How Did This Happen, Part 5--They Just Don't Get It

Just as you don't have to be the actual autocrat to believe in autocracy, or have any capital to believe in capitalism, you don't have to be a cleric in order to fully absorb the norms and values of clericalism.  And no one demonstrates this better than Michael Sean Winters, columnist for the National Catholic Reporter.  His article today in defense of Pope Francis's handling of clerical sex abuses cases shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that the folks on the "inside" of the Roman Catholic Church and those that circle around their orbit (i.e. Winters) fundamentally do not understand the origins of the problem or what needs to be done to fix the problem.

Let's begin, first, with the one thing Winters gets right--the accusation that Pope Francis is "soft" on sex abuse cases is being used by the anti-Francis faction as a club to smack around the Pope.  Surely true.  But the fact that these stories are being exploited for political purposes doesn't mean that the stories are baseless, or that Pope Francis doesn't deserve criticism for his handling of these situations.  If you want to play the hypocrisy card and claim that the Cardinal Burkes of the world would do the same or similar things in these situations, I'm not going to stop you.  But none of that exonerates Pope Francis on any level for his own actions.

Two other small things before we get to the heart of the matter.  First, Winters's evidence as to why Francis is "really committed" to policing sex abuse is (1) he wrote an introduction to a book on child sex abuse where he said it was a really bad thing; (2) his close American buddy Cardinal Sean O'Malley is taking point on sex abuse (while, never forget, Cardinal O'Malley's predecessor in Boston Cardinal Law is still hiding outside of U.S. jurisdiction in the Vatican); and (3) he put together a body that theoretically could hold bishops to account for their failings regarding handling sex abuse cases, but to date has not actually done anything.  I suspect many will find this less than persuasive.

Second, at no point does Winters even acknowledge the victims and what the victims or their families might think is an appropriate outcome in all of this.  I get that you can't entirely put justice in the hands of the party that has been wronged, but some reckoning with the views of anyone other than the priest would be nice.  I mean, Winters's thought experiment about how an abuser may be truly sorry for his sins is plausible, but perhaps the victims, or for that matter the church at large, may not be comfortable with a man who is a child abuser being a public representative of their faith, no matter how constrained his freedom of action might be.

This dove-tails into Winters's core thesis, which is that declining to defrock sex abusing priests is (a) an act of mercy; while at the same time (b) strikes a blow against clericalism by refusing to see removal from the priesthood as the worst possible punishment.  These two positions are directly contradictory.  If changing the punishment from removal from the priesthood to "a life of prayer and penance" is an act of mercy, then by definition removal from the priesthood is the worse punishment; if removal from the priesthood is not the greater punishment, then sentencing someone to a life of prayer and penance is not an act of mercy.  So, which one is it?  Because you have to pick.

For what it's worth, I think there is no real question that Pope Francis, and not just unnamed officials at the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, views being defrocked as the worst possible punishment, and that Francis did indeed see the "prayer and penance" bit as an act of mercy.  But it is important to see how thoroughly clerical the entirety of the thought process is by everyone involved.  First, pivoting off something I highlighted in my series, everyone involved, including Winters, takes it as a given that the proper forum for deciding on the fate of a priest who has been accused of child sex abuse is internal to the Roman Catholic Church.  The notion that secular authorities really should be the primary locus of decision-making as to the fate of these men never enters into the conversation.

Moreover, and this is critical, it is not simply that the decision-making regarding these cases is handled "in house," but that the Roman Catholic Church continues to take active steps to frustrate the ability of secular authorities to engage in their own investigations.  Take for example the Fr. Inzoli case that Winters mentions.  Inzoli was subject to a canonical trial for sex abuse claims in 2012, which initially resulted in him being defrocked, which was later reduced by Pope Francis to prayer and penance.  When Italian authorities tried to get access to the records of the canonical trial to assist in their own investigation, the Vatican told them to pound sand, citing the "Pontifical Secret."  As the linked article lays out, the Roman Catholic Church only turns over its files on sex abuse cases where the law explicitly requires them to do so; otherwise, the default position that it is "none of their business."

All of this is indicative of a core commitment to the notion that only clerics should be in a position to judge other clerics, with only the most grudging and minimal exceptions to be made when it would subject the Church to massive civil or criminal blow-back.  In this light, Winters's claim that Pope Francis is striking a blow against clericalism is laughable.  If you really want to reduce clericalism in these contexts, how about automatically defrocking the accused priest and immediately turning every bit of evidence over to the secular authorities, skipping completely the secretive, inside-baseball canonical trial?  As the Inzoli case demonstrates, the priest can be reinstated, especially if it is found that charges are non-meritorious.  But that approach would clash directly with the core cultic understanding of a priest as someone ontologically distinct and who must always be seen as set-apart, come what may.

Likewise, the idea that the church should decline to defrock a priest so that the church can insure he is not around kids is comically pretextual.  "If we defrock him and let him out into the wild, how will anyone know what he has done?" Winters asks.  Um, by making public the reasons why he was defrocked, and turning over your evidence to the public and appropriate authorities, that's how.  In other words, by making sure that this person is treated in the same manner as every other person who is accused of sexual misconduct with children.  Imagine for a moment if a school district took this approach--"well, if we fire this teacher that molested this kid, then someone else might hire them and he might (or will) do it again.  So, to prevent that, we'll move him or her to some administrative job at the Board of Education building.  But, of course, we won't tell the police and we won't turn over any accounts of the incident."  School administrators would go to jail, and rightfully so.

That's the biggest thing Winters and the entirety of the Roman Catholic Church doesn't get--this shouldn't be your call.  It should not be your decision to determine what should be done with priests who abuse kids.  Truthfully, it never should have been your decision, but it really shouldn't be your decision in light of the demonstrated failure to do anything like policing your own in good faith.  The fact that you are arguing about which entirely internally-focused outcome should be imposed on these priests proves that you still don't get it.  The only appropriate posture for the Roman Catholic Church is to simply feed any scrap of information it has on misconduct to the secular authorities and let the process take its course from there.

We see on display with all of this discussion how deep the commitment of the Roman Catholic clergy class to being a people set apart still is.  A better or different version of taking care of their own is still taking care of their own, and that's they way everyone--Pope Francis, his opponents, the folks in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and even cheerleaders like Winters--want it to be.  As I said in the last post, until you tackle that at its root, until you break the notion of priests as a people set apart, you will have more Fr. Inzolis.  And it is clear that the Roman Catholic Church doesn't get that.  


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