bishops and indifference to suffering

By Diogenes (articles ) | May 22, 2005

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 devoting 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: - May. 23, 2005 4:31 PM ET USA

    Now, several years later, our beloved aunt gone to her eternal reward, this family member has explained to us that elderly people actually have a different standard for cleanliness than we do. So you see, what he did to his aunt was not really wrong. Bishops are not alone in their penchant for ammended the past to make the present a little more comfortable.

  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2005 4:25 PM ET USA

    I have a family member who has proudly devoted his life to politics--because he wants to help the poor and downtrodden. His wife was the CEO of a charity for women. They CARE. We visited from overseas to find the elderly aunt who raised him living alone, across town in filth, with rotten food in the refrigerator, and sheets that had not been changed in a year or more. I now have a clear perspective on what the Bishops are talking about when they tell us they CARE.

  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2005 9:58 AM ET USA

    These apostles of social justice have revealed themselves to be mobern men w/o chests per CS Lewis, or per GK Chesteton, men who love humanity but hate their next door neighbor. Its so much easier to wail over Tsunami victims and send them liter containers of bottled water, or demand the raising of taxes to make it easier for governemnt perverts to control er subsidize the new working poor who have to have both parents work to pay all those extra taxes.

  • Posted by: - May. 23, 2005 7:45 AM ET USA

    "We didn't know it was a crime, we regarded it as sinful behavoir" is a shibboleth that can still rouse my ire, since it's a perfect restatement of one of the features of pedophilia: an utter lack of empathy, a regard for the irreperable damage done to the victims. At some level, one wonders if the many, many bishops who've resorted to this lame excuse share the predelictions of the criminals they've actively protected. Yes, I'm sure of it.

  • Posted by: Sterling - May. 23, 2005 12:32 AM ET USA

    The comments are harsh, and perhaps deservedly so - but don't most of you feel a chill about your own souls? I do about mine. It's so easy to lower standards because of lowered standards "tacitly accepted" by one's associates? How about uncharitable speech - not about bishops, but just about anyone? That's a bigger sin than most of us admit - no, it's not sex abuse, but it offends Almighty God. But most of us do it. Something to think about?

  • Posted by: - May. 22, 2005 11:30 PM ET USA

    Eusebuis is correct. Except if you're a priest in the Boston Archdiocese. Then you're told that contributions to the priests' pension fund went to pay off awards to those who claim they were sexually molested by other priests (even tho' they were special collections at mass twice a year), such that you will have to make do in your retirement on half the money you thought you would recieve. And, if you need nursing home care, then you must pay for that yourself, as there's no money left for that.

  • Posted by: Fr. William - May. 22, 2005 10:50 PM ET USA

    Right on, as usual, Diogenes. Jesus calls forth bishops to be successors to the Apostles, not diplomats. His Church needs successors to the Apostles, not diplomats. Let's keep praying that bishops will have the Heart of THE Shepherd.

  • Posted by: Vincit omnia amor - May. 22, 2005 8:33 PM ET USA

    certainly this points to the reality of sin as a "mystery." but, the sad part is, the abuse scandal is likely just one manifestation of a wider scandal (in terms of it's effects on the salvation of souls): not preaching the Truth in season and out of season; allowing ideas foriegn to the Teachings of Christ to become institutionalized so as to pass as sound doctrine, allowing the Liturgy (through which the Faith is transmitted) to become a play thing for "educated" liturgists. Lord, have mercy!

  • Posted by: - May. 22, 2005 12:18 AM ET USA

    Mediocrity seems to be the preference. If anyone seems to be zealous, he is considered dangerous: a 'boat-rocker," or a possible "whistle-blower." Meanwhile, they read our Lord's words, "Be ye hot, or be ye cold, for the lukewarm I shall vomit from my face." And they understand nothing. Or else they read a debased "translation," such as NAB, with less than orthodox notes. The rebels went ahead and did their thing, and it was accepted. It may be time for us to REVOLT vs. mediocrity.

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2005 7:18 PM ET USA

    And what do you do with salt that has lost its flavor? Give me one bishop who preaches the Last Things, one bishop who is on fire with the love for souls and is indefatigable in working for their salvation - give me that one man and you can fire all the rest of the time-wasters and hangers-on and other parasites who waste the time of the Faithful and unjustly consume their treasure. The acceptance of spiritual mediocrity has always been a curse for the Church.

  • Posted by: Eusebuis1 - May. 21, 2005 3:47 PM ET USA

    and ... even if these "prideful" Bishops are forced to retire, they will continue to receive the same percs and retirement benefits as will our very good faithful, God loving, Bishops and priests. I guess the only thing they might loose is their souls! For what tey've done they should pay now for their sins.!

  • Posted by: - May. 21, 2005 10:28 AM ET USA

    I suspect our bishops are too busy being administrators, or following the latest fad of pacifying the laity in their latest demands for inclusion. I know the Liturgy and catechesis in our diocese has reached new depths of spiritual insipidity and intelluctual vacuity. Only 5 priests entered seminary but 30 candidates for the deaconate. Of course, deacons aren't paid. And then, a small but powerful group of bishops are a lot like Peter Pan-they refuse to grow up and hang out with fairies.