Thomas P Doyle
More Reflections from
25 Years of Experience
March 10, 2010

           Not long after my New Years Day Reflections were published I received a message from a friend who passed on to me some reactions to my short essay.  I had planned on a response shortly after but time moved faster than I. Although nearly three months have passed the issue burns now more intensely than ever! 

          First, one reader said he was disturbed that I had accused every bishop of neglect.  Actually I did not accuse any bishop of anything.  I related my personal experience and in that experience I found no instance the list of bishops who have proven themselves by placing victims above image is short…very short.  As of this date I can count only three:  Bishop Tom Gumbleton of Detroit, Bishop Geoff Robinson of Melbourne, Australia and Archbishop Diarmiud Martin of Dublin.  For their efforts both Tom Gumbleton and Geoff Robinson were disciplined by the Vatican.  Archbishop Martin is still going, no doubt protected from the Vatican vindictiveness by the world-wide revelations of clergy sexual abuse that have recently sprung up.  There may be other bishops elsewhere who have responded to victims with care and compassion and made them the first priority.  I simply have not had any firsthand experience of it nor have I heard of any such response from survivors in the U.S., England, Ireland, Canada, New Zealand or Australia with the exception of the three mentioned above.

          A lot of Catholics find this hard to believe and the prospect that it may be even slightly true, very disturbing.  They seem more upset at the disappointing news that most bishops don’t care than they are over the wholesale spiritual slaughter of the innocent victims.

           Why?  That is the question that keeps burning.  Many have voiced the opinion that a secret directive from the Vatican is behind what certainly appears to be a uniform pattern of behavior.  Personally I doubt it.  I have never seen any evidence that would lead me to suspect that any secret orders had gone out either recently or in the past.  The much commented on Vatican document Crimen sollicitationis isn’t evidence of secret orders or a conspiracy.  It’s proof of something far worse….a deeply entrenched policy.

          A number of very reputable scholars have studied the entire Catholic clergy abuse phenomenon in search of believable answers to why the hierarchy has acted as they have.  I have read most if not all of the studies, articles, books and other results of the research.  The theory that seems to be the most credible and realistic is that the reason lies in the clerical culture which forms priests and bishops. 

          This culture is real and not an exaggeration or a myth.  I was part of it for almost forty years.  The institutional Catholic Church is essentially a monarchy.  The pope has absolute power. All real leadership roles in the Church are held by celibate, male clerics.  There may be a smattering of lay people, men and women, here and there but they have no power and the way things are going these days with the frenzied rush backwards into the 1950’s, those few lay people who have jobs may well find themselves on the outside looking in. 

There are numerous reasons, actually excuses, for restricting all power to priests and bishops but the fundamental one is the official belief that a priest is a cut above lay people because he is, in the words of John Paul II, configured to Christ….whatever that means.  Clerics base their power on this special union with Christ and the clerical culture bases its power on the belief that the institutional Church is the Church and was created with a hierarchical structure by God Himself.  The fact that there is no solid scriptural or historic evidence for this has never had a bearing on the fact that the hierarchy insists that every Catholic must believe it and act accordingly. The Vatican council reintroduced the ancient teaching of the Church as The People of God.  Yet even before the council ended the Vatican curia and not a small number of bishops began the process of dismantling this teaching because it seriously threatened the immense power base of the curia and the bishops.  A number of reputable theologians and historians and not a few ordinary Catholics are convinced that John Paul II led the process of restoration….that is, a retreat from the Conciliar spirit back to the good old days when the Church was a kingdom and the laity did what they were told, kept their mouths shut and their checkbooks open.

Going a step further, the bishops believe they are absolutely essential to the existence of the Church, i.e., the institution.  They believe that the Higher Power does not want democracy, even though that appears to have been a concept that motivated Jesus Christ.  The bishops are taught that they are chosen by the Holy Spirit and once consecrated; they are the official teachers of the Church.  This of course can easily lead to what some psychologists refer to as acquired situational narcissism which in turn breeds the magical thinking that “I am omniscient, unaccountable, ten feet tall and bullet proof.”  All of this explains the initial reaction to reports of clergy sex abuse which is to defend the institution and the bishops at all cost.  The bishops are the institution which is the church.  Protecting and shielding the bishops is tantamount to protecting the Church. 

