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Fr. Thomas Reese S. J.: “We Need to Embrace a Preferential Option for the Survivors of Sexual Abuse”

Reese gave the keynote speech on May 11 at a conference titled “Clergy Sexual Abuse Ten Years Later” held at Santa Clara University. He stated:

First, I think the church—and by church I mean both the clergy and the people of God—needs to re-envision its attitude toward the survivors of sexual abuse. In Latin America, liberation theologians developed the concept of the preferential option for the poor. The American Catholic Church needs to embrace a preferential option for the survivors of sexual abuse.

If American Catholics who pride themselves on their freedom of conscience and independence from hierarchical dictates would do this one thing and do it first as a sort of preface before considering and commenting on other Catholic issues, they could save themselves the embarrassment of so often coming down on the wrong side of history. 

The thinking of many progressives of a “certain age” is dominated by nostalgia for an institutional Church which no longer exists – or perhaps never did based on the information now available from government investigations and disclosed in lawsuits about what really happened to children and their families during some supposedly golden age of Vatican II.  Not only engaging in wishful thinking, some Americans are also guilty of “tribal Catholicism” often noted by the brilliant and insightful theologian, William Lindsey PhD, on his Bilgrimage blog, when  many American Catholics write and act as if their own self-worth and community standing (often expressed as triumphalism or exceptionalism) is tied to their pride in being a Roman Catholic.

A brief contemplation of what type of men could supervise and cover up the torture of thousands upon thousands children would preclude such errors as MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell and others insisting that the tormenter of survivors, the Catholic League’s Bill Donohue, isn’t an “official” spokesman for the Catholic Church. Well, yes he is. The Catholic League is listed in the Official Catholic Directory, both sponsored and praised by USCCB president, Cardinal Timothy Dolan.

A thought or two given to the brutal treatment of the survivors and their advocates, the lies, obfuscations and despicable legal tactics of the bishops could have prevented acclaimed news commentators such as Mark Shields, Chris Matthews, E.J. Dionne Jr. and columnists for respected publications such as America, Commonweal and the National Catholic Reporter actually defending the bishops as sincere proponents for the commonweal of this country in their objections to a health insurance mandate already in effect in dozens of states, most for at least a decade, but only brought forward in a critical presidential election year.

Remembering that NOT ONE active U.S. bishop has even mildly criticized, much less expressed any dismay, at a confrere’s keeping an abusive priest in service even after being informed of the cleric’s crimes – in fact the majority of bishops elected Cardinal Francis George president of the USCCB after he did just that; and NOT ONE active bishop has objected to or criticized any of the myriad of conservative Catholic websites and authors who have, for the past ten years, written library-sized volumes denigrating, denouncing, smearing, libeling and defaming the survivors and their advocates; might have given pause to Maureen Dowd, Chris Matthews, E. J. Dionne et al before asserting that only a small, rightwing faction of bishops is responsible for the indefensible.

The U.S. bishops could have shown some real concern for the health, safety and wellbeing of Americans but instead have stood solidly shoulder-to-shoulder, totally united and of one mind, in using whatever of their vast resources were needed to halt any liberalization of statutes of limitation which would benefit all of this country’s children – past, present and future.

But after Bishop Stephen Blaire on May 21 expressed a mild reservation about a number of Catholic organizations filing lawsuits against a health insurance mandate because a similar lawsuit was rejected by the California Supreme Court; and he suggested more discussion because the bishops’ “religious liberty” crusade was being interpreted as “a woman’s issue or a contraceptive issue” and  an “anti-Obama campaign,” and therefore feared that if Catholics thought the bishops were “too political,” they would not “rally behind us;” Dionne, David Gibson and Sean Michael Winters reacted as if there was a real difference of opinion among bishops. Their desperate attempt to again assure themselves and others that there must be some reasonableness in the episcopate was quickly squashed the same afternoon after their morning columns appeared with a statement by “moderate” Archbishop Wilton Gregory that the episcopate was, indeed, of one mind on the lawsuits and the comparatively small number of litigants were chosen to represent a cross-section of ALL Catholic organizations in this country. Gregory’s statement was quickly followed by assurances of total unity not only by other prelates, but Blair himself issued a statement “to clarify any misunderstanding.”

Perhaps in the most blatant display of tribal Catholicism – thousands wishing to justify their decision to remain in a corrupt Church – progressive Catholics have thrown sex abuse victims and those who have survived under the bus by their continuing displays of support for the LCWR in the nuns’ fight against the Vatican, without asking that American women religious do right by the children they criminally abused. It is disheartening how many Catholics are willing to keep their own “well-formed consciences” in cold storage by not demanding that the nuns even reach the standard set by the media-persuaded bishops by inviting any victim to speak at their conventions, by signing on as participants in the Dallas Charter or participating in any survey – however flawed – to ascertain the number of their victims or the scope of the lives lost or ruined by their actions. Women religious have shown exactly the same decision-making process as the bishops i.e. their “moral authority” and reputation, not to mention their extensive assets, trumps the succor and justice due to the children they tortured.

If American Catholics “embraced a preferential option for the survivors of sexual abuse” as Fr. Tom Reese suggests, at least the laity would set an example for their clerics and religious instead of enabling them.


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