Sunday, August 19, 2018

A Church in Crisis: Silence is Complicity

The words "Abuse Scandal" and "Catholic Church" are becoming all too synonymous these days.  Nowhere is that more on display than in the recent Pennsylvania Attorney General's report on clerical abuse that covered all but two of the state's Catholic diocese.  You can find a copy of the report, in all of its 1356 page glory, HERE.

For the record, I'll start right off by asking the following question:  How could I not comment on this?  How could any of us, where "us" represents that group of adult humans who seem to actually care about what's going on in the world around us, not care about this?  Granted, thinking about what to write when it comes to this issue does give me pause, if only because a good part of my life has been steeped and shaped by the Catholic Church ("the Church" for the balance of this posting).

My Faith Journey
Before I get too deep into the current events, I have some compulsion, valid or not, to actually talk about my connection to the Church.  Maybe this is a reflection of my wanting to somehow qualify myself to comment; maybe a better way to look at this is something a chronology of my own faith journey.  Here goes:

Early 1960's - Mom.  My Mother was a convert to the Church, having been raised, I believe, a Baptist.  Her sponsor/mentor as she was brought into the Church?  That was, at the time, Father James Timlin, who would later on become Bishop Timlin, prominently featured in the Report.  My Mother made sure all of her boys were raised in the Church.

1970's/1980's - At the Altar.  All four of the Albert young men were Altar Boys (as opposed to the more inclusive "Altar Servers" these days).  In fact, I was an Altar Boy for approximately 10 years, from right after receiving First Communion until after I graduated from high school (a Catholic high school).  Speaking of high school...

1970's/1980's - Catholic Education.  Three of the Albert Boys attended a Catholic high school in Scranton.  That was a choice, by the way, on our parts.  We all attended public school up through 8th grade, meaning that we were socially and religiously unprepared for what awaited us in the parochial education system.  For me, going to a Catholic high school was mostly born out of a desire to not attend the public high school I was deemed to be attending by my junior high guidance counselor.  I can't speak for my brothers.

1982-1986 - College.  I actually attended Mass with some regularity throughout college.  In fact, I was the president of the Catholic students group at Penn State Harrisburg during my senior year of college.  I got that title mostly because no one else wanted it; regardless, it looked good on my resume and I got a nice gift from Fr. Anthony Miller for my service.  That gift, a cross, hangs in my home office as type this...


1987 - 2011 - Marriage.  Well "marriage, part 1" is a better description.  My first marriage was an official in the Church affair, complete with mandatory martial education (Pre-Cana, as it is known).  That education, taught by celibate religious and a couple that was too perfect to be real, was useless as a guide to the real-life business of being married, especially to someone in their early 20's.

1988 to Present - Children.  All of my daughters were raised in the Church.  That was important to me, and, I believe, to my ex-wife as well.  This meant regular church attendance and even participation in church activities as they were growing up.  It was my belief that the girls should receive Confirmation in the Church and then from there it was their decision as to what they wanted to do with their faith.  I won't speak to their individual expressions of faith these days, but what I will note is that none of them are active members of the Church (similar to many members of their generations).

2011 - Divorce.  As my children got older and life changed for me (you can go explore the blog archives in 2010 for more if you're so inclined), I basically separated myself from the Church.  That part was made easy by the fact that the Church isn't exactly kind to those members who divorce, instead insisting that, in order for such a thing to occur within the confines of the Church's rules, it needed to be proven that a valid marriage never, in fact, existed (the term is nullified, also known as receiving an annulment)  While my divorce wasn't exactly an easy time, I had no desire to make that process even more complicated or difficult for myself or my ex-wife, and in fact we had a perfectly valid marriage for many years, so an annulment was never in the cards.

For more information about civil divorce within the Church, you can click HERE.

2015 to Present - Re-Marriage.  In the eyes of the Church, since I have not received an annulment (again, basically saying that my first marriage never actually ended, at least from a "sacramental" perspective), my getting re-married officially represents an act of adultery.  For the record, there is no one I would rather commit adultery with than my (current) wife.  Anyway, my wife was raised an Episcopalian; in fact, she was a super-Episcopalian, given that both her father and her grandfather are/were Episcopal priests.  I was honored that my wife's father actually performed our wedding ceremony.

