. In fact it was every bit as moving as my own ordination nine months ago.

There might be a few reasons for this. Seminary life is not always easy, and it forges strong and lasting friendships. Every time a brother seminarian leaves, it’s something of a blow to those who remain. Doubly so when it’s someone from your own year level. When a brother seminarian is ordained a priest, it’s a great joy. Now, I find, it is doubly so when it’s someone from your own year level.

But another reason comes to mind. This is the first priestly ordination I have attended since becoming a priest myself. I count it a real privilege that I should lay hands for the first time on the head of one of my best friends. But now it’s not only a shared vocation and shared history which unites us. We’re also united by the priesthood itself.

Again and again as a seminarian, and especially on the occasion of my own ordination, priests remarked that I filled them with hope. Not me specifically. Or rather, not me exclusively. But all those men who discerned a priestly call and assented. But it wasn’t until last night that I really understood what they meant.

Seeing a man ordained a priest, as a priest myself, gave me new insight into the mystery of sacramental orders. “A priest is not his own,” goes the old saying. Nor, it can be added, is his priesthood his own. There is only one priest, Jesus Christ the High Priest, who has permitted me to share in his ministerial priesthood. I was acutely aware of that last night, as I watched my brother and my friend receive the same share.

The hope and joy which I experienced was not sectarian or self-satisfied: “Another one joins the club, affirming my own choice.” That doesn’t capture it. It was hope in the priesthood. The Lord’s priesthood: the marvellous gift of redemption and salvation which Jesus has given men and women. And again I was filled with awe and gratitude that the Lord had called me to share in his this.

Perhaps Fr Michael’s ordination was so evocative of my own because in some ecclesial sense, our ordinations – and every priestly ordination – is the one event, in a way analogous to the unity of every mass with the sacrifice at Calvary, offered once and for all. Or maybe I’m lurching into heresy – unintentionally of course!

In any event, I wasn’t the only one to share Fr Michael’s joy last night. The centre pews of St Patrick’s Cathedral were full from front to back with a remarkable microcosm: family, Whitefriar old boys, mates from footy and athletics and umpiring, friends from Monash and the Catholic Theological College and NET Ministries, young and old, believers and non-believers.

All of them were there to support Michael, and in many cases to pray for him. But ordinations – like all sacramental celebrations – can bring many unexpected graces on such observers. One of those graces is a much needed one: a prompting from the Lord to follow him in a particular vocation. To lay down one’s life for him, and for the world. Be it priestly or religious or another form of life.

In his words of thanks at the end of last night’s mass, Fr Michael remarked that he had no doubt there were young men in that vast congregation whom God was calling to the priesthood. I don’t doubt it either. The following image came to mind which captures something, I think, of the grace of last night’s event.

A small boy spontaneously imitates the ordinands,
prostrate before the Lord during the Litany of Saints.