Letters & Op-Eds 2002

Abuse of Power Comes as No Surprise

As Conscience goes to press, the Catholic church is in the midst of a crisis that has profoundly eroded the moral credibility of church leaders. The case of a defrocked pedophile priest in the Archdiocese of Boston who abused more than 100 boys and young men over a 30-year period and the continuing cover-up by archdiocesan officials, especially Cardinal Bernard Law, has unleashed the disgust and anger of the nation. Catholics are horrified by the extent of the abuse and outraged by the behavior of church officials who provided so little protection for the abused, shielded pedophiles from the law and seemed particularly interested in protecting church funds from legal judgments. In the Boston case, church lawyers succeeded in sealing court records. When those files were released, they revealed that the pattern of protecting the church at the expense of children continued to the present day.

Comments by church officials about these matters have not assuaged Catholic concern; in most cases they merely served to increase our anger. “Too little, too late” has been a common reaction. Law’s apology justified the past practice of “treating” and reassigning pedophiles to new parishes. It was, the cardinal claimed, based on the advice of church-appointed psychiatrists. The pope’s spokesperson hinted that the problem was an American one and suggested homosexuals needed to be weeded out of the priesthood. When the pope finally acknowledged the problem, his statements focused more on the priests who had committed these crimes than on the victims.

Responses from the right included the obligatory condemnation of the abuse accompanied by a vigorous defense of church leaders and charges that the media and reformers are engaged once again in “Catholic bashing.” Others have been wringing their hands over the way in which this scandal has tarnished the reputation of all priests.

Where one asks, is the outpouring of concern for the victims? In the midst of the commentary about what has caused this abuse and what can be done to stop it, the single most important reality is that thousands of young people, apparently mostly young men, have been tragically used by individual priests and by the institutional church. A telling example comes from St. Augustine’s, a predominantly progressive African American church in Washington, D.C. Two women recently came forward to report that, some 20 years ago, the parish’s pastor, Monsignor Russell Dillard, engaged in what is probably best described as immature sexual petting when the girls were in their teens. Msgr. Dillard, a much-respected local priest, has appropriately been suspended. I was struck by a large sign I saw near the church on Easter Sunday. “We love you Father Dillard,” it said. Where, I thought, was the “I love you” sign for the girls?

While we deal with abuse of power and how to change it, the one overriding factor must be our love and compassion, our admiration for those who have come forward. For many, if not all, our church has robbed them of a piece of their youth, has contributed to that which makes them less than whole as adults, and has even robbed them of their faith. Anger at the church must not distract us from giving love and support to the victims.

Is it any surprise that a church that concentrates all power in the hands of an elite priesthood-whether celibate, married, gay or straight, male or female-would find itself unable to deal with, acknowledge, apologize for, understand or correct wrongdoing by that elite?

The church deals harshly and definitively with laity who do not meet its sexual ideals. Catholics who divorce and remarry are adulterers. No sacraments for them. But priests who are pedophiles have a disease so they can administer those sacraments. Priests who decide to marry cannot continue in active ministry, but priests who sexually abuse children can.

Power structures in the church must change to develop a system of real accountability to the community so that no group-clergy, hierarchy, men-is above moral or civil law. Parish councils, diocesan lay councils and lay people must be empowered and have a say over who becomes and stays on as their parish priest.

Only when there is greater equality among all members of the church can we hope to prevent the sexual abuse and abuse of power that characterize this moment in the life of the church.

*The artist Jenny Holzer coined this expression. With her permission CFFC used this phrase on buttons and t-shirts at the Beijing Conference on Women to describe the way in which the hierarchy of the Catholic church acts in relation to women. It seems even more relevant to the current crisis in the church.

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