National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

Betraying the tender ideal of the church

Priests suffer because of the sex abuse scandal


The recent clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church has revealed an unplanned but ongoing and long-term miscarriage of justice. If we accept the theological dictum, “justice precedes love,” it is clear that thousands of Catholic youngsters and their families have been deprived of the church’s most basic love, and therefore justice, for decades.

While children are the primary victims of the scandal, the secondary victims are the 95 percent of parish priests who, though innocent of wrongdoing, have been deeply and negatively affected by the past handling of clergy sexual abuse and its present ramifications. It is this group I want to write about.

Many priests have suffered in the depths of their souls as dozens of young people have revealed their horror stories. We have felt degraded as our brother priests have been removed from active ministry. We have been demoralized to see how our bishops had not given basic justice to victims and covered up their allegations with legalism. For many priests, the final coup de grâce was when we had to witness our spiritual fathers, the bishops, formulate policies in Dallas that were designed to protect child-victims but made victims of entire presbyterates.

Nearly 30 years ago in the seminary, I knew of the horrible effects of sexual abuse on minors as a true clinical and pastoral issue. I have spent the last two years asking myself a lot of questions. Why were so many bishops apparently ignorant of the facts behind sexual abuse of children? Why did dioceses keep secret files on their priests and then not refer to them when necessary? How do I reconcile this betrayal of the innocents by their shepherds with my ministry and even with my faith?

A pious-sounding response to these questions would be that bishops and diocesan officials are merely men and prone to the same kinds of weakness and sinfulness as anyone else. After all, this response would continue, many people in our culture had downgraded the importance of sexual abuse of children until relatively recently. Indeed, the incidence of unreported incest in families is epidemic if we are to believe current statistics.

A practical-sounding response to my questions would probably be rooted in the desire to preserve the laity from believing that their clergy are just as prone as anyone else to being scoundrels. The fear of scandal was, and often continues to be, a powerful motivation for the lack of transparency among professional church people.

The concern to buoy the public image of the Catholic church at almost any cost is especially powerful in the United States, where for centuries bishops felt they had to prove their immigrant Catholic population was just as “American” and upstanding as the descendants of the founding fathers. For many decades, Catholics had to deal with a deeply rooted prejudice about the “iniquities” of Catholicism seen through the eyes of non-Catholics.

In addition, clergy sex abuse pressed many hot button issues such as the identity of the priest as an icon of Jesus Christ himself, and not merely as a “minister”; priestly celibacy, viewed as “mystical” at best and “unfair” and “abnormal” at worst; and human sexuality, held hostage by a long-standing dualism between spirit and flesh among Catholics -- exemplified by Jansenism in Irish, French, and Italian immigrant cultures.

Innocent children were almost the only group in scripture whom Jesus protected with severe pronouncements of judgment and punishment for any who harmed them. Tragically, to hide the scandal of clergy sex abuse, justice was withheld from those who needed it most.

Bureaucratic miscarriage

This miscarriage of justice, however, has given birth to another miscarriage of what I call the tender ideal of the church that has motivated priests for centuries. It was this tender ideal of the church that prompted me to change career directions in college and to enter the seminary. Now I know on several levels what it must be like for couples to experience the miscarriage of a much wanted, deeply loved unborn child.

The tender ideal of the church, which God originally planted within my heart, has taken many hits over the last quarter century. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the greatest challenges I have faced in my priesthood have come from the bureaucratic handling of lay and clergy by the church’s institutions. This institutional response is focused on any issue or person that appears to threaten the smooth running of the bureaucracy. It is this modus operandi that was used to deal with clergy sexual misconduct with children.

I have had a number of personal experiences with this methodology. The one that stands out the most occurred about a decade ago. After leaving a particularly dysfunctional parish assignment, I fell into a deep sadness out of which I was having difficulty emerging. Friends in the priesthood suggested I speak directly to my ordinary, insisting that he would certainly want to know about my situation. I made an appointment and explained to him my disappointment and inability to find a good use for my gifts in parish ministry.

What shocked me at the time, but now makes sense in light of recent revelations of how abuse victims were treated, was his terribly bureaucratic response to my personal concerns. He simply threw the problem back onto me, placing the blame squarely on me. He did not listen to me as a unique individual; he did not validate me or my ministry; he deprived me of any sense of personal credibility. In short, I was a problem to be solved in the most expeditious manner possible. I left the meeting in a state of shock, feeling absolutely worthless.

This experience added to the process of my miscarrying my tender ideal of the church. I am dismayed that other priests have felt dehumanized by the behavior of their ordinaries and diocesan officials, who have viewed them as issues to be managed and not people to be nurtured. I can’t help but believe that the crisis of sexual abuse might have been mitigated had more bishops done what I consider to be their primary job: the personal shepherding of their priests as individual and unique gifts to the church, and not as a collective work force. God gives those called to ministry a deep sense of what the church ought to be.

