Sunday, September 2, 2018

How to fix the Church's problem with criminal sexual activity

Dear readers,

It’s been a very long time.  The demands of caring for an aging parent combined with those of traveling extensively for work provide precious few moments to write.  However, recent hubbub compels me to sacrifice a few moments of sleep to write.

At Mass last weekend, the priest spoke of the clergy abuse revelations in Pennsylvania and described it as, “the scandal in Pennsylvania.”  With 200+ dioceses and growing having abuse scandals worldwide, we are safe to call it “globally systemic” rather than confine it to any geographic area as if it were a surprising anomaly.  Let’s stop being shocked that the abuse is uncovered in yet another group of dioceses.  Let’s work to shine the light to expose it everywhere and fix it.

The pastor discussed the PA abuse scandal while defending the Lansing diocese’s decision to continue holding its “Made for Happiness” Diocesan Assembly in a few weeks despite this latest sex abuse scandal news.  Tragically ironic, the diocesan shindig will be held at Michigan State University’s Breslin Center, the basketball arena for a university recently publicly criticized for institutional enablement of a serial child molester, Dr. Larry Nassar.  Side note: Prior to prison, Nassar was a devout Catholic in the Lansing diocese.  The diocese could only be more tone-deafly insensitive if it asked Larry Nassar to speak at the assembly.

All this pissed me off but did not compel me to write.  No, no…it took former papal nuncio to the U.S., Archbishop Vigano’s recently published lengthy letter calling for Pope Francis’ resignation to do that.

Vigano, whilst self-righteously adjusting his imaginary halo, wrote that Francis knew about Cardinal McCarrick’s serial sexually abusive misdeeds and tsk, tsked at him for doing nothing.  Just a little aside here: Francis, Benedict, John Paul II, Paul VI, etc… all knew about and participated in abuse cover-ups too.  Why is Vigano ok canonizing JPII as a saint but wants Francis fired?  Regardless, let’s pause a moment to understand how news about sexually abusive priests gets from the US to dear old popes.  IT’S THROUGH THE PAPAL NUNCIO!  Vigano would have had knowledge not just about McCarrick but about EVERY SINGLE SEXUALLY ABUSIVE PRIEST reported to any Catholic official in the US. 

So, dear Mr. Vigano, you knew about McCarrick too and did not report him to civil authorities.  Nor did you report to civil authorities any of the sexual crimes priests committed against children during your tenure.  Therefore, please dispense with your political posturing for papal power until you first return your pointy hat, signet ring and blinged-out crosier to the “Shamed Bishops” department and tender your own resignation.  Thank you, ever so much.

I also cannot overlook noting that Vigano’s come-lately concern about sexual abuse was about …wait for it…not any of the thousands of kids molested by priests, even those suffering during his tenure…no, it’s only about sexual harassment endured by that precious subclass of humans which clerics believe sit above the rest of humanity, seminarians and fellow priests.  That speaks volumes.

As occurs following each scandalous revelation, there’s a flurry of advice on how to fix the church…female priests, ditch celibacy, laity takeover the church…whatever.  Please indulge me in offering my advice to the dialogue…oh, sorry, was dreaming for a minute there – that the hierarchy actually sought sincere dialogue about how to fix its systemic criminal activities.  Nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

It’s all about governance.  According to Canon Law, those who write the laws are the same who interpret the laws and are the same who enforce the laws.  That is a system destined for abuse and corruption – two longstanding trademarks of the hierarchy.

To add to their death-grip on all ecclesiastic power (Canon 223 and others), Canon Law includes several Canons that make it near impossible to overturn existing laws.  This is a trap that results from belief in their own perfection.  If you believe you are perfect, then how could you write imperfect laws?  And since you don’t write imperfect laws, why would they need to be overturned. 

