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Cardinal Mahony’s Therapeutic Excuses

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Feb 04, 2013

Call me naïve, but I was somewhat surprised to see Cardinal Roger Mahony issue an open letter to Archbishop José Gomez in which, at this late date, he seeks once again to excuse himself for his irresponsible handling of sexual abuse by his clergy, especially in the late 1980s. Apparently the Cardinal wants us to understand that his failure to remove pedophile priests from ministry can be explained as a mistake caused by inadequate training and knowledge.

The problem with Cardinal Mahony’s explanation is that we can grant all of his premises and still not come close to justifying his behavior, or the behavior of other bishops who acted in exactly the same way. First, we can grant that Mahony was not instructed in sex abuse when he earned a Master’s Degree in Social Work in the 1960s. But all this means is that he did not study the problem of sexual abuse in an academic setting, nor the steps that might be taken to reduce its incidence, nor the reparative therapies which may or may not have worked for either abusers or their victims.

If Cardinal Mahony were a social worker, a counselor, a psychologist or a doctor attempting to treat people who engaged in or were harmed by sexual abuse, then we could be sympathetic to the difficulty of breaking new ground, of operating without guidance. But he was none of those things. He was a Catholic bishop. His responsibility was not to provide the best therapy to priests and victims. His responsibility was the spiritual and moral well-being of the faithful in his diocese. And his first task in fulfilling this responsibility was to ensure the moral and spiritual quality of his clergy, including their fitness for the priesthood in general.

Second, we can grant that once he became aware of abuse, he consulted widely and followed the procedures that were standard at that time—namely, temporary suspension during a period of therapy for the priest in question, followed by a return to ministry. Here the Cardinal seeks to hide behind both experts and numbers. But no amount of consultation, no amount of standard procedure, can justify the dereliction of duty on the part of any of the bishops who followed these policies. There is always a danger when a bishop governs his own diocese according to the standard procedures of some amorphous group. Where do such procedures come from? Why are they being used? Who ultimately has devised them? For what purpose?

These are decisions that the local ordinary cannot escape making for himself, any more than he can refuse to combat faulty doctrine in his CCD program or abuses in the liturgy just because it is the “standard policy” to let such things drift or turn them over to a panel of “experts”. One can see behind such policies an abandonment of primary responsibility, a desire to rely not on moral and spiritual judgment but on programs designed by alleged experts, in this case a program of therapy designed to return abusive priests to ministry under an aura of responsibility. But therapy is a secondary consideration which presupposes a primary judgment that the priest is fit for ministry at all. The secondary decision necessarily involves experts in some problem or other; but the primary decision is spiritual and moral, and lies at the heart of the episcopal office.

Third, we can certainly grant the truth of Cardinal Mahony’s admission of his past mistakes: “I made mistakes, especially in the mid-1980s. I apologized for those mistakes, and committed myself to make certain that the Archdiocese was safe for everyone.” Again, in the role of a therapist or a bureaucrat commissioned to put suspended priests back in service, Cardinal Mahony might well categorize the procedures he followed as mere mistakes. On this reading, the bishop merely followed the strategy recommended by “experts” but changed the strategy when the consensus of experts changed (or when the consensus was forced to change by scandal).

Of course, a detailed history of the way some bishops covered up sexual abuse does not really lend itself to this simple therapeutic story. But my point here, once again, is that bishops are not therapists. A bishop knows, or ought to know, that a priest who succumbs to the temptation to sexually abuse someone is not fit for pastoral ministry, any more than a priest who succumbs to the temptation to murder an annoying parishioner. This problem is not something generalized like insomnia, illness, alcoholism or even drug addiction which impedes one’s ministry, and from which one might recover. This is a specific action on the part of the priest to seriously abuse someone committed to his care, in response to a particular kind of recurring temptation—whether lust, anger, or the desire to dominate another.

An occasional outburst of temper, followed by an apology, would not disqualify someone for ministry (though a consistent pattern would, and has). Occasional impurity of thought or eye would not disqualify someone for ministry (though more signficant or habitual lapses in chastity would). But the serious deliberate abuse of another person by a priest, especially the kind of abuse which can never be fully repaired, most certainly does disqualify a priest from ministry. (By “deliberate” in this context, I am not referring to obsessions or compulsions; I am simply excluding accidents, such as a car wreck.)

In addition, the more intimate that violation is—the more it touches the inner life of the abused—the more surely it disqualifies from ministry. The priest who has been caught stealing $500 from the collection has violated those in his care; but that violation is not nearly as deep and severe as that of a priest who is discovered working behind the scenes to get a parishioner he does not like fired from his job; and that violation in its turn is not nearly as deep and severe as that of a priest who is discovered to have seduced an adult penitent—or sexually abused a child.

Now it is precisely the nature and the task of a bishop to embody and foster the spiritual and moral life, which includes recognizing when one of his priests ought to be permanently removed from ministry. At what point has a priest violated the trust of the whole Church (his people, his brother priests, his bishop, the body of the Church generally, and even Our Lord Himself) in a way that clearly demonstrates a disqualification from any longer serving as a priest? It does not take studies in social work, the advice of psychologists, standard bureaucratic procedures, or wide consultation to make such a judgment.

