Sunday, March 28, 2010

Misdirected compassion

Roman Catholicism is enduring unremitting criticism with respect to the sexual abuse of minors by priests and other religious. Needless to say, those guilty of such abuse, and those who failed to act to stop such abuse, or who actually acted to cover it up, deserve censure and/or punishment. But increasingly, it seems to me, the justified outrage against the guilty has become an unjustified attack on the institution, and a weapon wielded against the faith by those who wish Christianity ill.

A case in point is that of a Wisconsin priest, undoubtedly guilty, whose crimes are now being used to attack Pope Benedict for supposedly intervening to protect him. Since the Milwaukee diocese knew of his behavior decades before Rome was informed, the fault would seem to lie here rather than there, especially since his last known offense occurred  a quarter century before his trial was scheduled to begin. Raymond J. de Souza lays out the facts at NRO:
The New York Times on March 25 accused Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, of intervening to prevent a priest, Father Lawrence Murphy, from facing penalties for cases of sexual abuse of minors.

The story is false. It is unsupported by its own documentation. Indeed, it gives every indication of being part of a coordinated campaign against Pope Benedict, rather than responsible journalism. .... [much more, including a timeline of events]
Since the bulk of these crimes seem to have taken place in the seventies and eighties a reasonable surmise might be that the generally loosened standards of that period might be at least partly to blame as this writer, reporting on the situation in Ireland, notes:
.... Canon law, or Church law, has been blamed for forcing bishops to cover up the allegations, to hide them, and certainly it is true that anyone taking part in a canonical investigation is required to swear an oath of secrecy, or confidentiality.

But the Murphy report itself is very interesting about canon law. It points out that a big problem with this law isn’t that it was used, but that it wasn’t used.

It says: “The Church authorities failed to implement most of their own canon law rules on dealing with child sex abuse...canon law appears to have fallen into disuse and disrespect during the mid 20th century. In particular, there was little or no experience of operating the penal (that is, the criminal) provision of that law... for many years offenders were neither prosecuted nor made accountable within the Church.”

Why did it fall into disuse and disrespect? It was because priests and bishops began to regard it as being overly legalistic and too focused on punishment. They decided it lacked compassion.

Therefore, they stopped using it. No longer did priests accused of child abuse face a canonical trial and the possibility of "defrocking".

Instead, and with disastrous consequences, they were sent for therapy and then, "cured", they were reassigned to ministry.

The bottom line is that if canon law had been used properly, fewer children would have been abused. Civil authorities would still not have been informed, but priests found guilty of child abuse under Church law would have been punished and likely removed from ministry making it more difficult for them to offend again. ....
The Catholic church was simply behaving like a lot of judges do, following a pattern consistent with an influential strain of modern criminology: therapy rather than punishment, turning the perpetrators into victims, ignoring justice for both the guilty and the actual victims.

More: Ross Douthat blames both permissiveness and the hierarchy:
.... The permissive sexual culture that prevailed everywhere, seminaries included, during the silly season of the ’70s deserves a share of the blame, as does that era’s overemphasis on therapy. (Again and again, bishops relied on psychiatrists rather than common sense in deciding how to handle abusive clerics.) But it was the church’s conservative instincts — the insistence on institutional loyalty, obedience and the absolute authority of clerics — that allowed the abuse to spread unpunished.

What’s more, it was a conservative hierarchy’s bunker mentality that prevented the Vatican from reckoning with the scandal. In a characteristic moment in 2002, a prominent cardinal told a Spanish audience that “I am personally convinced that the constant presence in the press of the sins of Catholic priests, especially in the United States, is a planned campaign ... to discredit the church.”

That cardinal was Joseph Ratzinger, now Benedict XVI. Since then, he’s come to grips with the crisis in ways that his predecessor did not: after years of drift and denial under John Paul II, the Vatican has taken vigorous steps to promote zero tolerance, expedite the dismissal of abusive priests and organize investigations that should have happened long ago. Because of Benedict’s recent efforts, and the efforts of clerics and laypeople dating back to the first wave of revelations in the 1980s, Catholics can reasonably hope that the crisis of abuse is a thing of the past. ....
A Response to the New York Times - NRO, Therapy led to soaring abuse rate in Irish Church - Times Online, In the Catholic Church, a Time for Contrition - NYTimes.com