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otr dashback: 5-22-05 -- pastoral indifference to suffering

By Diogenes (articles ) | Apr 08, 2008

Ancient Israel had no police force or DA's office. Thus, if you were the victim of an injustice, the only option open to you (apart from an ad hoc vendetta) was to try to get the attention of a judge. A person without wealth, family, or important allies found it all but impossible to bribe or intimidate a judge into looking into his case. For this reason the prophets insist that widows and orphans have their day in court, and denounce indifferent or corrupt judges who attend only to the mighty.

Every one loves a bribe and runs after gifts.
They do not hear the case of the orphan,
and the widow's cause does not come to them.
Therefore says the Lord, the Mighty One of Israel:
I shall vent my wrath on my enemies, and avenge myself on my foes.

Most Catholic bishops -- and what I say about bishops applies throughout to superiors of religious congregations -- view themselves as champions of the downtrodden and take sincere satisfaction in their hospices, their charities, their work for senior-friendly legislation, etc. They would reject with indignation the accusation of indifference to human suffering -- especially regarding widows and orphans -- since a good portion of every working day is devoted to relieving such suffering.

Yet good intentions and altruistic energy can co-exist with colossal moral blind spots. In fact, the higher one's moral self-image, the more difficult (it would seem) to come to terms with misdeeds that violate that image. We see painfully concrete examples of this in the bishops' handling of clerical sexual abuse, brought into focus yet again by last week's California revelations. How is it that the same person who spends hundreds of hours a year lobbying, say, for family health care, can receive a letter from a poor divorcee claiming that a priest is molesting her child, and then ignore the problem, or hand it off to a flunky, or send a growling letter demanding proof, or silently relocate the priest among other divorcees with other vulnerable children?

Fully conscious villainy accounts for some cases; blackmail or fear of blackmail for others. But I suspect that, in most instances, the reason for episcopal injustice was the dilemma of weak men faced with an overwhelming Inequality of Consequence.

Here's what I mean. At some level, every U.S. bishop has been aware of a huge problem with sexual irregularity among priests, of which child abuse was but one particularly sordid manifestation. But who wanted to be first to tackle the problem, to open an abyss of horror underneath his feet (and those of his brother bishops)? The negative consequences of facing the music were obvious and incalculably great. The negative consequences of the damage-control approach, however, were largely invisible -- because these negative consequences were largely in the spiritual order. It wasn't just a question of weighing the alternatives and following the line of least resistance. There was scarcely any comparison: on the one hand, a leap into a bottomless pit of woes; on the other, business as usual, a look the other way, a meaningful nod to a lackey, and tomorrow looks much like today. The only thing lost is souls.

Forced to account for their injustice against the weak, most bishops excuse themselves saying "If what is known now was known then, we would have acted differently." This is partly sincere and partly dishonest. What has changed is the level of public scrutiny -- not the bishops' knowledge but ours. Yet it's true that it's hard to see as injustice what is common practice in one's profession, tacitly accepted by nearly all members. And again, most bishops have a congratulatory self-image as vindicators of the oppressed. In these circumstances, it's an all-but-impossible psychological feat to view oneself as one of the sneering, corrupt, bribe-taking judges of the Old Testament, contemptuous of the widow -- even when you have her hand-written letter on your desk pleading for justice. Margaret Gallant's plea to Cardinal Medeiros about John Geoghan still hurts to read after 23 years:

Our family is deeply rooted in the Catholic Church, our great-grandparents and parents suffered hardship and persecution for love of the Church. Our desire is to protect the dignity of the Holy Orders, even in the midst of our tears and agony over the seven boys in our family who have been violated. We cannot undo that, but we are obligated to protect others from this abuse to the Mystical Body of Jesus Christ. ...

[Geoghan's] actions are not only destructive to the emotional well-being of the children, but hits the very core of our being in our love for the church -- he would not gain access to homes of fallen away Catholics. ... Truly, my heart aches for him and I pray for him, because I know this must tear him apart too; but I cannot allow my compassion for him to cloud my judgment on acting for the people of God, and the children in the Church.

My heart is broken over this whole mess -- and to address my Cardinal in this manner has taken its toll on me too.

The "cry of the poor" doesn't get any clearer than that. Yet the bribe that made Medeiros and his brothers avert their eyes was not financial but something closer to the bone. When an injustice is so blatant as to scream for remedy, and that remedy entails facing the music at the heart of one's own life, and that in turn means tearing up the fabric of a whole lifetime of moral compromises, the injustice never becomes "real" -- it's just too easy to go on pretending. An aphorism of Nietzsche applies here:

'I have done that,' says my memory. 'I cannot have done that,' says my pride, and remains adamant. At last -- memory yields.
Almost all bishops can admit to mistakes; almost none to iniquity. After the recent release of diocesan files, abuse victim David Guerrero is quoted as saying, "I would say Bishop [Michael] Driscoll's a sick, immoral person to allow something like this to take place." On his diocesan website, the same Bishop Driscoll insists, "I am completely and wholeheartedly committed to the safety of children."

They're both right.

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  • Posted by: - Apr. 10, 2008 8:03 PM ET USA

    I have noticed this principle at work in liberal family members--they devote their lives to the cause of the nameless, faceless poor and deprived of the world, but cannot bring themselves to visit old great-aunt Anne who is 87 and lives alone, 5 miles away. They will always take the cause of some nebulous strangers before actually checking to make sure Grandma has food in her fridge. It is just more edifying for them to give $ to feed the poor, than weekly buy groceries for a family member...

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