Indeed, for a good man who truly loves the Church, the grace of the episcopal office is more than sufficient. Moreover, if a bishop removes a priest unjustly, a canonical appeal is possible. But when bishops become mere hirelings, enjoying their position but unwilling to sacrifice themselves for the flock, the grace of office is repeatedly screened out. When the danger comes, such men seek not grace but procedural protection, or they hide themselves in the crowd—just as Cardinal Mahony and too many others have done. Under the very protection of their inaction, the wolf more easily snatches and scatters the flock (Jn 10:12-13).

Now, how do I know what I say is true? How do I know that the right decision in these cases has always been crystal clear? I offer this simple answer:

Suppose you are a father with one or more children, and you have a close friend with whom you sometimes leave your kids. Now suppose you later find that this friend has sexually abused one of your children. Would you ever leave any of your children alone with him again? You might admit the possibility that your friend could find help, or that he could be brought to avoid this grave sin in the future. But you would never commit any child to his care again. And there is something more: Regardless of your own innocence, you would carry a sense of failure, guilt and horror to your grave. You would give anything to be able to undo this damage.

Do you see? The bishop is supposed to be the spiritual father of his people. The bishop is a father. That is all you need to know. And even in the distant and dark ages of the late 1980s, that is all that Cardinal Roger Mahony needed to know.

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Show 9 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Canonigo Regular - Feb. 06, 2013 5:34 PM ET USA

    In response to Roman's question "Are there examples of bishops who DID handle" clerical sex abuse firmly? This is hearsay: a highly placed priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago once said in my presence, "Cardinal Cody deposed priests caught in child sex abuse the same day he first learned about it." Granted, he did not look for more victims. He hushed it up - not the most enlightened policy. But he got rid of the perpetrators fast and effectively. They never abused children as priests again.

  • Posted by: Bveritas2322 - Feb. 06, 2013 9:16 AM ET USA

    There are natural consequences in an ecclesial culture, cultivated over decades by the “new pastoralism” of our bishops, whereby they have constantly demonstrated that they would rather be tied to the rack, or tolerate the rape of children, then ever mention the word sin.

  • Posted by: robertcampbell_78332 - Feb. 05, 2013 7:38 PM ET USA

    I read Cardinal Mahony's open letter before reading your comments and agree wholeheartedly with what you say. Musing about Mahony's letter I asked 'where was his sense of reason?-where was his sense of responsibility?' Surely a man in his position had some brains, why did he not use them? He was like the servant given a talent by his master who hid it in the ground. The Cardinal hid his head in the sand hoping the problem would go away, but it did not & he & others aided & abetted criminal acts.

  • Posted by: Patrick1933 - Feb. 05, 2013 4:19 PM ET USA

    Thank you. This is the best statement--most clearly reasoned and most eloquently stated-- on this subject that I have ever seen or heard. Please send a copy of it to every Ordinary in the country!

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Feb. 05, 2013 3:07 PM ET USA

    Another excellent piece, Dr. Mirus. I would like to see Cardinal Mahony read it and read his response. That's just a dream, of course, but wouldn't it be interesting?

  • Posted by: koinonia - Feb. 05, 2013 6:52 AM ET USA

    Thank you. Unfortunately, others have attempted to make the points made by Cardinal Mahoney. They still don't get it; nothing good can come of this without contrition and firm resolution. It'll never be explainable because there is no viable explanation. There has been an identity crisis in the priesthood for some time; we're seeing a gradual awakening to reality particularly among the younger priests and clerics. There's hope, but not without Christ, the eternal priest, at the center.

  • Posted by: littleone - Feb. 04, 2013 10:11 PM ET USA

    It is all very sad. We needed heroes, true Saints, real Fathers long long ago regarding the reality of sexual abuse. Fear and shame keep people in bondage. I am saddened that he is reacting with defensive protection of himself, rather than flying to the cross in humble awareness that we all fail/sin/make mistakes, and need the Mercy of the Lord. I ask that we all remember to unite our burdens with our Lord's. I would ask the Shepherds to give us models of heroism and humility to emulate.

  • Posted by: Romans13.11-146415 - Feb. 04, 2013 10:05 PM ET USA

    R there examples of bishops who DID handle this the way recommended? It seems every bishop did the same thing-got therapy 4 priest, thought problem was fixed & returned priest 2 ministry. In a way, at least more was done than at Penn State. I am NOT defending anyone, but wondering-are there stories of bishops who discovered a problem, reported it 2 authorities & made sure the priest stayed away from kids? R there examples of abusers in other settings taken as seriously as they should have been?

  • Posted by: Defender - Feb. 04, 2013 6:16 PM ET USA

    You forget that the cardinal had higher aspirations for himself (pope?) and that no one better get in his way. A cover up here or there, cozy up to catholic politicians (who really aren't), set his attack dogs on anyone who questioned his methods or actions (e.g., going to China and saying Mass in a Patriotic Catholic Church, though it was prohibited). This really isn't too surprising.

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