“Secrets of the Vatican”

February 27, 2014 at 6:00 pm | Posted in Vatican | 8 Comments
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As you may have discerned, I am not a wild fan of the Vatican. I have been working for forty years to get women ordained in the Catholic Church, and such endless banging of the head against Vatican walls has not warmed me toward the boys over there. I also think that the church’s teaching on homosexuality, if not changed significantly, will seriously reduce our numbers sooner or later, even in Africa. That’s certainly what’s happening in the U.S.

But I also spent the 1990s getting a Ph.D. in religion, with a specialization in Catholicism. During that time I learned a good deal about anti-Catholicism. I learned, for example, that in the mid-19th century, a bestseller, The  Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk, or, The Hidden Secrets of a Nun’s Life in a Convent Exposed, virtually identified Catholicism with pornographic sexuality. The book was later almost completely discredited, but it has been reprinted many times. And lest you think U.S. anti-Catholicism is a purely pre-Civil War phenomenon, consider that during the 1960 presidential campaign, leading U.S. Protestant ministers, including Norman Vincent Peale, portrayed John Fitzgerald Kennedy as a Vatican stooge, more or less. And as historian Philip Jenkins argues in The New Anti-Catholicism, since the onset of the sex abuse scandals, Americans say things about the Catholic church that had been socially unacceptable since JFK’s election.

So I wasn’t too hopeful about the February PBS Frontline “documentary,” “The Secrets of the Vatican.” The title itself sounds like something Maria Monk dreamed up. In fact, the film is about problems during the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. But a title like that wouldn’t attract leering millions, would it? And the PBS channel here in New York showed the documentary in the 9 PM slot, instead of the usual Frontline slot of 10 PM. I wonder why?

It’s hard, too, not to call to mind Maria Monk during the first fifty minutes of the eight-four minute film, devoted as they are almost exclusively to clergy sex abuse and lewd homosexual practices ostensibly by very many priests and hierarchs in Rome. This is not to say that I am in favor of child sex abuse (!), or clerical hypocrisy either. But things have come to a point where it’s almost impossible to say anything positive about the Catholic church without someone bringing up clergy sex abuse–and this applies to many liberal Catholics, not just Protestants and seculars. In point of fact, the Catholic church is the single largest provider of health care in the world. Some Vatican congregation supervised all of that under the last two popes. Should they maybe get a mention, along with the congregations that covered up clergy pedophilia and adult sodomy?

The film’s characterization of various aspects of the Vatican State, too, is problematic, overstated, sensationalized. Take, for example, the ominous references to the Vatican’s being a free-standing state, with no accompanying mention that before 1861, the Papal States constituted a significant portion of Italy, from one coast to the other. In 1870, it was deprived of all its territory except Vatican City and became the smallest state in Europe.  Some challenge the Vatican’s right to be a state at all, but it has as much historical legitimacy as the British monarchy, or more.

Similarly, Thomas Doyle’s description of the church as an absolute monarchy is seriously over the top. I have said myself on numerous occasions that the governance structure of the institutional church is that of an absolute monarchy. Please note the qualification there: of the institutional church. Doyle, a canon lawyer who has fought heroically for the rights of sex abuse victims, says the church is an absolute monarchy down to each individual member. If that were true, I’d be in jail. And I am theoretically self-excommunicated for continuing after 1994 to speak out in favor of the ordination of women. But that matters only if one of my pastors since then cared to pursue the issue. None of them have, or would. Lots of them are similarly theoretically self-excommunicated.

Some may dispute my argument that “The Secrets of the Vatican” is anti-Catholic because of the enthusiasm shown for Pope Francis in the last quarter of the film. And indeed, this section of the film is more nuanced than the rest, with some of those interviewed offering cautions about how much (or little) Pope Francis will be able to do in the few years that may be available to him; he was 77 years old when elected, after all. But the “pope-mania” expressed in the last quarter of the film also strongly reinforces, by contrast, the film’s portrayal of the previous two popes as demons.

