In 70s, '80s, Bishops Saw Abuse of Minors as Sin

Faulty Assumptions Led to Tragic Decisions

National Catholic Reporter

May 24,2002

Bishop Joseph Galante, acting as a spokesman for the U.S. bishops, put the matter clearly when he said that in the 1970s or '80s bishops thought acts of sexual abuse against minors were sins. At that time they didn't realize yet that they were crimes.

Fair enough. The ignorance of the criminal nature of the offense and the lack of concern for the young person involved may be judged inexcusable but they were the factors that were not in the bishops' consciousness then. What was there was sin, moral failure. We need to examine their response from their perspective at the time.

What was the response that emanated from their theology/spirituality? Get the offender off to a monastery. Have him make a retreat and go to confession. Get him back to prayer. And if we do have to pay some respect to the helping professions, at least let it be in a Catholic facility.

This is a spirituality that is both at odds with the doctrine of the Incarnation, so central to Christianity, and based on several faulty assumptions. It distorts and diminishes the majesty of God by its neglect of the secondary causes through which God reveals the wonder of divine creativity in the fashioning of free and responsible partners in the mission of Jesus. Its approach to prayer is totally instrumental, making God a utility for redressing our failings. It offers a distorted theological anthropology, wanting to know nothing of the psychological

obsessions, compulsions and projections and all the other mechanisms that have an impact on the behavior of even the freest of us humans.

It's incapable of differentiating between destructive sympathy and hard-nosed

empathy. The bishops' prevailing image was that powerful Christian icon, the Good Shepherd. How ironic and tragic that they thought they were being good shepherds to sinful men, because they were completely unaware of how that revered image can easily be twisted and turned into the enabling of addictive and terribly, destructive behavior.

If we need to see how effective this kind of pietistic spirituality is, we need look no further than the story of Robert Hanssen. Driven by fear of the demons that tormented him (many having their origins in psychological abuse by his father), he sought salvation by committing himself totally to a pious organization, Opus Dei, with clear hierarchical boundaries. He attended Mass and received the Eucharist daily, participated in other religious practices regularly for years. And for all the same years he collected pornographic literature, frequented prostitutes and served as a Russian spy, causing the deaths of agency colleagues who trusted him even as he viewed them with utter disdain because he felt he was so superior in his craft.

No. Prayer does not always deal with reality. Spiritual practices can be a shield to avoid confronting deep and powerful psychological drives. Religiosity can be an escape from incredibly complex inner conflicts --- which themselves may be so subtle as to escape detection by either the most accomplished therapist or the most astute spiritual director. For all our increased sophistication in matters both spiritual and psychological, the originating sources of human actions, good and bad, remain shrouded in profound mystery. God and the human are both grander than the pious spirituality the bishops brought to their ministry.

The most disturbing thing about many of the "solutions" being proposed by several of the Catholic talking heads greatly promoted by the media is that much of what they offer as effective responses appear to be based on the same faulty premises that occasioned the bishops' mistakes in the first place. Make sure the seminarians are men of prayer! Tighten the demands on them! Get them back into a real boot camp, because there are demons out there!

Sadly, a spirituality based on trying to stop something from happening will never produce the maturity and courage needed in our future leaders if trust is to be restored. How far removed from the model of Cardinal Joseph Bemardin who could say, "I don't care what the lawyers say, I am going to hold an unscripted press conference, take all questions and answer them directly --- and I am going to visit face-to-face with my accuser." That Bemardin was a man of prayer there can be no doubt; but becoming a person who could be his own man took more than pious religious exercises.

A friend who is a psychotheiapist told me recently, "I think it's great that this is all coming out. It will cut through all these illusions that are so destructive and keep us from growing because they shield us from reality. We'll all be better off when we get rid of this notion of the priest as the super-holy guy, which allows the rest of us to be irresponsible and not take ourselves and our spiritual growth seriously. 'Say one for me. Father, you've got the direct line.' Give me a break. John Paul II says that the present crisis "must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate and a holier church." Well and good, if the underlying notion of holiness is sound.

Maybe we could all learn from holiness as practiced by the people of the little rural parish of St. Agathe in Maine. Their pastor came to them some years ago, publicly acknowledged that he had abused a child years before, humbly asked to serve them, has done so faithfully for many years, and is beloved --- and trusted. So much so that they are fighting the Vatican to keep him as their pastor.

Jesuit Fr. George Wilson is an ecclesiologist who does church organizational consulting in Cincinnati.