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Posted November 18, 2008

The Great Inertia

By Eugene Cullen Kennedy
Publication date: November 14, 2008
The National Catholic Reporter
Section: H. Essays

Editor’s note: The U.S. bishops gathered Nov. 10-13 in Baltimore for their annual fall meeting. The meeting followed the election of Barack Obama, which represented a defeat in their three-decades-long political strategy aimed at overturning Roe v. Wade, the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. The bishops again considered the abortion issue at the meeting. During the past decade the bishops’ authority has been diminished as they came under attack for their failure to deal adequately with the clergy sex abuse crisis. Eugene Kennedy, in the essay that follows, traces the causes of the bishops’ authority failings, with implications for the church in the years ahead.

Despite Pope Benedict XVI’s repeated statements of regret for the clergy sex abuse scandals during his trips to the United States and Australia earlier this year, despite the expectations raised by Benedict’s being “ashamed” of sex abuse by priests and his seeming concern for victims, for Catholics in general, for victims and for bishops themselves, nothing has really changed in America, or anywhere else. How can this be?

Although America’s bishops had dutifully nodded yes, yes, to Benedict’s vow to ban pedophiles from the priesthood, they are still pressured to shake their heads and let their lawyers say no, no, to victims seeking compensation for being sexually wounded by members of the clergy. If this sounds familiar, so did the reaction of Vatican officials to the pope’s strong springtime words about barring potential sex offenders from the priesthood. They harrumphed vaguely about new legal procedures to deal with the problem and lapsed quickly back into silence. As the days wear away along the Western front of the sex-abuse scandal, Catholics are left with what Emerson described as “the sound of things that almost happen.”

This behavior is a feature of the Great Inertia, that pervasive problem with authority that prevented church officials from reacting to the sex-abuse tragedy before it blew the lid off the crock pot in which they had let it simmer for years. To understand the long top-down suppression of information about sex abuse by clergy and its continuing public mismanagement, one must reexamine something that we think we already understand, the way authority has been expressed and experienced in the church.

Far from being a smooth absolute in which hierarchs commanded and the clergy obeyed, authority in the pre-Vatican II era was exercised in an awkward pas de deux in which priests were far more skilled at handling their bishops than their bishops were in managing them. Good priests who were single-eyed needed no external orders to carry out their work, while priests opting for double lives ignored or shrugged off regulations almost casually. The sex-abuse scandal could not have developed without the freedom of movement available to priests on the open range of pre-Vatican II clerical culture.

Far from being harsh authoritarians, these bishops often felt burdened by the authority invested in them by being appointed to their posts. In her 1982 Loyola study, Dr. Mary Sheehan describes the bishops’ uneasiness by saying that “there is some reason to think that power itself is feared by many of the bishops. ... They seem to have more trouble with ... interpersonal conflicts, rejection of their authority, and their being required to correct people or to say no to them. Thus the bishops as a group of men whom we have seen to be generally ... hard-working, well-wishing, religious idealists, can be expected to have difficulty when they are placed in a position which they and many others regard as one which must set limits, coordinate the activities of many and be the last word within a certain sphere. Many of the bishops seem to conceive of their role as a very powerful one, while they as persons do not even feel authentic, much less powerful.”

The virtue in doing nothing

This uneasiness about exercising their authority almost certainly contributed to the bishops’ practice of dealing with their clergy paternally, outside canon law and other regulations when possible, confident that through this informal style they could maintain control of their priests and of the troubles whose tripwires they snapped regularly. The bishops’ first response to alarms set off at any level in the church was, and remains, restraint; in short, their default reaction is to do nothing. They are well-disciplined in responding by not responding.

Doing nothing is not evidence of the bishops’ apathy but rather of their realization, with a few exceptions, that they are ill-advised to use their power too quickly or in too final a manner, especially if they are unsure of what the pope would think of their actions. Doing nothing is better than doing something that offends the pope on whose favorable disposition they strongly depend. They have therefore exercised authority less by responding directly to the problem or person before them than by fashioning responses that met the pope’s expectations. Research released in 1971 showed a large percentage of priests as immature, “undeveloped.” This is an important notion both to describe priests from the cohort from which sex abusers arose and to illustrate the bishops’ response to this information. The bishops had no response; they did nothing. This precedent for doing nothing was confirmed in 1985 when the bishops did nothing when the late Cardinal Joseph Bernardin submitted a plan to the National Conference of Catholic Bishops calling for a scientific study of the already well-identified problem of sex abuse by priests. Doing nothing has therefore been a consistent and critical response.

Most of the bishops were not shocked and probably not surprised to learn that many priests fell so far short of maturity. These bishops were less interested in probing the causes of their priests’ lack of growth than in keeping their priests functioning in some broadly if minimally acceptable manner, in getting as much out of them as possible, even if this was not very much.

