Opinion & Features

The root of the abuse crisis

Pope Francis prays in front of a candle in memory of abuse victims in Dublin (CNS)

Why is the Church still struggling to get a grip on a scandal that emerged decades ago?

Surveying the ravaged landscape of the Church today, one question presses itself upon the viewer of the scene with palpable urgency: how did we get here?

There have been many answers to that question, none of them completely satisfactory. Some people say that the problem is the infiltration of homosexual predators into the ranks of the clergy. That is certainly a significant element of the crisis, but we need to ask far-reaching questions about how and why abusers were able to operate within the Church.

Certainly, the naiveté of some pastors contributed to the exacerbation of the problem. On the advice of expert psychologists, bishops treated sex offenders in the clergy as though they were sick and capable of being cured. That, however, was no excuse for returning the men to positions of trust, where they went on to abuse other victims. The failure to see the sexual abuse of minors as anything other than a crime cannot find explanation, nor the guilt of the failure mitigation, in a protestation of bad information from doctors. That is a moral failure so basic as to disqualify anyone guilty of it.

The American bishops and the Vatican were appraised as early as the 1940s of the futility of any attempt to cure them. Fr Gerald Fitzgerald, the founder of the Congregation of the Servants of the Paraclete – a religious order dedicated to caring for and rehabilitating struggling and wayward priests, principally those suffering alcoholism and other addictions – also treated paedophiles at the beginning of his Congregation’s ministry.

Fr Fitzgerald quickly became convinced that cure was impossible and spent more than 20 years explaining to Church leaders the nature of the predilection and the impossibility of treating men who had it. In 1957, he wrote to Archbishop Edwin Byrne of Santa Fe, New Mexico – the archdiocese in which the Paracletes had their flagship facility – to say, “Experience has taught us these men are too dangerous to the children of the parish and neighbourhood for us to be justified in receiving them here.”

In 1962, Fr Fitzgerald wrote to the Holy Office, which had solicited his opinion on the matter. “We [of the Congregation] feel strongly that such unfortunate priests should be given the alternative of a retired life within the protection of monastery walls or complete laicisation,” he said.

Fr Fitzgerald also met Pope Paul VI, shortly after the latter’s election in 1963, to discuss the same matter, telling him in a summary letter after their meeting: “I am not sanguine of the return of priests to active duty who have been addicted to abnormal practices, especially sins with the young.”

Even Fr Fitzgerald, however, had a blind spot: “The needs of the Church must be taken into consideration and an activation of priests who have seemingly recovered in this field may be considered, but is only recommended where careful guidance and supervision is possible.” Fitzgerald went on to write: “Where there is indication of incorrigibility, because of the tremendous scandal given, I would most earnestly recommend total laicisation.”

The needs of the Church. Christ established His Church as a hierarchy, with bishops and priests sharing the governance of her, but bishops and priests are not the Church.

Here, we are closer to the problem.

Zooming in for a moment on the present, Pope Francis is right to attribute the evils that beset the Church to “clericalism”. Blaming the current crisis in the Church on clericalism, however, is like blaming plane crashes on gravity. The hard truth is that, with respect to clerical abuse and misconduct, as well as the necessary reform of the warped clerical culture bent to the preservation of corrupt power, of which the perverse lifestyles of too many clerics are only a major symptom and not the true root cause of the disease, the failure of the Church’s hierarchical leadership – including papal leadership – is protracted and endemic.

We could move all the predators out of the priesthood and into jail cells, and there would still be a crisis of moral culture in the clergy, high and low, almost as bad as it was the day before the purge. That is because the motor of the clerical culture we have right now – and this is true across the board, top to bottom, without respect to ideological leanings or theological inclination – is the intrinsically perverse libido dominandi (will to power), rather than a perversion of the libido coeundi (sex drive). The former makes use of the latter, and the latter is often a consequence of the former. But the only way men given over to the latter gain any power or place in any society is by addiction to and direction of the former. Therefore the underlying problem is power.

Some of the US bishops are clearly terrified of losing theirs, along with their position and status. One has the impression that they are at a loss over what to do to fix things, precisely because their lust for power makes them blind to the truth.

Nor have the last four popes – excluding John Paul I, who reigned only a little more than a month – exercised their power well to discipline the Church’s hierarchical leadership in these regards. Pope Francis did not create Theodore McCarrick and he did not cause the crisis. Neither did Pope Benedict XVI nor Pope St John Paul II and Paul VI. That we are only now – perhaps – beginning to understand the scope of the crisis, tells us that none of them dealt effectively with it.

We have seen that Paul VI had the benefit of Fr Fitzgerald’s experience and cannot be excused on grounds of perfect ignorance.

Too often, John Paul II would neither see nor hear evil in these regards: a fact illustrated by his appointment and elevation of McCarrick and epitomised by his constant support of the wicked and vicious founder of the Legion of Christ, Fr Marcial Maciel, who preyed on women, seminarians and minors (including at least one of his own illegitimate children).

Benedict XVI dealt strongly with Maciel, ordering him without trial into a life of prayer and penance. Nevertheless, he let the Legion of Christ – the organisation of clerics Maciel founded as a front in support of his twisted double life – to continue to operate. Benedict’s failure to suppress the Legion was almost certainly his greatest mistake.

Benedict XVI began to overhaul the Church’s legal system, but the rough and dirty work of reform proved too much for him. He gave it up unfinished when he renounced the See of Rome. Put simply, Benedict XVI was a weak governor when he needed to be strong. His record needs examination, and his apparent failures – including those with respect to McCarrick – must be reckoned with.

If Benedict’s record is spotty, Francis’s record thus far has been mostly dismal – and Francis is Pope now.

It is said that he has recognised that he has been part of the problem. He has promised to be part of the solution. We need to hold him to that promise. Doing so will require stern resolve. It will also demand rigorous thoughtfulness and the most careful mindfulness of human frailty – his, and our own.

It is hard to confront horrible things and seek out the truth, while not being fully convicted of the worst until one has all the evidence necessary to support the conviction. Nevertheless, that is precisely what the bishops failed to do, with disastrous consequences. The full truth might be harder still, but it must out.

Christopher Altieri is a contributing editor of the Catholic Herald