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Roots of the Abuse Crisis: The Refusal of Bishops to Be Good Shepherds (Part 2)

And now, as a continuation of the story I began to tell in the first half of this posting, excerpts from two letters I wrote Bishop William J. Curlin of Charlotte in 1997, five years before revelations about clerical abuse of minors in the Catholic church began to pour forth in the mainstream media in 2002, in a tidal wave of reports.

1 September 1997: What Counts for Bishops?

The first of these two letters is dated 1 September 1997.  Here’s how it begins:

I am writing you today after having read in this morning’s newspaper of a network of bishops that protected a priest who is a child molester.  The newspaper reports that the Texas bishop who offered to incardinate the known child molester said that the church must avail itself of the services of all priests in a time of priest shortage.

After having read this, I observed to Steve Schafer, “Isn’t it interesting that a network of bishops has been willing to participate in the destruction of our careers and reputations, while providing no reason for this?  And yet a network of bishops is also willing to protect a known child molester, and withhold information about this from those the priest serves.”

Something seems awry here, doesn’t it, Bishop Curlin?

I then go on to remind Bishop Curlin that I had never been able to find a full-time job (of any kind), following what Belmont Abbey College did to us—that, effectively, Belmont Abbey College had destroyed my career as a theologian, and I had never been told why this was done to me.

And then I ask Bishop Curlin:

When stories like these are known in detail, do they make people trust the church and accept its teaching, particularly about matters of justice?  What can people conclude when they place this story beside the one in today’s paper [about a network of bishops protecting a priest abusing children], except that the church is perfectly willing to violate its most basic norms of justice and charity to destroy the career of an esteemed theologian, while protecting a child molester?

What can this mean, except that clericalism drives many decisions of the church hierarchy—despite the church’s own teachings about the priesthood of all believers?

Could the crisis in priestly vocations somehow be related to these two stories?  Is it possible that idealistic young people will not give their lives to the service of a church that behaves as dishonestly and unjustly as the church has behaved in these two stories?

And then I reminded Bishop Curlin that the ultimate price I had paid for what was done to me—the price about which I had begged to see him in 1995 and 1996—was that I could no longer participate in the Eucharist, because of the disparity between what the church proclaims and what it actually does to many human beings.  And I continued to beg him to begin behaving as a pastor:

Your refusal even to meet me and see me as a human being seems to me to belie your pastoral office in the most blatant way possible.  Such actions on the part of the bishops of our church make it increasingly difficult for me, and many others, to see in the church and its hierarchy the face of the compassionate, healing, all-loving Jesus you keep preaching to us.

In the final analysis, stories such as this morning’s story about the protected pedophile priest make many of us think that what counts most for many of our bishops is not fidelity to the gospel and to central tenets of Catholic teaching about justice, but what bishops can get away with.  This gives many of us the impression that what interests many bishops most is protecting—at all cost—mutable structures (e.g., the clerical structure) that are now badly serving the church’s best interest.  Increasingly, many of us think that many bishops will do what they are willing to get away with in situations such as mine and the pedophile priest’s, rather than what is clearly right.

Can such a church command people’s loyalties?  Will a church that destroys the careers of valuable lay ministers, while protecting pedophile priests, have a bright future in the new millennium?

I may have been removed from your midst physically, but these questions—which are central to what happened to me at Belmont Abbey—won’t go away.  They demand honest, open, discussion.

10 September 1997: Do Money and Image Count More Than Pastoral Leadership?

Then I wrote a follow-up letter on 10 September.  It begins as follows:

Soon after I wrote you on September 1, I received the September 5 issue of the National Catholic Reporter.*  That issue has news about the pedophilia trial in Dallas, on which my September 1 letter commented.

Since this news is deeply disturbing to me, and has bearing on my story in the Charlotte diocese, I am writing again to comment on the latest revelations from the Dallas case.

As you may know, the NCR article indicates that the bishop of Dallas has met secretly with “a group of powerful laymen” to plan “an aggressive legal and public relations campaign designed to discredit…the…verdict in the Rudolph Kos sex abuse case.”  Notes from the meeting contain evidence of possibly unethical communication between the judiciary slated to hear a motion in the case, and an attorney present at the meeting.

