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Roots of the Abuse Crisis: The Refusal of Bishops to Be Good Shepherds (Part 1)

I hadn’t intended to post this series on the roots of the clerical sexual abuse crisis at Open Tabernacle.  I posted the three-part series in the past several days at my Bilgrimage blog.

And then two things made me begin to think that the series somehow “fits” and should perhaps also appear at Open Tabernacle.  The first of those two things is that the pope has now published a pastoral letter to the Irish church, which my colleague Terry Weldon masterfully critiques in a posting earlier today at Open Tabernacle.

As Terry notes, the word “pastoral” is central to Benedict’s response to the abuse crisis in Ireland.  And yet, as many critics of Benedict’s response are noting, his letter is anything but pastoral in two respects: it does not acknowledge Vatican responsibility for the abuse crisis that we now know runs throughout the entire church, and not just North America and Ireland; and it offers nothing beyond words of consolation, words about feeling the pain of the Irish people, to address the crisis.

And that’s, of course, just what I was writing to a bishop in the letters discussed in this and my subsequent postings about the abdication of pastoral responsibility by Catholic pastoral leaders.  Back in the 1990’s.  That’s when I began to write to a U.S. Catholic bishop about the same issues that continue to vex Catholics worldwide, since they are not being addressed from the center of the church—at their source, in the place from which the problems emanate.

And so my series of postings on the refusal of many bishops to be pastoral leaders at this point in the history of the church has a strange timeliness about it.  It’s a reminder of the “deep” roots of the abuse crisis in clericalism and the abdication of pastoral responsibility that goes along with the decision of the Vatican, at this point in history, to make the clerical elite in the church untouchable.  To shield it from responsibility when it behaves in grossly abusive ways towards the rest of the people of God.

My second reason for choosing to cross-post this series now is this: strangely enough, without intending to do this, I posted this series at my own blog in the days leading right up to the anniversary of the first in the series of letters on which my postings focused.  I first wrote my bishop, William J. Curlin of Charlotte, North Carolina, on 21 March 1995.

Today is 21 March 2010.  Not much has changed in the Catholic church, vis-a-vis the deep roots of the abuse crisis, in the past 15 years.  If anything, those roots have become more intractable.  The person who crafted the system in which the cover-up of the abuse is deeply rooted—Cardinal Ratzinger, the former head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—was elected pope right in the midst of the first waves of media attention to the abuse crisis.

Though we and the cardinal electors knew that Ratzinger was central to the cover-up of clerical abuse of minors, and though we and the cardinal electors knew that Ratzinger had hinged the future of the church on the maintenance of clericalism at all cost, the cardinals chose Ratzinger to lead the church into the new millennium.  In doing so, they cast their lot with the maintenance of the clerical system at all cost.  No matter how much the church as a whole is suffering due to the decision to continue the domination of the rest of the people of God by one elite group within the church.

And so what I told my bishop in the 1990s remains timely today—eerily so, perhaps even more timely now that we know what we know about the extent of the abuse crisis, and the damage it is doing to our church.  Hence my decision to post this series now on the Open Tabernacle site.

Letters to a U.S. Bishop in the 1990s: On Feeling Our Pain, and Empty Words

As news breaks daily about the crisis of clerical sexual abuse of children in the Catholic church in European countries, including most recently that a known sexual predator was reassigned to another position in which he could (and did) molest children when the current pope was bishop of Munich, I’ve been looking at a file of letters I wrote to a bishop in the 1990s.

I rarely revisit this file these days.  I have no reason to do so.  Life moves on, and I’ve moved on with it.  And the events the letters chronicle were such dismal ones that it fractures my spirits to read the letters again.

I do hang onto the letters, though, for a variety of reasons.  First, they’re about all I have from the period in which the church robbed us of our vocations as theologians when the Catholic college in which Steve and I taught, Belmont Abbey College, gave first me and then him terminal contracts, without any credible explanation for the terminations.  Neither of us has ever found another position teaching theology in a Catholic institution since then.  If I have nothing else to show for those years of horrendous struggle just to feed, house, and clothe ourselves and my elderly mother, since she was living with us when this was done to us, I have these letters, the fruit of my anguished reflection on what it means to be Catholic, a theologian, and gay at the end of the 20th century.