This tender ideal is a feeling of devotion and love for the people of God, and yes, even for the church’s institutions and teachings. This ideal motivates a priest daily; it is a source of joy, helping him to share his faith with others. A very useful ideal, it is also very delicate.

Each priest’s tender ideal of the church matures with time, according to his personality and experience. It is my hope that the ideal becomes increasingly rooted in reality. Therapists call this process “becoming de-illusioned,” rather than disillusioned and therefore cynical. Yet at the core remains this tender embryo of the idea of the church, meant to grow in the priest’s heart by the grace of God.

Even in the best of times, this tender ideal receives its share of battering throughout a priest’s life. Parishioners often project their anger and disappointment upon their pastors, whom they think have Teflon emotions. Fellow clerics will occasionally use tired political ploys to manipulate one another. Too many bishops, “golden boys” since their seminary days, are unrealistic about the nature of parish ministry and do not treat their priests as friends and collaborators.

It takes a lot of prayer and fortitude as well as a great deal of care to maintain the tender ideal of the church within a priest’s vocation. It is his heart, this tender ideal. It embodies his love for God and his quiet passion for God’s people. It is something only another priest or religious can fully comprehend.

Yet the tender ideal of the church is not limited to the ordained. It is also found within the laity. It resides in the hearts of all who love Jesus and the church, most especially those innocent among us, who are more freely open to God’s grace: our children. Imagine how that ideal has been weakened, and even destroyed, by the church’s failure in these recent scandals to carry out the most basic aspect of its mission: to value each person, child or adult, lay or ordained, as infinitely precious and valued in God’s sight.

From covenant to corporation

The appalling episcopal response to clergy sexual abuse throughout the decades is a case study of the true evil of bureaucracy in the church. When the church stops being “family” and defaults into a “corporation” model, it loses its identity altogether. It breaks its covenant with God and with God’s people. While I have never experienced the horror of being sexually abused as a child, I can understand clearly the pain and anguish that results from not being listened to. Even two years after the scandal broke, many priests continue to feel as if the child we have been carrying since ordination remains stillborn.

The grief I feel is deep and pervasive. The feeling of betrayal is all too real. As I speak with fellow clergy, they tell me that they are in an emotional limbo; they are merely going through the motions of ministry. No one has adequately addressed this grief, or even acknowledged it. I have not heard one bishop make a clear public apology to his priests for the collective mistakes made by the American episcopate and their effect on our ministries.

Unfortunately, the bishops only exacerbated the effects of this miscarriage by their response to the scandal at their meeting in Dallas. In their headlong desire to control damage and undo the wrongs of the past, they further alienated their priests with their rhetoric and their policies. One bishop publicly made patently inaccurate doctrinal statements about the nature of the priesthood. Most seemed to ignore the fact that their priests were even worthy of pastoral consideration. The message in Dallas regarding the accused seemed to be, “Cut them off, cut them out, get rid of them as soon as possible, and protect our episcopal prerogatives! And, oh yes, let’s start protecting children from priests from now on!”

To their credit, the response of religious superiors at their own meeting on the same issue was far different. They acknowledged the need to keep criminal clergy away from people but recognized that they were part of a family, and could not be jettisoned at will for the sake of appearances. Someone had to take responsibility for their well-being.

Episcopal abdication

Parish priests have by and large looked to their bishops as spiritual fathers and brothers. This has been central to their tender ideal of the church. Thus, it was particularly painful to us that a large number of bishops seemed to be entirely cut off from the reality of what was happening in their own dioceses. The dynamics of the Dallas meeting, the blanket indictment of homosexual clergy as the cause of the problem, the slow resolution of cases of past allegations, and the lack of support for priests in ministry during this time has driven a mighty wedge between bishops and their priests, a wedge that no amount of pleading, no number of programs, meetings, pious appeals for “unity” and “fraternal support” will heal.

It is a true sign of the power of God that despite the feeling that something precious has miscarried, the majority of priests are still at their posts. Perhaps the reason is they cannot afford to leave (in my diocese there is no vested pension plan for priests; a stipend is paid only to priests who retire in good standing; when a priest leaves, he leaves with almost nothing). Perhaps younger priests are sustained in the hope that the church will continue to change in positive ways. Whatever the motivation for parish priests to continue in their daily grind, I would like to believe that at least there is room for God to work. God truly understands the grief, loss and pain that priests are feeling. God understands our isolation, our lack of support, and our lack of understanding.

God also understands the situation in which the bishops find themselves. Their pain must be similar to ours. Some must feel trapped by the sheer magnitude of their dioceses, whose size is maintained for prestige but not for practicality in governance and pastoral care.

I also believe God permitted this scandal to unfold because no one in power in the church was willing or able to open “Pandora’s Box.” God has ultimate and perfect justice and compassion for all of us who have been victimized. If we change the way we do business as a community of faith, God can and will revivify that tender ideal of the church now dormant in the souls of many priests, and maybe even of the bishops, too.

Fr. Michael Parise is pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in Billerica, Mass.

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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