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Church in Crisis

Bishops in Dallas: A remake of Frankenstein


To access the full text of Eugene Kennedy’s essay “Dallas: The Latest Remake of Frankenstein” click here.

In a 4,500-word essay, a noted Catholic church observer has compared the bishops’ creation of their new “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” to the remaking of Frankenstein.

Eugene Kennedy, a professor emeritus of psychology at Loyola University in Chicago and a former Maryknoll priest, predicted in his essay titled “Dallas: The Latest Remake of Frankenstein” that by “attempting to fashion something human by transmitting a force they do not understand (for Frankenstein, Lightning; for the bishops, the Law) into ill-matching body parts,” the bishops have created a monster that will turn on them, stalk them and destroy them.

According to Kennedy, the bishops’ credibility about human sexuality has “bumped into negative territory.” Now, “by what they had done and by what they had failed to do” the clergy sex abuse scandal has become “the greatest crisis ever suffered by the American church.”

While Catholics wanted honest communication from their bishops in which they could agree on “one true sentence -- I know mine and mine know me” -- the bishops instead created “an inhuman statement” in their new charter.

The bishops’ work at their Dallas meeting was driven by a need to “rehabilitate themselves and to breathe some life back into their gasping moral authority.” After the meeting, they spoke, Kennedy said, “in tones of men who had survived an airplane crash.”

“Is it to bring healing to the victims who revealed their wounds to them in public as humbly as the lepers showed theirs to the Lord?” Kennedy wondered. “Is it to discover the origin of this problem? Or is it rather to weave tightly together with legal thread the garment of their own trustworthiness?”

By choosing the letter of law over the needs of people, Kennedy said, the bishops chose to reassert a form of authoritarianism “that seeks only to contain and control,” instead of attempting to become for Catholics a “healthy authority that helps people grow.” Kennedy, author of My Brother Joseph, which recounts his years of friendship with former Chicago Cardinal Joseph Bernardin, said that the American church has suffered from an absence of such authority since 1996 when Bernardin died.

“Authoritarianism re-invented,” Kennedy said, brings a “willingness to suspend the rights of defendants, a readiness to accept accusations at face value and a wholesale handing over of the internal life of the church to the external agency of the law.” The bishops’ policy then is like a “dead weight on the backs of their priests.”

Such a strategy, according to Kennedy, may backfire. The bishops will have a difficult time getting the rule of law out of the church, now that it has been used, he warned. As with Dr. Frankenstein, the bishops may be destroyed by their own creation since they still face judgment for their own mishandling of sexually abusive priests. How will they ever answer questions like these, he wondered: “Can you explain, bishop, how you transferred a known pedophile from St. Mary’s to St. John’s? Just what did you know, when did you know it, and have you ever heard of obstruction of justice?”

Saying that doctors removed from hospitals have often successfully sued the hospitals for “depriving them of their livelihood,” Kennedy said “it is only a question of time before some priest, depressed and defrocked against his will, files a similar suit against his bishop.”

Gill Donovan is a writer for NCR. His e-mail address is gdonovan@natcath.org

To access the full text of Eugene Kennedy’s essay “Dallas: The Latest Remake of Frankenstein” click here.

National Catholic Reporter, August 16, 2002