I hang onto the letters, too, because they’re a chronicle, an interlocking series of testimony about and reflection on what was happening in one tiny corner of the Catholic church—in this, case, the diocese of Charlotte, North Carolina—as the restorationist movement of John Paul II and Ratzinger got underway, and steamrolled theologians and the Catholic institutions housing them into mindless, unquestioning submission to the magisterium, both ordinary and extraordinary.  No matter what the magisterium chose to say.  About anything at all.

Maybe at some point in history, when historians want to know what was happening on the ground, as it were, as the “restoration” swept through Catholic theology departments, someone will want to read these letters.  Even now, they’d make a book someone might find worth reading—one theologian’s perspective on the purge from the very eye of the storm, as his and his partner’s vocation and livelihood were robbed, with no due process and no explanation for the robbery, by a Catholic college and a bishop who stood in solidarity with that Benedictine college as it did its dirty deeds.

I’m revisiting these letters right now because I wanted to pinpoint when it was, precisely, that I began talking to the bishop to whom I was writing—Bishop William J. Curlin, the now retired former bishop of Charlotte—about the crisis I saw down the road, when people eventually became aware of how extensive the abuse of minors by priests was in the church, and how bishops were covering this abuse up.  I knew in my bones that this was coming, even in the mid-1990s, some years before the storm broke in 2002.

And I wrote Bishop Curlin to point out that, when the storm did break eventually, more and more  Catholics would find themselves in the position in which I had been placed by the injustices done to Steve and me—faith shattered, on the outside looking in, baffled by an institution that proclaims ideals it so conspicuously violates in its own institutional life.  Faith in the institution shattered, I want to emphasize: as the letters note, my faith in God remained strong, and perhaps even stronger, after what the church did to me.

But my ability to interact with the church, even to participate in the Eucharist—for me, the center of spiritual life—was gone, irreparably destroyed both by Belmont Abbey College’s unjust treatment of us, and then by Bishop Curlin’s handling of my anguished appeal to him for pastoral counsel, as this happened.

21 March 1995: A Church Deaf to the Cries of the Oppressed

The first letter I wrote Bishop Curlin dates from March 1995.  I wrote this letter because I had been told that Bishop Curlin wanted to hear my story, to hear what had happened when Belmont Abbey College presented me with a one-year terminal contract at the end of the 1992-1993 academic year, while refusing to provide me any reason for the termination.

As I tell Bishop Curlin in this initial letter, what this Catholic college did to me affected me not merely as a worker, but as a Catholic, as a member of the church.  The sense of violation and pain struck deep, leaving me unable to partake of the Eucharist.  I asked Bishop Curlin to meet with me as a pastor, as the chief pastor of the Charlotte diocese, and to help me deal with the breach that was tearing a hole right through the center of my soul.

My 21 March 1995 letter informs Bishop Curlin that I had stopped attending liturgy and participating in the Eucharist at Easter 1994, when I had gone to liturgy at the monastery church of Belmont Abbey, and found myself viscerally repulsed by the sight of the monks who had participated in removing my vocation and livelihood standing at the altar, inviting me and others to the table of eucharistic bread after having removed the daily bread from my table.

Men secure in their own livelihoods, with comfortable housing, uninterrupted health care benefits, all the social benefits that accrue to a job and an unspotted professional reputation, telling me that they believed the bread they were dispensing was the body of the Lord, while removing the daily bread from my table.  The disparity between what was being proclaimed and the reality being lived, between the violation of daily bread and the proclamation about holy bread, was too stark for me to know how to support the disparity any longer.  To resolve the tension, I stopped going to liturgy.

And so I wrote Bishop Curlin as a pastor, believing—naively so, it quickly turned out—that it would matter to him as a pastor, as the primary shepherd of his diocese, that such pain was being inflicted on anyone in his diocese.  By a Catholic institution.

I ended my letter stating,

I risk much in telling you my story, Bishop Curlin.  My faith in the church has been very much impaired, as a result of my experience here.  I believe in God—I do not see how I can live without doing that—but my faith in God has taken on more and more the quality of anguish that one meets in the Psalms.  How can God permit such injustices?  I am only one among many who cry out for justice; the hunger of others is much greater than mine, much more actual.  Where is God, while children starve?

Such questions grow starker and starker for me.  I would like to look to the church for answers.  But my experience at Belmont Abbey has shown me a church that appears to be deaf to the cries of the poor and the oppressed.  I do not know how to relate to such a church.  I do not know how to find a home there.