Canon law divides humanity into lay people and clerics (Canon 207), setting clerics above laity (Canon 223, 247 and others) and actually demanding that lay people revere and obey their pastor because pastors are the best representation of Christ for lay people (Canon 212).  As a side note, Canon Law decrees clerical institutions such as seminaries to be ecclesiastical juridical people (Canon 238).  Yes, yes, seminaries are people too according to Canon Law.  As ecclesiastical people, they not only are people but more powerful people than ones of non-clergy flesh and blood variety.

This is all problematic in itself but then, the hierarchy do two additional insidious things: 1) They say you must receive Jesus via Holy Communion and 2) incarcerate Jesus in the tabernacle and declare only they can summon Jesus to dwell amongst us in the form of the Blessed Sacrament.  In simpler terms they in essence say, “you need what I got, or you die and I’m the only provider.”  A drug cartel could not wish for a better setup.

But wait, it gets more insidious.  Canon Law includes 12 Canons which codify obligations to maintain secrecy (Canons 127, 269, 471, 645, 983, 1131, 1132, 1455, 1457, 1546, 1548 and 1602).  Canon Law reflects the hierarchy’s normalization of its stunningly unhealthy culture of secrecy and court intrigue.  Transfer a priest from diocese to diocese in secrecy?  Canon Law says that’s ok.  Hold in secret things that the brotherhood doesn’t want to divulge?  Canon Law approves of that too. 

As Canon Law stands today a priest molests a child but the child is taught that this guy is the closest thing to Jesus the child is going to encounter on Earth and he’s the guy who will give the child the Eucharist, without which the child will be damned forever.  If the priest is reported, the hierarchy can deal with him and his trial in secrecy and transfer him in secrecy.  Meanwhile, the parents and kid have to worry if they report the guy, will they be shunned or excommunicated, cutting themselves off from what they are taught is their only chance at eternal life. 

Canon Law lacks checks and balances on power and depends instead upon a belief that men of superior moral ilk occupy positions of ecclesiastical power.  I think 2000+ years of history prove that assumption breathtakingly wrong.

Short of a major overhaul of Canon Law, instilling a viable set of power checks by offering ecclesiastical power to lay people in equal levels to clerics while also ridding it of codes of secrecy, obedience to pastors, a sense of clerical superiority over lay people, and hand-binding laws against fixing the laws, the church will not seriously or successfully address its issues of systemic abuse.

I hold little hope that the same men who write into law what gives them absolute power will voluntarily change those laws.  Withholding money and subjecting them to legal recourse have some effect.  However, I think that people just need to both openly challenge the hierarchy and make the hierarchy irrelevant in their lives.  This is easier said than done in some countries, but I believe it is essential to force change and protect children.

Side note: The Lansing Diocesan Assembly offers free admission, but you must pre-register.  Here’s a link in case you’d like to acquire tickets to use or dispose of as you see fit.  Their website indicates they offer free child care, and we all know what a great reputation the church has for taking care of kids.


  1. I LOVE your blog. Thank you for saying what I have been thinking.

  2. All the talk about contrition, commissions, and the like is garbage, as long as it is within the “trust us” realm. The “painful path” for the hierarchy is a far cry from the “painful path” that is needed. Without fundamental change including but far beyond investigations, abject apologies and pious “demands” for forgiveness, are but a sedative that does not cure. Without transparency, accountability and inclusion the causal conditions for abuse may be suppressed for a while but will continue to be its breeding ground. A popular song from the early seventies puts it well: “Evil grows in the dark/Where the sun never shines/Evil grows in cracks and holes/And lives in people's minds”. An earlier verse goes like this: “If I could build a wall around you/I could control the things that you do/But I couldn't kill the will within you/And it never shows/The place where evil grows”. Teeny-bopper prophesy, eh?
    1. The complementarity of women and men that the church mouths without full inclusion of both sexes equally and fully and the priesthood of all is not just a lie, it is a “ where evil grows”.
    2. Without full transparency of past behaviour of abuse and the abuses of coverup and mechanisms of continuing full openness of practice and behaviour as well as responsiveness to the best of contemporary advice then “contrition” is empty, and a “place where evil grows”.
    3. Without accountability that includes the submission to the consequences of transparency (the hierarchy doesn't understand this yet. They believe that pious apologies and “trust me...” suffice) the institution and its office holders the organization remains a “ where evil grows”. And, as the lyrics conclude: “That every time I look at you/Evil grows in me”.