Dealing with representations of the Vatican is a tricky business. There’s a lot in the Vatican that really does demand reform. But I refuse to err in the opposite direction, becoming a participant, even inadvertently, in the virulent anti-Catholicism that has poisoned this Protestant country for much of the last few centuries. In point of fact, last October, Boz Chividijian, Billy Graham’s grandson, and the head an organization fighting clergy sex abuse in Protestant settings, wrote in the Huffington Post that he believes, with regard to sex abuse, that Evangelicals are worse than Catholics. I wonder what the odds are that a future Frontline documentary will be titled “Secrets of the Evangelical Underground”?

 

Speak Up, You Catholics!

April 7, 2011 at 3:56 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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So recently I went to visit friends in another part of the country. Where is irrelevant. Saturday afternoon we went to the 4:00 PM Mass in their parish.

An energetic young Vietnamese priest celebrated the liturgy, but since the parish retreat was taking place Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, the leader of the retreat, let’s call him Father John, gave the sermon. He was an ordered priest, and probably one who has spent much of his 70 years going around conducting parish retreats. He and the celebrant were quite a sight up there together, since he is 6 foot 4 and the young priest was about 4 foot 11. But I digress.

Father John began his sermon by saying that he always starts his sermons with a joke. So here’s the joke:

A woman was arrested for stealing a can of peaches. Her husband went with her to appear  before the judge. The judge asked, “So how many peaches were there in the can?” The woman replied, “Eight.” “Then I am going to send you to jail for eight days,” the judge replied. The husband said, “I have something I want to say.” “What’s that?” asked the judge. “She also stole a can of peas,” said the husband.

“I guess they needed some marriage counseling,” added Father John.

I don’t know what he talked about in his actual sermon because I was too annoyed by the joke.

I went up to Father John after Mass, on the steps of the church, and said he seemed like a kind man, but that I was deeply offended by the joke. He expressed amazement: “It was only a joke,” he said. “It didn’t mean anything.” He added that he tells the joke frequently at the beginning of his sermons and that I am the first person who ever said anything about it.

As I walked home with my friends and another woman, they all began to talk about how offensive the joke was–that is, how sexist they found it. I said the priest said it was only a joke and meant nothing. One of the women said, “You should have replied, ‘Well, I know a really funny joke about a pedophile priest.'”

I could begin now to rave about the obliviousness of Father John, and how maddening it is that we are afflicted by priests who are so dumb they don’t know that all jokes mean something.

But I think I will limit myself to his statement that no one had ever  before told him that they found the joke offensive. Let me say,to begin with, I believe him. My whole life as a Catholic priests and nuns and teachers have said to me, their eyes wide, “Never in my life have I ever heard a Catholic say such a thing.” Sometimes I feel that my chief reason for remaining a Catholic is to drive them all nuts.

But I would also like to ask: what’s the matter with all you other Catholics out there? Why are you letting these guys get away with this nonsense? Too polite? Too afraid they’ll take you out back and give you a smack the way they did in 1955?

After the Boston Globe broke the second round of Catholic clergy sex abuse stuff in 2002 I read somewhere some information about one family whose children had been molested by their parish priest. Seems that the priest would come and put the  couple’s five kids to bed every night. Now doubtless this priest was a vile fellow to do such a thing. I trust he’s in jail. But I also have to ask: how dumb would you have to be to let somebody put your kids to bed night after night? No doubt the couple allowed it because he was priest. Kind of like all the people in those Catholic parishes where Father John tells his offensive joke about the woman and the peaches and chat about it on the way home without saying a word to him.

