Here’s the text, if you’re interested. I believe the talk will be recorded and made available on YouTube.
The Scandal in the Church
Everyone familiar with the Catechism of the Catholic Church?
Near the beginning of the book, the Catechism explains the “Stages of Revelation,” the moments in history when God has “come to meet man,” to “reveal His plan of loving kindness.”
The Catechism highlights the covenants between God and man that occurred between the creation of heaven and earth and the coming of Christ. Anyone know what those two covenants are?
1. The covenant with Noah, after the flood, and 2. the covenant with Abraham, the forefather of the Israelites.
Pretty important to our Christian faith, these dealings between God and Noah, and between God and Abraham. We read about it all in the book of… Correct, Genesis.
It would certainly seem to pertain to our Catholic faith that we believe that these things really happened, right? Not that we reject the science of geology or paleontology. But we need a way to understand the Holy Scriptures as fundamentally accurate regarding these ancient covenants. Right? After all, they prepared the way for the coming of Christ.
It seems crazy to some people, but we Christians have the idea that you can read the Bible and learn things, things that make life mean something.
Not that our faith in the Word of God gives us the answer to every question; the Bible doesn’t claim to answer every question. But we know that we cannot understand the meaning of life, without being able to read the Holy Scriptures. And believe what we read.
Now, you may be wondering: Why the heck is this man talking about this? I mean, it sounds great, but.. Why talk about the early chapters of Genesis right now?
One reason I am here is to tell you my story. I thought it might be good to start with December 2001, just over twenty-one years ago, a couple months after 9/11. As Christmas break approached that year, I had managed to pass my comprehensive seminary exams, and I had one semester left before ordination to the priesthood. But then the rector of the seminary told me that I was not welcome back after Christmas.Continue reading “Indianapolis Talk”→
The Spanish newspaper El País has collected testimony from well over a thousand victims of clergy sex-abuse. Earlier this month, one of the reporters presented 385 pages of information to Pope Francis. On Sunday, El País made all of this public. The paper added: The Vatican and the Spanish Bishops’ Conference will investigate all the cases.
I expressed some misgivings about El País’ confidence in an ecclesiastical investigation. On Monday, the Spanish Bishops’ Conference confirmed my skepticism. The Spanish bishops published a defensive, less-than-honest press release. They referred to a “lack of rigor” in El País’ investigation. The bishops offered multiple justifications for not investigating anything.
The CIASE report gathers the testimonies of sex-abuse survivors; it reviews the records of dioceses and prosecutors; and it reports the results of an on-line survey of the general population of France, about sex-abuse.
Based on these various sources of information, the report estimates that 216,000 young people have been sexually abused by French Catholic clergymen, since the 1950’s.
The French-intellectual critics insist that this staggering total cannot be supported by the information that is actually available. They point out that the percentages garnered by the on-line survey are too small to be extrapolated from, since they are smaller than the margin of error.
This is, no doubt, a valid point, in and of itself. But it is not a convincing criticism in this case.
First, because the CIASE report freely acknowledges that the extrapolated total does not tally easily with the hard data collected by other methods of investigation. CIASE estimates a maximum of 3,200 abuser clerics during the time period. To reach a total of 216,000, the average abuser would have over 60 victims–not a conclusion that is easy to feature, as the CIASE itself acknowledges.
The critics insist that the CIASE should have reported 24,000 victims, starting with 3,200 abusers and multiplying by the CIASE’s own estimate for average number of victims per criminal, which is 7.5.
But this would disregard altogether the insight given by the on-line survey of the general population.
Let me put it like this: the Catholic intellectuals’ criticism here is unconvincing because:
1. 24,000 victims is itself a staggering number.
2. The problem might not be that the total of 216,000 is too high, but that the estimate of 3,200 criminal clergy abusers is too low.
3. 216,000 actually fits reasonably into the overall picture of sex-abuse in France:
5.5 million French people have been sexually abused in childhood, since 1950. (This number is not in dispute.) If only 216,000 of those 5.5 million were abused by Catholic clergymen, that actually makes the incidence of Catholic clerical sex abuse lower in France, as a portion of total sexual abuse, than in other largely Catholic countries.
The critics dwell on the admittedly uncertain total estimate because they want to dispute the CIASE’s conclusion that sex-abuse of minors is a “systemic” problem in the Catholic Church. The Catholic intellectuals accuse the CIASE of inflating the number in order to shock the public into accepting the idea that the problem is systemic, without any further debate on the point.
Again, an unconvincing criticism, because: Even if the CIASE total is significantly off, would that somehow make the problem less ‘systemic?’ If there are actually only 108,000 victims, wouldn’t that still be a systemic problem? Or even if we stuck with the number that the critics themselves suggest–24,000. Isn’t that total enough to justify the conclusion that there is a systemic problem?