  3. Thank you for taking the time to assemble this. You have Captured what I feel but do not have the detailed knowledge to put it into words. These truly are the only answers to the problem... the sharing of power and dilution of clericalism that has a stranglehold on all of us. Thank you again

  4. The Road Less Travelled. I'm afraid we haven't even reached the fork yet.

    Thank you for an excellent piece.

  5. Thank you so much for taking the time out of what is clearly a very busy life to write this. It was so informative and I learned so much I didn't know about Canon Law, despite having been a Catholic all my life. Also, I haven't yet had cause to laugh about this crisis, but your sentence about what the bishops should do with all their paraphernalia made me laugh out loud. Bless you.

  6. Thank you so much for your blog. I have missed hearing from you but thought this most recent heresy from the hierarchy might result in a post. (For clarity, I consider the church's response in this area to be heretical. Absolutely nothing in Christ's teachings condones clerical coverup of criminal behavior much less the implicit sanctioning of abuse.)

    I am Catholic in baptism and faith but not in obedience. I've always been a bit of a "who says so?" sort of Catholic, dating back to my parochial school days. The Sisters of Mercy were, generally, pretty tolerant of me. In fact, I sensed that they were more interested in how Monsignor would answer my questions than they were in stifling my curiosity. My Jesuit educated Dad didn't discourage me either. However, as much memorization and reading as I did, I never did learn anything about Canon Law. Your insights are extremely helpful and valuable.

    The sentence in your blog that most caught my attention was this: "I think that people just need to both openly challenge the hierarchy and make the hierarchy irrelevant in their lives. " I wholeheartedly agree. Setting aside the prescriptive aspects of Canon Law, there is little to nothing the Church could actually do if the laity were to forcefully, persistently and vocally challenge Catholic clerics. We've silently, often begrudgingly, acceded to their mandates for centuries. But that has not led us closer to God or to a better understanding of how best to follow Christ's example. It has led us, as a community, further and further from the two basic commandments. The fact that it took a Grand Jury to light a small candle in the darkness that houses the Church's ugly sins is proof of that.

    Please correct me if I am wrong, but it seems to me that Church 'scholars' have to work very hard to find any scripture that addresses sexuality. (Let's ignore Leviticus for many reasons, not the least of which is the need to cherry pick from it in order to make a point.) This scriptural void demonstrates to me that the Church's attention to matters such as virginity, celibacy, homosexuality, gay marriage, abortion, birth control - and its concurrent inattention to sexual abuse, harassment, gender discrimination and pedophilia - is woefully disproportionate to the importance of sexuality in the life of a good Christian. Like Canon Law, these teachings of the Church are man-made. Or at least disfiguringly distorted by men.

    One of the reasons I had to stop sitting in the pews is because my husband frequently found it necessary to remind me that parishoners "do not get to speak up during the homily." "The sermon is a lecture, not a dialogue" was his favorite saying. When you find yourself needing to leave during the middle of Mass, it is time to reconsider whether you should be there at all. Mass should bring comfort and peace to believers, not anger and resentment.

    Your advice is sound. And I sincerely hope that Church clerics do an about face on their disdain for the laity. We are now far better read, educated and informed than our ancestors. We no longer need to accept "because I say so" as an answer. And since neither the 10 commandments Moses was handed nor the two that Jesus called out for us demand obedience to clerical hierarchy, I think we would be on sound doctrinal ground in revolting against the old order.

    But I'm not holding my breath. It took the Church 350 years to finally, formally end the inquiry against Galileo. And he had science on his side!

