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About ClearyWorks

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A Church Deeply Unethical

by William Cleary

If you follow the internet Abuse Tracker as I do daily (at www.bishop-accountability.org), the continuing priest/bishop sexual abuse crisis may come to look like an undecipherable mishmash of enormous gobs of facts, all of it undesirable bad news. This priest, that bishop, this money, that lawyer, this child, those years. The heart cries out: can anyone separate out the "news" from the meaning?

Frawley-O'Dea does exactly that, and footnotes everything, Her chapters are wonderfully readable and enlightening. She seems able to remember each abuser's and each victim's name along with what the bishop said, what the parents said, what the judge said, and everythingin every deposition. I could not imagine any other scholar so penetratingly mastering the material and grasping the issues, and with such caringness. Her introduction humanizes her own journey of scholarship (as well as family ties and religion) , and makes the text a winning and human document. A full 100 pages of footnotes and index lie at the back.

It is a large book, a huge project, (available in both paper and cloth) moving in the direction that history seems to have taken for the Church: condermnation of the past, change in the future. Yet at the very end, in an "epilogue" is the sad account of Cardinal George and his friend, the criminal serial abuser, Father Daniel McCormack, and the implication is that nothing has changed. With even very bright churchmen like George (bright but pitifully narrow), we are still at Square One. He still doesn't get it. Children are still in danger. Lay folk want Cardinal George, like Law, kicked out. But when you see where Law landed still high in the heap you are tempted to, well, kick yourself out of the Church at last, thinking "How could I be so slow to get myself off this doomed ship?" (But are you ready to face "a world of wet"?)

Frawley-O'Dea is the ideal scholar to deal summarily with the catastrophic clergy sex abuse disgrace in the Catholic Church: she was brought up Catholic, had dealt over long years offering therapy for sex abuse, then was asked by the bishops to address them in 2002 on her perspective on the crisis. Her studies had begun to center years before on clergy, on priests who abuse and especially on bishops who winked at it and who may possibly have been abusers themselves.

Her book is a monumental achievement that could help save thousands of potential victims, and may even enable the Catholic Church to save itself not its reputation, not its claim to holiness, not its promise of caring for its people, -- but its survival. If nothing radical is done, it will die in disgrace, penury and sorrow.

Pope John Paul II dominated the church for twenty years not just in the media but in his decisions regarding what not to talk about: celibacy, for instance. That prohibition of his seemed outrageous to me from the start, and a giveaway sign of his arrogance and sick need to dominate. In Perversion of Power the author implies much worse flaws in his character than just arrogance. She mentions that after the age of eight, he was raised in a womanless home, then went on to the womanless seminary. Still he felt he knew all about women, and according to our author citing Schussler-Fiorenza, reflected "more hubris that wisdom.'

Frawley-O'Dea goes on to say: "Hubris about clerical power over women and children, combined with objectifying attitudes about both, significantly mediated the sexual abuse of minors and, especially, its cover-up." I feel this statement is full of insight. The pope himself carries a large part of the guilt.

Frawley-O'Dea sends up one particularly explosive rocket, claiming that Catholic sexual theology itself is unethical. Unethical? She says it in plain words: prohibiting contraception, negating women's rights, forbidding same-sex unions, and promoting mandatory celibacy. It's unethical! If she's right, doesn't she thus undermine the whole Church? Could any contention be more devastating for a scholar to make? The Church's central claim is to speak for God. If what it recommends is sinful, the show is over. It's not a divine institution any more, or divinely guided, or divinely empowered. It's just human and flawed like other efforts of imperfect people.

The publisher deserves strong credit for the book's stunning cover image, jet black and cardinal red: the stark silhouette of a skull-capped and shoulder-caped bishop, and beneath his pectoral cross a lovely and obviously powerless altar boy, seemingly held on the cleric's lap and as totally in his power as would a bunny carried by a hawk.

The book makes a strong case for controls to be kept on priests guilty of child abuse and 5000 are now credibly named. For the protection of church children, she says, they should not be simply prosecuted, punished and separated from ministry, and set free. The author suggests residences of penance and work where perpetrators are helped to avoid re-offending and can do valuable work for the church. It sounds to me like a solution fraught with expense and lack of promise, as much a source of new problems as a solution to old ones but yet there is merit in the discussion. She mentions the over two dozen clergy suicides in the scandal thus far, and makes a strong appeal for more systematic thought about our maddening puzzle.

It is also clear that the author blames the bishops more than anyone else for the tragedy. They obviously didn't know what to do but wanted to protect the institution at all costs, neglecting the children that were/are being hurt.

She says: "Bishops across the country kept men who had abused in ministry with access to minors and thereby failed these priests by not doing everything possible to make sure that they could not violate a child or adolescent again." They seldom would meet with victims, accepting this bad plan from their lawyers. Then when a priest had to be removed from ministry, the bishops felt little responsibility for them despite the danger they still posed to the children of Catholics and others. Later in the book Frawley-O'Dea takes time to describe in general terms what she sees as the episcopal malady: "pathological narcissism" seems to best describe the worst cases. She gives chapter and verse to describe particularly arrogant bishops the chief of whom seemed to be Law who, for instance, insisted to the end that everyone call him "your eminence."

However, Catholics should not be too interested in this crisis. It is especially dangerous for a cleric. It cost Bishop Gumbleton his job, his community, and his home. When his retirement was announced recently, he said the Cardinal could have kept him on. He had asked to stay. "I'm sure," he said, "that it's because of the openness with which I spoke out last January (2006) concerning victims of sex abuse in the church. We're all suffering the consequences of that and yet I don't regret doing what I did," he said in January of this year.

Still, I personally confess to finding it all "tremendum et fascinans," a little like the Divinity Itself: spooky yet alluring. What are we witnessing? The twin towers falling? Something even worse from some perspectives. And can no one tell us why it happened? #

Perversion of Power: Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church


Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea

Vanderbilt Univ. Press 2007



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