The meeting notes also show that the diocese plans a public relations campaign designed to assure Catholics of the diocese’s “compassion,” while suggesting that the trial was unfair.  According to these notes, at least one of the “powerful men” present at the meeting observed, “We can control the media.”  The notes identify “protection of assets” as a key diocesan objective.

If the NCR report is accurate, and I have no reason to suspect it is not, then I wonder what such meetings portend for the future of our church.  The picture this meeting paints is not a pretty one for those who seek desperately to believe in the church and its message, is it?  It’s a picture of Christian pastors colluding with the powerful of the world, to protect assets, rather than to discuss the serious pastoral implications of the Dallas case.

Is money what counts above all for the church now?

It’s also a picture of a church concerned above all with image, and not with the substance of the gospel it proclaims.  This is a church willing to present a “compassionate” face to the world—and to manipulate the media through advertising campaigns to produce that face—rather than living compassion towards the victims of child abuse, and their families.

Is image, rather than substance, what counts above all for the church now?

I suggest to Bishop Curlin that a church whose pastors paid serious attention to the example of Mother Teresa, one of his heroes, would behave very differently, at a pastoral level.  And then I note:

As I have been pondering the Dallas case in light of the life of Mother Teresa, I have also been thinking of a powerful statement of our present pope in his encyclical Sollicitudo rei socialis.  John Paul II says:

Solidarity helps us to see the “other”—whether a person, people or nation—not just as some kind of instrument, with a work capacity and physical strength to be exploited at low cost and then discarded when no longer useful, but as our “neighbor,” a “helper” (cf. Gen. 2:18-20), to be made a sharer, on a par with ourselves, in the banquet of life to which all are equally invited by God (39).

It is because of such statements that I remain unable to receive the Eucharist, after what Belmont Abbey and the diocese of Charlotte did to me.  Rather than treating me as a neighbor and helper—someone to be met personally, someone whose human story was to be heard attentively—Belmont Abbey and the diocese of Charlotte treated me like a thing, an instrument, someone to be used and then thrown away.

After Belmont Abbey fired me without providing any reason for doing so, lying to me and slandering me in the process, I was treated as a pariah by the local Catholic community.  You yourself refused even to meet me face to face, and communicated to me through an intermediary that I had been “disrespectful” to ask for such a meeting—in doing so, underscoring the behavior of Abbot Oscar towards me, behaving in precisely the same way he had towards me.

As Pope John Paul II notes, such behavior has Eucharistic implications.  When the church betrays the divine call to invite all equally to the banquet of life, then it also undermines the very meaning of the Eucharist it celebrates.

When the church treats people as things to be discarded, when it betrays its own teaching about human rights in the workplace, when it underscores that betrayal by lying to, slandering, and excluding from community the discarded worker, it undermines the very meaning of the Eucharist it celebrates.

And I end the letter with thanks to Bishop Curlin for listening, since, as I conclude, “a church that really listens is one always susceptible to conversion, even in its governing structures, in the way it exercises pastoral office.”  And the church needs conversion, I remind him, as I point again to the revelations about clerical sexual abuse—and its cover up by bishops—just beginning to break in the media at this point in John Paul II and Ratzinger’s restorationist church.

Tomorrow, I’ll conclude this series with a short post-script about what happened in the Charlotte diocese when the Boston files were opened up in 2002.

*A friend had kindly given me a subscription.

Cross-posted from Bilgrimage, 19 March 2010.


5 Responses

  1. May I add my own words about shepherding from a couple months back:


    • TheraP, thank you for a moving and beautifully written meditation.

      The picture of Brother Pierre speaks eloquently to me. I intend to keep it close to me these days, as a visible sign of interior grace–coming through one of those many embodiments of Christ in the church whose pastoral ministry could teach the “real” pastors something very important.

      If they would listen to their “inferiors.”

  2. This is heartbreaking.

    • Mark, thanks for replying. I am sorry to have my pain added to the pain of others.

      But maybe as people begin to realize how deeply rooted the pattern of abuse is in our church, we can begin to address it–effectively, at the level where it needs to be addressed.

      Otherwise, we will keep putting bandaids on festering sores.

      • Tales must now be told….

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