Soon-to-be Saint Mary MacKillop, Again

October 12, 2010 at 12:45 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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Today, another article about Blessed Mary MacKillop of Australia, this one on the splendid free on-line journal of the British Jesuits, Thinking Faith, and coming from the congregation that Mary founded, The Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. And here too, no mention of Mary having been excommunicated in revenge for beinig involved in blowing the cover of a priest-sex-abuser. Could it be that American Catholics are more interested in sex abuse than our Australian consouers are? Or that they’re less into speculation? In any case, I was interested to learn that when she’s canonized next Sunday, Saint Mary MacKillop will be Australia’s first canonized saint. I picture St. Elizabeth Seton and St. Francis Xavier Cabrini up there celebrating with her.

The Priest-as-Primary-Predator Myth

July 3, 2010 at 4:07 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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Vatican attempts to rebut the scandal of Catholic clergy sex abuse by accusing the media of malicious intent have for the most part not been successful. “Just one more attempt at ducking responsibility” is the most common reading of such tactics.

It is the case, however, that matters Catholic, and, in particular, purported Catholic sex scandals, have been wildly popular on stage, screen, and in the news for a very long time, from at least the 19th century convent narratives of Maria Monk and Rebecca Reed,  to SisterAct, and the current revival of Nunsense on Broadway.

Thus, while it’s comforting to read the ongoing coverage in the US media of the “expanding” clergy sex abuse scandal as an expression of deep concern for sex abuse victims, there can be little doubt that such stuff also sells, big time. Consider, for example, Time  magazine’s May 27 cover story, “The Trial of Benedict XVI” ( the pope was,of course, not on trial). Or Thursday’s lengthy article in the New York Times  laying out for us that the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under the current pope did an inadequate job of prosecuting accused priest perpetrators. Some news that.

I bring this up because on Friday, on NPR (WNYC),  Leonard Lopate interviewed Susan A. Clancy, the author of The Trauma Myth, a new book on child sexual abuse. As Jefferson A. Singer writes in a review in the June 18 issue of Commonweal magazine, the book is a rebuttal of the “the widely espoused  ‘trauma model’ of child sex abuse, a model that characterizes most abuse as a physically coercive act perpetrated against a terrified victim.” Based on ten years of research, Clancy, according to Singer, “proposes a different template:” child sex abuse as the “seductive manipulation, by a trusted intimate, of a confused, and compliant child.”  The dominance of the “trauma template,” according to Clancy, results in guilt, shame, and isolation on the part of the majority of victims.

Clancy’s argument, in the interview, is a fairly nuanced one; I would urge you to listen to her yourself  But certain parts of it seemed especially pertinent to the “widening” (as virtually all journalists put it) Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal. First of all, because their experience doesn’t fit into the “trauma template,” the vast majority of abuse victims do not report their abuse. This is so because they do not realize, until years later, that it was abuse. According to Clancy, experts believe that 1 out of 5 girls and 1 out of 8 boys are actually victims of sexual abuse. Since reported cases of sex abuse make up only 10 percent of this number, it seems that there is a great deal more sex abuse occurring than it generally acknowledged, and much of it unrecognized until well after the event. (The average age of sex abuse victims is 10 years.)

Secondly, and Clancy describes this as “the worst part” of her findings, when victims whose experience falls outside the trauma template did report the sexual abuse to their families, in very many cases, the families refused to believe them, or blamed them for what had happened. A frequent refrain heard from interviewees was “And they continued to invite him to Thanksgiving dinner.” Many of those who call in at the end of the Lopate-Clancy interview confirm this part of her argument.

It is clear from what Clancy says that people closest to the victim are those most likely to commit the abuse, which is part of the reason for immediate relatives frequently refusing to acknowledge it (and virtually never calling the police). This, Lopate and Clancy agree, suggests a problem that is “endemic” to the structure of the family and of society.

Jefferson Singer’s Commonweal  review of Clancy’s book and the Lopate-Clancy  interview on WNYC make no reference to Catholic clergy sex abuse. But if you haven’t made any connections for yourself, let me suggest a few. First of all, many families don’t seem to react to reports of familial sex abuse very differently than the bishops and the Vatican did until  recently.  Not that this justifies their behavior–but the similarity is striking.