The criticism of the estimated total seems more like a quibble intended to obfuscate the matter, rather than an engagement of the real issues at hand. The clear fact is: criminals have hidden in the Catholic clergy for decades, in order to prey freely on minors, and then go unpunished for it by their superiors. Something definitely needs to be done about this. The question is not if something needs to be done; the question is what.
The critics further obfuscate the matter by trying to play both sides of the sexual-morality issue.
On the one hand, the critics rightly point out: It is precisely the teaching of the Church that tells us just how wrong the criminal sexual abuse of minors is.
This is true, and amen to it. No one has ever suggested that it would solve the Catholic sex-abuse crisis if the Church stopped teaching that sexually abusing minors is wrong and a sin.
But then the critics bring up the fact that, in the 1970’s, some prominent Frenchmen, including the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, publicly proposed that pedophilia be de-criminalized. It was part of the crazy ‘sexual revolution.’
The critics then go on to suggest that the thinking of the 70’s influenced the Catholic clergy of the time–even though it contradicts perennial Church teaching, not to mention the basic moral instincts of the human race.
But if this were, in fact, true–namely that Jean Paul Sartre & Co. managed to confuse the French clerical establishment about sexual morality–wouldn’t that actually suggest an even-more-serious systemic problem in the Catholic Church in France?
The criticisms outlined so far, however, are all secondary issues in the dispute between the Catholic intellectuals and the CIASE. The central point of conflict is this:
The Catechism of the Catholic Church offers an image to explain the role of the clergy in the life of the Church. We clergymen exercise sacred ministry in persona Christi capitis. In the person of Christ the Head.
The whole Church of the baptized = the mystical Body of Christ. But we ordained clergy operate in the person of Christ the Head of the Body.
Now, not even Protestants say that this is out-and-out wrong. After all, you can’t have a community without leaders. Plus, in the Church, the leaders do something unique. We give Jesus Christ to the community.
That is something no human community could ever give to itself. The Son came from the Father, not from Europe, or Africa, or Asia. God incarnate was born of the Virgin in Bethlehem, in an altogether unique event. And that’s where this unique thing called the Church started.
All that conceded, the CIASE nonetheless recognizes: The image of inpersonal Christi capitis–used to identify what a Catholic clergyman is–it may be a necessary image, but it is still dangerous. The idea can be cruelly exploited, with disastrous consequences. The justifications that have been used to exploit the image must be identified clearly. And unequivocally condemned.
We read in the Rapport Sauvé:
The Commission believes that it is necessary closely to examine the hierarchical constitution of the Catholic Church in view of the internal disagreement concerning its own understanding of itself: between communion and hierarchy; between apostolic succession and synodality; and, essentially, affirmation of the authority of preachers and the reality of grass roots practices which are increasingly influenced by democratic practices.
Granted, these ‘discussion points’ require a vast range of reflection on the part of us Catholics. There are no immediately evident ‘action items’ here.
But who could deny that we do, in fact, very much need to reflect carefully on these very points? I myself have been meditating daily on these ‘internal tensions’ in our religion for the past three years. And it has done me an enormous amount of good.
But the French-intellectual critics of the CIASE can only dismiss this thoughtful recommendation with a sniff. They write: “We can hardly see what practical approach can be suggested by this motley enumeration.”
Motley? How about: Profound, insightful, and deeply challenging–for good reason.
The critics then proceed to poke holes in the CIASE’s concept of ‘reparative justice’ for sex-abuse survivors. The critics explain–with perfect plausibility–that the legal systems now in place, both civil and canonical, cannot be used to obtain the outcome that the CIASE envisions, because the cases are mostly too old.
Again, in their defensiveness, the critics only manage to beg the question. One of the CIASE’s contentions is, in fact, that the canon-law system we now have is inadequate to deal with the problem.
To conclude. In their essay, the CIASE’s critics make a fundamental mistake, the same mistake made time and again by well-meaning Catholics facing the sex-abuse crisis. They see an enemy, where a friend is actually trying to help.
Again, it all seems painfully familiar to me. So let me make a distinction, when it comes to “enemies” of the Church.
Publicly to “incite hatred or animosity” against the ecclesiastical hierarchy, or to “provoke disobedience against them”–this is a crime under canon law, punishable by severe penalties.
But isn’t this canon missing a necessary qualifying phrase? For a real crime to occur, wouldn’t the criminal have to intend to damage the Church?
Without this qualification, the law runs the risk of criminalizing virtuous acts. What if a bishop or pope does something unjust, or even criminal? Was it a crime against the Church when one of McCarrick’s victims went to a journalist in the early 2000’s, to try to get his story out–after he had been brow-beaten and gas-lighted by multiple prelates?