I will note that, as something of an endpoint to the above chronology, I do not regularly attend any church.  On occasion, I have attended services where my father-in-law has been the celebrant, but since he is now officially retired, that's not likely to happen again any time soon.  I will also, on occasion, attend services at a Presbyterian church, where a good friend of my wife is the pastor.  My wife and I have talked though about eventually joining a church at some point in time in the future.  Because of the whole "the Church still thinks my first marriage is valid and I'm now committing adultery" thing, that will not be the Catholic church.

In totality, the Catholic Church has been a part of my life...all of my life...and will remain so basically forever, even if I don't attend Mass.  I have been blessed by those who I have encountered in the Church and by what I have learned.  I have no regrets.

The News
Getting back to the abuse scandal, you can find a listing of those priests and religious who have been credibly accused of abuse, as defined by the Diocese of Scranton, by following THIS LINK and clicking on the names of each individual; the links associated with each individual take you to a resource hosted by the Diocese of Scranton.

I personally have never been abused, harmed or even subject to inappropriate suggestions by any priest or religious in my lifetime.  I will note, however, that I interacted with three priests on the above-referenced list.  The specific names aren't important, but one of the three did take me and a friend to see the movie Friday the 13th, followed by a visit to his room at the church rectory.  Again, nothing happened, other than chatter about the movie.  In retrospect though, I will say that I'm re-thinking that whole encounter.

This was, by the way, three out the dozens of priests I have encountered in my lifetime.  In fact, some of these individuals were/are truly wonderful human beings, including, I might add, my cousin (who happens to be both a wonderful priest and a thoroughly decent human being).  Speaking of thoroughly decent priests, I can still recall, from my youth, getting a ride to school by (the late) Fr. Yarrish in his Mercury Capri after saying morning Mass at Holy Family Church.  At the time, Fr. Yarrish was the secretary to (the late) Bishop McCormick, which to me seems like it would have been a hell (no pun intended) of a job, but yet Fr. Yarrish was an incredibly nice man.  Then there was also Monsignor Lewis, who always made me laugh at the ungodly hour at which weekday Mass occurred at Holy Family Church.

The bottom line?  Most of my experiences with priests have actually been very positive.  This noted, the abuse of minors and seminarians was and is real.  While it's easy for some to try and soften the scandal (you can Google Bill Donohue from the Catholic League if you truly want to get disgusted), the fact remains that even one instance of abuse is too many, let alone thousands.  Now, are there false claims being made against the Church by grifters in search of a fast buck?  Absolutely yes, and I will also note that every accused priest/religious has a right to be treated as being innocent until proven guilty.  However...and this is a big however...there are also many valid instances of abuse that remain unmade as well.  Again, this scandal is real, and it is self-made by the Church.

Probably the most visceral aspect of the scandal, at least for me, lies in the fact that many cases of abuse were aided and abetted by the bishops within the Church.  That point is made incredibly clear in the Report.  While outside looking into the Church it's easy to be disgusted, it's important to realize that the Church is an ecosystem unto itself; its universe is more or less self-contained and it is ruled by a rigid male hierarchical structure that puts the United States military to shame.  Central to the ecosystem are bishops, who technically report to the Pope himself.  Given that there are thousands of bishops in the world, actual supervision becomes more or less a function of Church bureaucracy.  Catholic bishops yield significant power within this ecosystem, and while it's easy to focus on the pastoral aspects of their job, a reality is this:  Protecting ecosystem in which they exist...the Church...is central to what they do.  I firmly believe that, in viewing the actions of bishops in the Report, you need to keep that point of reference in mind.

In decades past, bishops could completely exist within the ecosystem, particularly in deeply Catholic areas such as Northeastern Pennsylvania, where the Church, in fact, wielded significant social and political influence.  They controlled who knew what and they didn't view themselves as being accountable to civilian authorities.  Their accountability was just to the Church, and the Church alone.

So what changed?  I think the world has gotten smaller and information, long guarded by the Church as a closely held asset, has now become a commodity that is very easily shared.  The Church can no longer operate within its own ecosystem, and by extension, bishops are suddenly no longer just accountable to a Church bureaucracy.  The Roman Catholic Church has never liked scrutiny by outsiders; heck, it really doesn't even like scrutiny by women, laity and many others within the Church itself.  Now we have an entire world peering into the business of the Church, and what we see isn't always quite so pleasant.