  7. Your description of an abused child's ordeal deserves more publicity.
    So does the guilt of Vigano himself for receiving more knowledge of crimes without reporting to civil authority.
    Ed Schreurs Amsterdam NL

  8. Louise,

    Thank you sister for taking the time to write this. Your wisdom and use of language are gifts to be shared. I often wonder how our fellow “Deacon” students from Loyola’s MPS program are doing with “those vows of obedience “. If anyone in that class deserved a leadership role, it was you. Keep up the good work my friend.

  9. Thank you for writing this. As others have said, I like most lifelong Catholics do not know any canon law.
    To your valid remark:
    "It’s all about governance."
    I would simply add,
    It always involves misuse of money - our money. Either to fund the abuser's lifestyle, for cover-ups, payoffs, and lawyers who deepen the abuse through prolonged intimidating litigation.
    Regards Barry from Ireland.

  10. Hi Ewe, Further to my point that abuse always follows the pattern of cover-up,payoffs, and vicious litigation.
    I hope the link from 2012 works.

  11. I have a proposed Penance for the Roman Catholic Church. After sufficient time for formation of replacement ministers, the default Catholic ministers will be women and married male priests. All male celibate clergy, including bishops, will stop active ministry and none will be ordained for a period of 100 years. Unmarried males can serve is consultative and support roles just as women do now. After 100 years, the expectations for celibate males in the priesthood should have changed enough to protect the Church. Exceptions make be requested by communities who vouch for the integrity of an existing male priest.
    The Penance is extreme but so are the crimes: pedophilia, cover up, putting institution over children, sheltering predators, denying women equality, and obstructing God's call to ministry felt by women and married men. The Roman Church has sinned and must atone. Justice and healing only follow repentance and reconciliation. They owe it to use.

  12. Thank you for your very wisely written post. The first mistake I believe, is entertaining the idea that the hierarchy sees child sexual abuse as a problem. I would argue it doesn’t. It sees the public's response to child sexual abuse as the problem.

    I was walking in a village once and passed a band of male dogs. The dogs were all trying to hump each other. Jokingly I said to a passerby, "what are they gay?". "No..." the passerby said, "they're just trying to establish dominance." You see, on a very primal, animalistic level, the insertion of the penis into the anus is an act of dominance. By this act, the one being penetrated has become a subordinate to the one doing the penetrating.

    Why does our language have the phrase “f*ck you!”? Does not “f*ck you!” mean “I have run out of debating points, so I threaten you with sexual violence”.

    It would be nearly impossible to establish and hold a dominance hierarchy without sexual violence. Sexual violence was used in times of slavery to “break the slaves will”. It has been used against women for eons to “bring them into submission”.

    The church does not want to solve the problem of child sex abuse. Without it, they would have a harder time maintaining spiritual dominance over others. What they want is to solve the problem of people COMPLAINING about child sex abuse.

    Wasn’t the mandate to “forgive” enough for the victim? Did that not “set them free”?

    I had an interesting experience. I experienced rape in my 20s, no justice through the legal system, the typical scenario. But the path I walked was learning how to heal myself effectively through acupuncture and EMDR therapy. I wrote a book about it, which I shared with my Christian pastor, who immediately shut me down and loudly, mansplainingly declared that “The most important thing about rape is FORGIVENESS”. Interesting, it’s not finding the rapist and incarcerating him, or educating boys differently. It’s getting the victims to shut up, make nice and go forth in their broken state while the perpetrator goes on his merry way, harming who knows how many others.

    When I proudly shared about the publication of my book on using acupuncture to heal with my confidante who is a retired policeman, he totally threw me off guard when out of character he screamed “we’ve been raping you for a very long time…. You women are just getting WEAK WEAK WEAK”

    So you see, they don’t want to stop doing it, it serves the hierarchy and is a very effective tool of domination. What they want is for us to just shut up about it, suck it up and let them have their dominant position while we suffer.