Sunday, December 27, 2015
Living a myth...
I vividly remember “the talk” with my mom. You know, “the talk…” My older sister, tired of defending my unwavering belief in Santa, bullied me into asking the big question, “Is Santa real?” My mom’s gentle explanation combined with my fervent desire to believe initially produced the opposite effect my sister intended. Words are weak instruments to describe her reaction when I returned from that little chat triumphantly proclaiming, “I knew it! Santa is real!” However, I do remember her reaction did include grabbing my hand and dragging me back to our mom protesting, “Mom! What did you tell her?! She still believes!”
My mom had taken me to a mirror and said, “Yes, Santa is real but he is not a fat, jolly guy in a red suit. He can look just like the girl in the mirror when she gives a gift at the giving tree.” I so much wanted to believe in the entirety of the Santa myth that I filtered out all words except “Santa is real.” I’m happy to report that we did achieve mutual clarity within the span of about 15 minutes. I was 8 years old and it was time to live with a different understanding of the myth. My sister felt for her and my own physical and mental well-being, it was well past time but that’s a debate for another day.
I find myself reflecting upon that fervent desire to believe in a myth after watching the movie “Spotlight.” This movie chronicles the Boston Globe’s investigative journalism that led to its January 6, 2002 bombshell story about the Catholic Church knowingly leaving numerous pedophile priests in active ministry for decades. Though individual sex abuse stories had been published throughout previous decades, this story altered the conversation because it demonstrated that a sick, systemic culture involving hierarchy and laypeople enabled and helped perpetuate widespread abuse. It revealed a culture pretending each abuse case was simply an individual, isolated, “whoopsie there” incident so as to perpetuate the myth of a perfect church. People turned their heads for a myriad of reasons all stemming from scandal avoidance desires: “priests are good guys”, “just doing my job”, “the church does such good work in other places”, “my fellow parishioners bully whistle-blowers”, “Cardinal/bishop so-and-so says it is the best thing for the church”, etc…
Why did the church hierarchy obsess on avoiding scandal? Because it feared scandal would shake people’s faith and possibly inspire them to leave the church. Yet, Holy Mother Church’s fervent desire to avoid scandal became a monumental, self-destructive scandal in itself. Instead of Holy Mother Church, it’s more like Our Lady of Macbeth - externally presenting the mythical image of perfect hostess while plotting and scheming to manipulate and neutralize people seen as interfering with this burning ambition…eventually resulting in the opposite effect from the ambition.
The church so desperately wanted to perpetuate a scandal-free myth that it caused huge, unimaginable scandal. The movie’s ending flashing four multi-columned pages naming over a hundred Catholic dioceses where major clergy abuse scandals and their even more scandalous cover-ups have been exposed to-date punctuates the scandal-based damage that arises when an entire system prioritizes myth perpetuation over truth and people’s lives. With over 100 dioceses, over 100,000 abuse victims, and about 75% of Catholics leaving the church, it is well past time for the church to live with a different understanding of the myth. Our mental and physical well-being requires it.
I believe the exodus occurred because too many still want so desperately to believe in the myth that they only begrudgingly implement superficial changes to address the issue and bully those who wish to live with a more mature understanding of the myth that includes real systemic change. For example, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, in anticipation of the movie’s release, prepared dioceses with talking points aimed at portraying the topic as a thing of the past – as if it’s all different now. Yet, even the reports about filming the movie illuminate that it’s not all different now. The New York Yankees declined being filmed for a scene at Fenway Park because they felt it wasn’t a topic with which the team should be associated and believed that the Red Sox shouldn’t be either. Why would a sports organization that profits from attracting fans, many of whom are children, think it inappropriate to be associated with a movie about protecting children? Do we smell New York Roman Catholic Cardinal Dolan’s breath in that statement? The same old pattern certainly is there.
Yes, some things have changed since the Globe story broke yet much remains the same. Because thousands of priests raped children, I had to be finger-printed and watch movies about protecting children. It is as Mitchell Garabedian says in the movie, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them.” Therefore, we must educate the village. However, one constant is the existence of lay and ordained staunch defenders of the church who treat truthful criticism as an attack to which they must wage a counter-assault. This attitude contributed to creating a penalty-free environment for abusive clergy and irresponsible bishops. Until that fear-induced arrogant rejection of constructive criticism is replaced by humble sincere truth-seeking, there is no marked difference in the culture. One need look no further than the sheep-like unquestioning obedience to Mass language changes to see that those in the pews largely still operate with a “Father knows best” deference to men wearing Roman collars.
Unfortunately, the staunch defenders actually have changed in that they have doubled-down on irrational defense of the church’s indefensible. They have doubled-down on squeezing their eyes shut and stuffing their ears with earplugs to shut out reality. They want the myth of a perfect church and will stop at nothing to retain living in their myth. They are happy to chase away anyone who tries to bring them to a more mature understanding of the myth.
It is impossible for the vast majority of humans to consider the Catholic Church the penultimate “truth team” when its Canon Law and culture consider fact-based criticism to be “the enemy.” Thus, it’s no surprise that active Catholics represent merely 4% of the world population. (7 billion people, 1.2 billion Catholics, of whom only about 25% are active.)
If people truly love the church, they must welcome criticism of the organization. Since sports form an informal pillar of the Catholic faith, I’ll try a sports analogy to describe the detrimental impact of ignoring institutional shortcomings. It’s like a basketball team which commits many turnovers declaring this statistic as anti-them and refusing to work on turnovers. It’s like the team and fans bullying anyone who mentions the statistic and asking them to leave the game and never come to another one. It’s like a team with the highest turnover rate blaming the ball for its stubborn unwillingness to remain with the team.
The turnover metaphor only speaks to the abuse scandal’s collateral damage - people's mass exodus from the church. The most profound damage occurred to the 100,000s of people molested by priests. I can only think of a parenting analogy for this. It’s like a parent entrusting their children to a known pedophile as babysitter, and then when the child reports the abuse, recommending the pedophile babysitter to friends and neighbors. Would you trust such a parent? No, I wouldn’t either. Not even after they said they were sorry or enacted a Dallas Charter creating great bureaucracy to guide them since they demonstrated a collective lack of common sense to do the decent thing. Such a parent would be declared unfit. The same is true for all bishops who shuffled abusive priests.
Is it time to behave like my unrelenting older sister, grasping hands of staunch believers in the myth and insisting they adopt a more mature understanding of the myth? Don’t we owe the survivors at least this much?