Thank you for listening to what is a long and painful story.  If you wish to discuss it with me at any point, I would be willing to do so.

And then, here’s what happened.  Precisely nothing.

Bishop Curlin refused to meet with me.  He refused to see my face—ever.  Not one time.  He told me through his chancellor to write the papal nuncio, and I did so, knowing full well that I would not receive a real response, and that I was being given the runaround.  The papal nuncio did, at least, answer my letter—something Bishop Curlin did only once in my several years of writing to him, and on that occasion his answer was to inform me curtly that I was disrespectful to ask to see him face to face.

The nuncio told me he could do nothing.

1 October 1995: Pastors Meet with the Powerful, but Refuse to See the Face of Hurting Members of Their Flocks

Bishop Curlin’s one response to me occurred when he wrote me on 21 October 1996—more than a year after I first wrote him—to tell me he would not meet with me and could do nothing for me.  That letter was in response to one I had dared to write him on 1 October, in which I wrote that I knew he met freely with rich and powerful members of his flock, and it struck me as . . . odd . . . that his door was closed to the ordinary faithful, who wanted to share with him stories of pain inflicted on them by Catholic institutions, as a pastor, to receive his counsel and have their souls healed.

The 1 October letter provoked an angry reply—both a written one and a communication to Steve through Curlin’s secretary, a priest far younger than we were—informing me that I had been disrespectful in asking a bishop such a question.  My 21 October letter repeats what I had told Bishop Curlin from March 1995 forward: I was a Catholic in his diocese, experiencing tremendous pain due to a Catholic institution in his diocese, and I wanted him to hear my story as a pastor.  And to help me as a pastor.

And so nothing happened (though Bishop Curlin’s single letter to me told me he felt my pain and would pray for me), and Steve, my mother, and I left the Charlotte diocese on Palm Sunday 1997.  Because we had no means to support ourselves and had exhausted every possibility in that area we could think of, to support ourselves.

22 March 1997: From You, We Have Had Only Words

On the day before Palm Sunday—22 March, almost two years to the day from my first letter to Bishop Curlin in March 1995—I wrote a farewell letter to Bishop Curlin.  In that farewell letter, I told Bishop Curlin,

In your one communication with me, you did say that you would pray for us, as you felt our pain.

Can you understand, dear bishop, how those words might strike someone in our situation as ludicrous, and as false?  Do people really feel the pain of others, when they might act to avert catastrophe, and do not do so?  Real love, real Christian charity, is by its very nature embodied in actions.

From you, we have had words.

I also told him that I, too, would be praying: that I would pray for God to send him and the diocese he pastored outspoken truth-tellers and holy trouble-makers, who would not allow him to rest easy with the disparity between what he professed as a pastor, and what he actually lived when those approaching him as a pastor brought to him pain inflicted by the church itself.

After we left the Charlotte diocese and found jobs anyplace we could find them—no longer as theologians; just jobs, any jobs, to support ourselves and my mother, whose health was definitively broken—I continued to write Bishop Curlin occasionally.  Two of my letters in the following year, in September 1997, began to speak to him about the crisis I could see looming for the church, due to the abuse of minors by priests and the cover-up of that abuse by bishops (and, as it turns out, by the Vatican).

I already knew of the impending crisis, because, as a theologian, I had begun to hear bits and pieces—whispers—from priests who were willing to talk to a layperson who had a foot in both worlds, as it were, because he taught theology.  From these priests, I gathered that people were starting to come forth with allegations that priests had sexually molested them as minors, and that these survivors of abuse were being paid off and silenced.  And bullied by the church through legal authorities, with strong attempts to keep all of this information out of the media.  Media that were generally pliant in most areas of the country, and willing to assist the church in covering this story up.

In my time at Belmont Abbey, I had overheard two former monks talking over the details of one such case in the Charlotte diocese.  They knew I was listening, and they did not stop their conversation when they saw that I could hear them, so I assumed that they wanted me to hear this information.

In the next part of this posting, I will excerpt bits of the two letters I wrote Bishop Curlin in September 1997, and I’ll then comment about what happened in 2002 when the revelations emanating from Boston began to catch other dioceses and bishops in addition to Bernard Law red-handed, for their complicity in covering up cases of abuse and reassigning known sexual predators to positions in which they could abuse children again.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 19 March 2010.


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