The scandal is also happening in a world that is dramatically changing with respect to how it views organized religion as a whole.  Initial reporting regarding clerical abuse by the Boston Globe (link HERE) in 2002 was just the beginning of a series of events that proved to a younger generation that religious leaders may not, in fact, hold the moral authority they claimed.  The Church's failure to act boldly when these initial stories came out only created a template that guaranteed even greater scandals in the future.  Why?  Again, because the Church viewed itself as operating outside of the world at large, operating in its own ecosystem, in a place where it controlled everything.  Now, well, the Church may have run out of opportunities for bold action on its own, precisely because it no longer has the ability to control the facts surrounding the larger abuse scandal.  The genie has left the bottle and is never going back.  This is going to get worse, and in fact, it may never get better.

Coda
Sometimes in life we get to experience a nexus, a time and place where things shift dramatically and diverge around us.  The fall of the Berlin Wall is a good example.  We may not always realize the shift at the time though.  This isn't one of those instances; if you're attuned to this story in the slightest way you're going to be all too conscious of what happens to the Church the years and decades to come.

By the way, consider me somewhat ambivalent regarding what the future holds for the Church.  Why?  Well because the abuse scandal isn't just about the actions of individuals...it's about the behavior of an entire ecosystem.  You can replace individual parts of the ecosystem, just as individual bishops are replaced over time, but unless the very fabric of the ecosystem changes (the culture of the Church, if you will), well history will simply repeat itself.  The failure of the Church to date to create a meaningful mechanism to deal with the discipline of bishops...


...is a great example of ultimately how resistant the ecosystem of the Church actually is to change.

If there is a silver lining to all of this sadness it's this:  Those who were victims of abuse no longer have to suffer in relative silence.  What's more, I do think this will force many Catholics to re-think their participation in the Church, which may not necessarily mean a change in their actual faith, but rather a reckoning and realization that while the Church may be "of God", it is run "by (flawed...as we all are) Men".  While my faith in the institutional Church certainly has wained in my lifetime to date, the actual faith I hold in something bigger than myself (as opposed to an institutional church) has only gotten stronger over time.


* * * * * *

EndNote:  
Some postings are easier to write than others; this posting falls decidedly in the difficult camp.  I'm not sure why.  Maybe it's the ingrained respect I have for the Church that resists any and all attempts to offer criticism, valid or not.  Maybe it's a fear that I would offend someone who knows me.  Regardless, I think this needed to be written.  In fact, I think we all need to take a stand when it comes to these events.  If recent history teaching us anything, well it's this:  Silence is complicity. 

2 comments:

Sean Gowden said...

"While my faith in the institutional Church certainly has wained in my lifetime to date, the actual faith I hold in something bigger than myself (as opposed to an institutional church) has only gotten stronger over time."

I love this statement because it's the right way to view this whole mess. Our Faith, our relationship with God can be separate from the Church, and that terrifies them. I've seen older generations trip over themselves to cozy up to a Bishop...have a priest in your house was like having a celebrity visit. While you're supposed to be cultivating your relationship with God, you can't do it without the input of these men. I've always thought is runs close to being against the First Commandment. It's not QUITE worship but....

We've struggled, recently, with whether or not the girls should continue their Sacraments. We're not church goers and aren't raising them as such. But they're children, and the lessons learned in Catholicism form our beliefs and we want them to have the same. We also know that some people find great solace there, and perhaps one or both of them will as well. They'll continue with our guidance, and we'll continue to identify as Catholic. But our relationship with the Church is very different. A Priest is no different than anyone else and will have to earn any extra respect we give him (outside the respect we'd give any person.)



Stephen Albert said...

Thanks for the comment Sean.

Reverence for religious is a difficult thing; when I was younger, I was taught to stand when a priest came into a room. That carried through to my working years, when I would struggle with being overly deferential to senior business leaders. As you noted, this whole mess teaches all of us that they are only men, subject to all the flaws that come with being a man. That's gender specific, by the way, on purpose.

I understand, obviously, your struggle in raising the girls in the Church. I felt so very hypocritical so many times when mine where younger...here I was playing the role of the faithful Catholic father, well all along I had plenty of doubts. The good news for me...and for you and your wife too I suspect...is that I was glad that I took them some distance into the faith, just far enough so that they could make up their own minds. If anything, I gave them something of a gift, namely overt permission to go on their own faith journeys; that's something which was afforded to me.