Secondly, if, in fact, there is vastly more sex abuse going on than we have been led to believe, and if, in fact, so much of it is in families that it suggests a problem in the very structure of that “foundation” of American society, what might be an effective way to draw attention away from such a problem? How about identifying child sex abuse with the Roman Catholic Church? Case in point: Jeffery Israely and  Howard Chua-Eoan’s absolute statement in their cover story for the May 27 issue of Time,

Church officials defensively point out that almost all the alleged crimes at the heart of the current crisis were part of a social milieu in which child sexual abuse was rarely prosecuted, if discussed at all. But nowhere was there a more systemic tendency to cover up the shame and scandal than in Catholic parishes and orphanages entrusted with the care of the young…

Really, fellas? Susan Clancy seems to suggest that there’s more in the American family…

By raising these questions, I do not mean to suggest that the sexual abuse of children is not horrific. (Nor does Clancy suggest this.) But Clancy’s research does reinforce a notion I have had for a very long time: you may need to keep an eye on Father Mike, but you’d better keep an eye on Uncle Fred as well, and maybe even more so.

Sex Abuse Bibliography

April 24, 2010 at 12:40 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
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Those of you follow my blog know that I am occasionally subject to an obsession with the Vatican that I consider a serious personal failing. A falling off the wagon, as it were. Of course, the (as virtually ever journalist in the world describes it) “mounting” Catholic sex abuse scandal certainly helps to explain my current mania. You can  barely turn on the radio without hearing a reference to the Vatican and sex abuse. Still…

In an attempt to “achieve some closure” on this latest episode of Vatican mania, I have decided, in classic professorial style, to construct  a list of articles about Catholic clergy sex abuse that in my opinion add at least some nuance to the “conversation.” Your paper on same is due May 1.

I have already mentioned the Ross Douthout April 11 NYTimes op-ed piece about Benedict XVI being “The Better Pope” with regard to sex abuse. I mention it again because it doesn’t seem to have gotten much play. Hard to fathom how somebody who was in charge of the Catholic Church for almost three decades within the period during which a massive cover-up of sex abuse ostensibly took place could continue to get a pass. But JPII was a brilliant tactician; perhaps he continues to be so even after death.

Another article on sex abuse and the church, “On Scandal and Scandals,” by priest-psychologist Brendan Callaghan, appeared last week on Thinking Faith,  the on-line journal of the British Jesuits. The striking thing about this article is that, although it’s written by a Catholic priest, it exhibits neither the inept defensiveness of the Vatican nor the vituperative tone of too much  journalism on the scandal. Callaghan’s concluding thoughts on sin and reconciliation in the light of the Resurrection of Jesus instilled more hope in me about this great mess than anything I’ve read in a long time. (Thinking Faith, by the bye,  is free, and well worth subscribing to.)

On another front, one well to the south of the countries where the scandal is getting the greatest play, the Catholic Information Service of Africa (CISA) has published a talk on clergy sex abuse by the Archbishop of Johannesburg, Buti Tlhagale. Archbishop Thlagale is unambiguous in his condemnation of sex abuse by Catholic clergy. And he speaks of the clergy in first person plural–“we,” not “you,”–detailing the enormous harm that has been done to the Church by priests. But he doesn’t stop there, ending, instead, with words of hope, those spoken by Jesus to Francis of Assisi at the time of his conversion: “Francis, go rebuild my house, which, as you see, is all being destroyed.” Would that Archbishop Tlhagale’s emphatic condemnation had been quoted alongside those of the Vatican nitwit who, during Holy Week, compared the treatment of the Church to the oppression of the Jews. (CISA’s email coverage of the Church in Africa is also free and worthwhile. Subscription info here.) 