At this point on the graph of clerical life the passive paternalism of bishops intersected with the freewheeling psychopathy of sexually immature priests to create the sex-abuse crisis.

Their paternalistic bias led the bishops to react, from the first scattered reports in the ’70s and ’80s to the last headline revelations about the sex abuse crisis in 2002, in their usual manner -- that is, as fathers who believed that this problem could best be dealt with within the family rather than in court or in the newspapers. This led them to practice an unnerving forbearance in implementing what we might term the Prodigal Son model of dealing with erring clergy. In effect, the bishops killed the fatted calf for the prodigals, keeping their riotous behavior quiet, getting help for them, sending them on sick leaves that were hard to distinguish from vacations and returning them to work with nobody the wiser. As a consequence, a healthy priest who kept his vows and remained at work without complaint was treated as if he were the prodigal son’s brother -- that is, he was taken for granted and went unrewarded and unremembered.

During the ’80s Jason Berry did the first investigative journalism, published in the National Catholic Reporter and elsewhere, on the cover-up of clergy sex abuse in Lafayette, La. Also in the ’80s, Fr. Thomas Doyle warned the bishops that if they did not address this scandal it would one day cost them a billion dollars. Despite these efforts and others, the majority of the bishops stuck to their strategy, remaining passively benevolent toward the psychosexually immature priests who sexually abused children until the crisis exploded early in 2002.

Collapse of paternal clericalism

The bishops did not realize how anachronistic and ineffective their paternalism had become or how their hesitation in using their authority would make them seem callous and calculating in recommissioning and recirculating flawed clergymen to unsuspecting parishes.

These bishops were like innocents abroad in a changing world and seemed stunned and overwhelmed by the unrelenting revelations about how many and in how many seriously damaging ways priests had acted out their psychosexual conflicts on their people during the intervening years between pre-Vatican II times and now. Because the broader supportive cultural net also snapped and gave way, the police, medical experts and reporters would no longer go along with the bishops’ genial bluffing about clerical problems.

The bishops accepted with hardly a murmur Pope John Paul II’s 1993 directive Apostolos Suos, which operationally ended the initiatives that Vatican II had urged the national conferences of bishops to take on their own authority to address problems of their own region. This had prompted the American bishops to lead the country in a public meditation on nuclear arms and the economy as they developed pastoral letters on these subjects in the ’80s. By accepting the terms of Apostolos Suos the bishops agreed to send their future pastoral letters to Rome for approval before publishing them. This surrender of their collegial right to authority from their ordination rather than from papal delegation symbolized the deep need of the majority of the bishops for the approval of the pope and their readiness to depend on his authority rather than their own in running their dioceses.

The bishops were, however, genuinely frightened by the strong reaction of Catholics to their handling of the priest sex-abuse scandal. They were not sure exactly what the pope expected as they nervously prepared for their 2002 meeting in Dallas but on the basis of the visit of several cardinals to Rome in April of that year, they felt that they needed to respond strongly to this public Catholic furor over the revelations. Unaccustomed to acting on their own authority and more comfortable doing little or nothing in the face of a crisis, the bishops searched for some surrogate authority to stand in for them.

This move was more pragmatic than principled as they turned first to a commission of lay Catholics, chaired by the distinguished lawyer Robert Bennett, to investigate the nature, extent and origins of the scandal. They later demonstrated “delegator’s remorse” at having yielded so much authority to this group and, after its members delivered their report, they declared that the sex-abuse crisis was over and attempted to downgrade the commission’s scope and responsibility. By leading a passive campaign of ignoring them, they turned their backs dismissively on them: We don’t need you anymore.

Their almost desperate need for the authority of others led them at Dallas, however, to forge a Faustian pact with the law, civil and criminal, thinking that this double agency of external authority would assume responsibility for and clean up the sex-abuse scandal for them. The bishops reaped a bitter harvest for their calculated passivity when the law they were glad to lean on during the Dallas meeting attacked the crisis on its own inexorable terms. The bishops reeled as they seemed to learn as if for the first time that sex abuse was not under their control after all but that it was a crime to be punished and an offense for which its victims could seek damages.

The biggest unreported and unanalyzed development in Dallas was the transformation of the episcopal culture from which its members have never really recovered. In seeking to prop up their authority by yielding the crisis to outside agents of authority, the bishops gave up for good the control they had long kept to themselves and the practical immunity they had enjoyed in running the church in paternalistic fashion. In the early stages of the sex-abuse crisis, doing nothing may have served them well, but in the short run of the public sex-abuse crisis, it had done them in.

Uncomfortable with their own authority, borrowing it from others, principally the pope, in their vaunted seeking “the good of the church,” the bishops are not going to start using or sharing any of their own authority to address the problems of the American church. Perhaps they remain convinced that doing nothing beats the risk of making a big mistake.

Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago.
National Catholic Reporter November 14, 2008