The Chancellor of the Diocese of Dallas, Texas, recently published an article interpreting the canon in question here (canon 1373). Chancellor Caridi tsk-tsks public critics of the hierarchy and suggests that we deserve penal sanctions. He writes:
The Church is not an institution instilled with the values of self-governance or a right to protest.
But wait. Isn’t this a straight-up contradiction of the teaching of all the post-Vatican II popes? Don’t we Catholics think that it is precisely our Christian vision of the human person that has given rise to the realm of free speech, open debate, and freedom of conscience that we have traditionally called “the Western world?”
We believe that the magisterium of the Church delivers to us the truths of Divine Revelation, in which we put our absolute faith. But that doesn’t mean that prelates cannot err in their acts of governance. There is no charism of infallibility when it comes to governance.
When it comes to clerical sexual abuse, our prelates have erred in governance–as a body–so grievously, and over such an extended period of time, that reasonable, good people have lost confidence in their judgment.
If open debate about this evident fact results in penal sanctions in the Church, that does not serve good order or Church unity. To the contrary, it only serves as further proof of ecclesiastical misgovernment.
Former French priest, Father Bernard Preynat, spent over a decade abusing boys in a scout troop. A quarter-century later, some of the survivors of Father Preynat’s crimes found each other, and they organized a group.
Their courage in speaking about what had happened to them ultimately led to the production of a movie, By the Grace of God.
All of this made the 2018 “Catholic Summer of Shame” particularly intense in France. That fall, the French bishops’ conference (known by the French acronym CEF) ceded to intense public pressure and commissioned an independent study on the problem of sexual abuse in the French Catholic Church.
The independent commission came to be known as CIASE. The Church provided 2.6 million euros; the members of the commission gave 1.2 million euros-worth of volunteer time. Their final report, released this past Tuesday, has generally been called Le Rapport Sauvé in France, after Jean-Marc Sauvé, the career government official who chaired the commission.
This sounds like our American “John Jay Report” of nearly two decades ago. But Le Rapport Sauvé contains much more information and insight. Our John Jay researchers worked only with information provided by US dioceses, and all the documents handed over to them had all names blocked out. (And let’s not forget that the most-prominent churchman involved in commissioning the John-Jay report was Theodore McCarrick.)
The CIASE in France, on the other hand, apparently had free access to all diocesan and religious-order archives, including secret archives. And the CIASE also beat the bushes for victims to come forward.
This transformed the CIASE’s effort into something fundamentally different from what the John Jay researchers did here in the US. The John Ray report gives statistics without any human connection to the victims; Le Rapport Sauvé, on the other hand, became primarily a means for survivors to speak the truth about what had happened to them.
The CIASE, therefore, is not blind to the fact that, even if representatives of the French Catholic Church wanted the Commission to be set up, it is mainly thanks to the determined action of victims of violence that it actually came to be created, and it is beholden to these people to study their cases.
International news organizations have covered the release of the CIASE report, and for good reason. These media reports have focused primarily on the statistics provided by the CIASE.
The CIASE report grants that its staggering estimate of over 300,000 total victims of sexual violence does not square easily with the number of perpetrators reported. It would work out to 70 victims per criminal, a number higher than is generally thought to be normal.
On the other hand, though, experience has taught us that almost all statistical analyses of criminal sex-abuse actually under-count the real totals.
The report notes:
Such statistics must be treated with caution. The silence of the victims and of the Church inevitably limits our knowledge of the facts.
Our friend Chris O’Leary has done a helpful short video to explain how the average criminal priest sex-abuser could in fact have 70 victims or more in total:
But Le Rapport Sauvé offers much, much more than just numbers. It appears to contain genuine insight into the problem, offered with both humility and conviction. I for one believe that this report is one of the best things to happen in our Church in our lifetimes.
The CIASE promises that a full English translation of the report will be available on-line by the end of the year. In the meantime, I offer some quotes from the 30-page English summary.
Faced with this scourge, for a very long time the Catholic Church’s immediate reaction was to protect itself as an institution, and it has shown complete, even cruel, indifference to those having suffered abuse…
It was only from 2010 that the Church began to recognize victims when it started reporting cases to the judicial system, imposing canonical sanctions and accepted that dealing with aggressors should no longer be an internal affair.
It is not that the violence was organized or accepted by the institution (although this did happen in a very small number of communities or institutions), rather that the Church did not have any clear idea how to prevent such violence or indeed even see it, let alone deal with it in a fair and determined manner.
The Church did not have any clear idea how to prevent such violence or indeed even see it, let alone deal with it in a fair and determined manner.