Finally, I bring to your attention yesterday’s article in the New York Times  (April 23) about an $18.5 million sex abuse judgment  against the Boy Scouts of America. Apparently the Scouts for decades kept a secret file of sex abusers that ostensibly “detailed many instances across the country in which troop leaders or volunteers were allowed to continue working with children even after the Scouts had received complaints that they had committed sexual abuse.” The Scouts’ lawyer argued that “the files proved that the Scouts were ahead of their time in tracking child sexual abuse, even if the system was ‘not foolproof.’” One commentator, at least, suggested that the setting up of the file actually was well intentioned, initially at least.

Clergy Sex Abuse, Intolerable; E. Coli, Less So

October 9, 2009 at 9:57 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment
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I became aware of the legal battle between the Roman Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport and the New York Times and several other prominent newspapers in September when I spoke about my book, Tracing the Sign of the Cross,  at a meeting of the lay Catholic group Voice of the Faithful in the Diocese of Bridgeport. The group was unexpectedly enthusiastic about my presentation, for which I was grateful.

Over dinner the group’s leaders filled me in on the diocese’s seven year fight to keep sealed its records about the transfer of priests accused of sex abuse. The diocese’s argument is that releasing these documents would violate defendants’ constitutional rights as well as the church’s First Amendment rights against civil interference.

On Tuesday, the Times  reported that the US Supreme Court had declined to delay the release of these documents ordered by a lower court. It also said that this refusal to delay releasing the documents suggests that the court will also refuse to review the decision, giving the newspapers (and others) access at long last.

My first thought when informed about the years of litigation in this case is that the diocese’s actions here undercut former America editor Tom Reese’s observation that massive financial settlements with sex abuse victims would take money away from badly needed church programs for the poor. Here, I thought, it was diocesan refusal to release documents and subsequent endless appeals that were taking money away from church programs for the poor. (This may be mitigated by the fact that the legal work is being done pro bono by attorneys who lived in the diocese.)

I was reminded of this court fight between the Diocese and the newspapers when I read in last Sunday’s Times  an article on a seemingly unrelated topic, the flaws in the US ground beef inspection system that resulted in the paralysis of Stephanie Smith, a 22 year old children’s dance instructor in Minnesota.

The immediate cause of Smith’s paralysis is a virulent strain of E Coli called O157:H7, which sickens tens of thousands of Americans annually. Most of those stricken with this and other strains of E.Coli recover, but about 10% of these cases “develop into a condition called hemolytic uremic syndrome, which can affect kidney function,” and, “in the worst cases, like Ms. Smith’s, the toxin O157:H7 penetrates the colon wall, damaging blood vessels and causing clots that can lead to seizures.” 

The article, which is quite lengthy, details the aspects of ground beef production that lead to E. coli contamination. But what really grabbed my attention were similarities between the actions of the corporation who distributed the ground beef that caused Ms. Smith’s paralysis (as well as those of the US Department of Agriculture) and the actions  of the Catholic Diocese of Bridgeport:

“Cargill…declined requests to interview company officials or visit its facilities…

“The meat industry treats much of its practices and the ingredients in ground beef as trade secrets. While the Department of Agriculture has inspectors posted in plants and has access to production records, it also guards these secrets. Federal records released by the department through the Freedom of Information Act blacked out details of Cargill’s grinding operation that could be learned only through copies of the documents obtained from other sources. Those documents illustrate the restrained approach to enforcement by a department whose missions include ensuring meat safety and promoting agriculture markets.”

Or, as an administrator in the department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service observed, “I have to look at the entire industry, not just what is best for public health.”

Admittedly, the Times pursued this story with the same tenacity it pursued the records of the Diocese of Bridgeport. But the discussion of the harm done to victims of E. coli in the Times article is vastly more nuanced—with some seriously harmed and others less so—than any discussion of harm done to clergy sex abuse victims that I have ever encountered. And are any of us Catholics—or anybody else for that matter—rushing to form a group called “Voice of Those Paralyzed or on Dialysis from E. Coli”? I think not. Sex abuse is a whole lot more galvanizing.

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