One reader said something insightful and probably true:  “Are the bishops just normal people who are drawn into a culture of tyranny, which at the same time elevates and enslaves them?”  He also said that “bishops are chosen from among priests who completely lack any sense of individuality and personal responsibility.  And so they blindly protect the institution and its assets.”   I surely don’t have all the answers and probably don’t have many but I think this man’s ideas are worth adding to the list of plausible reasons.

Take a look at how the Church operates.  Historically in the seminary those aspirants to the priesthood who were docile, obedient, asexual and pious were deemed the right kind of future priest.  Those who had some spirit of individuality, asked questions, didn’t fit the stereotypical model of piety and didn’t believe that celibacy was necessarily a higher calling often ended up as former seminarians.  Don’t get me wrong.  I am not saying that every priest matched the description of the clerical drone in the seminary and carried it through to the priesthood.  In my life the priests who lived their priesthood not as robots for the monarchy but as vibrant ministers of Christ have been the majority and have also been the ones who have been instrumental in salvaging any semblance of the Church as the People of God. 

Before I leave this topic I’d like to offer a quote from A Pilgrim in a Pilgrim Church, the very interesting autobiography of Archbishop Rembert Weakland.  Midway through the book he recounts a conversation he had with Msgr. Justin Rigali (now a Cardinal for good behavior!) who at that time (1978) worked in the Vatican and was the pope’s chief interpreter of the American Church.  Basically, Rigali was telling the newly appointed Archbishop Weakland how to be a good bishop:  “His advice to me was unequivocal and could be summed up as follows: I should seek to follow clearly in all matters the Holy Father’s mind as seen through the documents of the curia and conform myself to them for the sake of unity in the Church’s teaching body or magisterium; I should demonstrate absolute loyalty to the Holy See and inculcate such loyalty in my people; I should become a paragon of doctrinal orthodoxy in my teaching and writings, relying principally on the teachings of the pope and the curia.  In this way my diocese and the Church in the United States would be unified and strong.” (p. 240).  It doesn’t take much imagination to draw parallels between this astounding definition of how to be a good Catholic, with similar mindsets in several less than honorable governments from recent history.  Suffice it to say that this attitude is deeply engrained in bishops and priests everywhere.  It aptly sums up the criteria used to evaluate candidates for the office of bishop.  The pathetic collection of mitered wonders in the U.S. is clear evidence that the monarchy must be shored up at all cost….and the Body of Christ deflated and abandoned. 

The most common response to revelations of sex abuse of the vulnerable by priests has been denial and blame-shifting soaked in narcissistic arrogance.  The Vatican and the bishops simply don’t get it!  In the early nineties the Pope and his talking heads all distanced themselves by proclaiming that this was an American problem and a salient cause was materialism, secularism and hedonism.  Some of the more psychotic ranting blamed it on the wholesale refusal to obey the 1968 birth control encyclical Humanae Vitae.  That was circa 1993.  Then Ireland exploded with the Brendan Smyth affair in 1994.  In 1995 one of John Paul II’s favorite cardinals, Hans Hermann Groer of Vienna was exposed and had to resign.  The revelations continued over the years.  The U.S. bishops organized their defense against the victims, treating them to deceitful pronouncements about how caring they are while at the same time doing everything in their power to avoid any accountability.  Their true colors are obvious…they are afraid to reach out to victims, incapable to comprehending the horror of it all and equally incapable of any form of spiritual healing. 

The bishops in the U.S. and elsewhere regularly pontificate that they have made the world safer for children and they have handled the sex abuse crisis in such a superlative way that it’s now over.  The power of the papacy and the episcopacy to change reality and re-write history appears to be waning!  Over the past few months what some predicted was inevitable has happened.

May, 2009: The Ryan Report reveals systemic torture and sexual abuse in Ireland’s Church-run orphanages and child-care institutions. 

November 2009: The Murphy Report exposes the culture of abuse, denial and dishonesty in Dublin;

February-March, 2010: revelations of clergy sex abuse in Austria,  the Netherlands, Germany and…..The Vatican!

All the pope has to offer is talk…more words, more meetings, more silly press releases and the promise of a special pastoral letter.  The “problem” is not going to be fixed by the pope, the bishops or anyone who works for the institutional Church.  Why?  Because they are the problem.  The light at the end of the long tunnel will remain way out of reach until the very system that produced the dysfunctional clerics and their equally dysfunctional bishops is ended and somehow replaced with not another monarchy but something that one can readily identify with the Body of Christ.