This past summer, we took note of how our Holy Father revised the Code of Canon Law. The CIASE, however, finds the revision wholly inadequate to deal with the reality of the crisis:
In analyzing factors specific to the Catholic Church which might help explain the sheer scale of the phenomenon, and the Church’s inappropriate reaction to it, the Commission firstly looked into the specificities of canon law, as to a certain degree the inadequacy of the Church’s response to the phenomenon lies in the shortcomings of this law.
Canon law was conceived, above all, to protect the sacraments and reform the sinner. The victim has no place in this law. Canon law, even its criminal aspect, is totally ill-adapted to the repression of sexual violence, which, incidentally, it never refers to by name. The Commission reached the conclusion that canon law is entirely inadequate with regard to fair-trial standards and human rights in a matter as sensitive as the sexual abuse of children.
Despite taking into account the reform of the criminal section of the Code of Canon Law due to come into force on 8 December 2021, in the light of the bleak observations made in the second part of the report, the CIASE nonetheless pleads for a wide-ranging overhaul of canon law in criminal matters, and in dealing with and sanctioning offences. This should begin with a clear definition of the offences in the Code of Canon Law and their implementing legislation, specifying applicable reference standards by establishing a scale of the gravity of offences and by distributing a collection of case law in the matter.
Secondly, canonical criminal procedure needs to be reworked and aligned with basic fair-trial rules, thereby giving victims a place in canonical procedure, which is not the case today.
The Seal of the Confessional
In France, this has quickly become the most controversial part of the report:
The Church must issue precise directives to confessors regarding the seal of confession. Confessors must not be allowed to derogate, on the grounds of the sanctity of the seal of confession, from the obligations provided for by the [French] Criminal Code, which are compliant with those of natural and divine law, which provides for the protection of a person’s life and dignity, to report to the competent authorities cases of sexual violence inflicted against a child or a vulnerable person.
This is not to question the seal of confession generally; but within the scope of sexual violence inflicted against children, a reminder is issued that the letter and the spirit of the law of the French Republic (Articles 223-6, 226-14, 434-1 and 434-3 of the Criminal Code) apply to every single person on French territory.
[The French laws cited require anyone aware of imminent danger of physical harm to another to alert the authorities.]
The French Bishops’ Conference quibbled with this recommendation. I think that we should recognize the point: It is precisely the inviolability of the seal of the confessional that produces a forum in which a criminal might confess everything. (And in which a victim might begin the process of speaking the truth about what happened.) Without the absolute secrecy, such conversations cannot happen.
I think this particular controversy will blow over. The French government issued a finding in 2004 that the secrecy of the confessional does not infringe on mandatory-reporting laws.
In another context–implementing Child-Protection policies–the CIASE adds this sensitive observation:
While it is convinced of the merits of such policies of prevention and practical provisions, the CIASE is not blind to the risk entailed by undue rigidity and “protocolization,” so little in keeping with the vocation of the Church–indeed with any healthy human relationship–and which could potentially asphyxiate relationships. Similarly, too much transparency can be detrimental to intimacy and lead to a paradoxical climate of surveillance and suspicion. The balance is fragile but necessary in order to clamp down on risk without distorting human relationships.
The content of seminarian training should include the importance of critical thinking, particularly about issues of authority and obedience…
During all types of catechism, the faithful, particularly children and teenagers, should be taught the importance of listening to one’s conscience with critical intelligence under all circumstances.
The recommendations made by the CIASE to try and overcome the trauma caused by sexual violence, and the shroud of silence covering it, are not conceived in a spirit of “turning the page,” because in all the testimonials–which the Commission very much hopes echo loudly through its report–the first cry is for justice.
In other words, before proclaiming “it must never happen again,” the “it” has to be recognized, acknowledged, and described, those responsible for “it” need to be designated and, in as far as is possible, reparation for “it’s” consequences need to be found.
Before proclaiming “it must never happen again,” the “it” has to be recognized, acknowledged, and described, those responsible for “it” need to be designated.
It is not enough for the Church to claim awareness, albeit too late in the day. Or to claim that the past is the past and that for today’s and tomorrow’s children and vulnerable persons the same mistakes will not be repeated. For such a discourse which is consistent with the logic of “helping” victims of historical abuse, more often than not time-barred by the [French] Criminal Code, perpetuates an attitude of non-recognition or denial of what really happened, characteristic of the Church during the period analyzed, and is used as an escape from genuinely dealing with the phenomenon.
This is why the Commission insists on the Church’s need for a process of truth and reparation and that it has to begin with the acknowledgement of responsibility which has so far been avoided.
I think the insight in these paragraphs is profound. Let’s give Chris O’Leary the last word here. He produced another video, reflecting on the CIASE report. It offers a stirring exhortation: