A Post by a Michael Paulson on the ‘Boston Globe’ site reviews some commentary about Roman Polanski’s situation.
He mentions one Catholic priest at Georgetown University - Thomas Reece at the site OnFaith – who opines that if Polanski were a priest he’d already be in jail. According to Reece “entertainment is the new religion with Sex, Violence, and Money the new Trinity”. Well, I’d add Celebrity in there somewhere, but it would throw off his Trinity image (three, y’a know).
“Directors and stars”, Reece continues, “are worshiped [sic] and quickly forgiven for any infraction”.
Which is an interesting thought. It raises the possibility that part of the sub-surface dynamics driving the priest-sex-abuse brouhaha is a power-struggle, one of those big society-and-culture-wide ones. Since the birth of the Modern Age in the 17th century or so, the cultural status of religion and religious figures has been challenged continually by Science and scientists.
Part of the problem there is that Medieval religion in the West made the mistake of assuming – for the purposes of conceptual convenience and efficiency – that the Bible could answer the How of this world as well as the Why. With human beings and their organizations and institutions, even those inspired by the Holy Spirit (I’m assuming that that Entity exists) can misread the ‘messages’ they get from Beyond. It’s not so surprising, if you read – say – the history of code-breaking during World War Two.
And being human and institutional, Religion did not want to abandon the beliefs around which it had accreted so large an authority and status. And being human and certain, Science and scientists didn’t like being dissed. And since the Laws of Science often work far more clearly and – to all appearances – more efficaciously and obviously than Divine Inspiration and Providence … well, you can see where things might go. And did.
The current priestly sex-abuse scandals, about which I have Posted* before at some length, especially in this country (the cockpit of Western culture these days), are in part another expression of that rivalry.
And let me say here and now that betrayal of one’s sacred trust, especially by criminal activity and especially through so humanly dangerous a behavior as imposing genital sex on children, must be accepted as the legal and moral and spiritual outrages that they are.
That being established, there’s still a lot more going on in the whole situation here.
The current – now decades-long – mania about ‘sex offenses’ and ‘sex offenders’, which is itself of dubious integrity in several grave ways, certainly plays its part. The concern over what the national and State legislatures have ‘Found’ (quite inaccurately) to be a phenomenon involving – it is imagined – hordes of incorrigible and bestial monsters roaming the length and breadth of the land Biblically “seeking whom they might devour” has resulted in profoundly toxic erosions of Constitutional protections, the integrity of the justice and even legislative systems, and a violation of what Madison saw as the core ‘social compact’ upon which American society, culture, and governance are based. And conceptually gives precedent to a dangerous expansion of a government police-power unbounded either by accurate knowledge or those classic Constitutional protections.**
But in the matter of Catholic priests and the Catholic Church there are even more specific elements that have to be considered.
Yes, there is the ever-interesting matter of institutionally powerful organizations hiding their misdeeds. Surely the ongoing adventures of trying to get to the bottom of government practices of torture, war-making, and electronic violations of privacy indicate that such concerns are valid.
But the dynamics of the ‘Catholic’ angle demand even closer and deeper and broader inspection.
While child ‘sex abuse’ (however defined, and that’s not clear in any of all this) is a possibility among any human caregiving organization, it is only the Catholic Church and its agents that seem to be getting the attention. And such a ‘tornado’ of negative attention seems to be behaving in a quite curious way: having first blown through town in the mid-1980s, it came turned around and came back through in the early-1990s. Then, starting in early 2002, it turned around yet again and came back even stronger than it was the first two times through town. Which is kind of curious behavior for this sort of phenomenon.
And gets you to wondering what is driving that.
My own assessment would be along these lines:
First, the general atmosphere of ‘mania’, coupled with significant erosions (‘reforms’, they are called) of evidentiary and other legal rules designed to prevent miscarriages of justice, being based on most dubious ‘science’ (‘recovered’ and ‘repressed’ memory being only the most publicized) have made it easier for civil suits. And the Catholic Church is popularly believed to be hugely wealthy (the Pope, after all, owns the world’s largest collection of Western art and architecture on the planet).
Legal strategy – as any lawyer will agree – requires that attorneys counsel their clients in how to avoid the most serious damage in civil or criminal proceedings. Surely in the civil proceedings, in such a time of mania, no competent attorney would advise the Church to try to ‘fight’ each of the myriad claims against it or its agents – the legal fees alone would be prohibitive and – again, in a time of mania – the prospects of success would be dim indeed.
Which is not at all to assert or imply that there haven’t been some violations of the law and of spiritual integrity, and some of them truly repugnant. Although, again, if you do even some basic math, the size of the problem assumes a different aspect: if you were to imagine how many individual interactions a priest has with youth in the course of his duties, then multiply that by the number of years of his active ministry, then multiply that by the number of priests ministering in the country – over the course of 10, 20, or 50 years – then the number of ‘incidents’ assumes a more realistic proportion, even if you factor in that some incidences go un-reported. The ‘safety’ record of the Catholic Church starts to assume a proportion better than the average airline has with ‘crashes’.
And there have been relatively few criminal prosecutions, oddly. Of course, the evidentiary rules are still somewhat stronger for criminal than for civil trials. And there isn’t the element of financial ‘payoff’ upon a conviction.
And a number of the prosecutions that have been initiated have concluded with ‘plea bargains’ – possibly because the guilt was incontrovertible, though also possibly because the defense counsel simply advised that in a time of mania there simply is no realistic chance of prevailing on the merits and the facts.
In Massachusetts, certainly, the two most high-profile criminal cases give cause for serious question. One Fr. Geoghagen, elderly at the time, was convicted of Indecent Assault on a Child for fondling the buttocks of a young male – a child – as the lad was climbing out of a swimming pool (no doubt that the priest was in need of some serious maturing). The judge who sentenced him gave him a long sentence because, she opined in court, she “just knew he had done a lot more” than that. There was much publicity, mostly of the baying-hounds variety. He was sent to a state prison where he was promptly murdered – possibly with the collusion of some of the guard force – by another inmate who somehow got out of his own cell and into the priest’s at night and strangled him as a public service. They apparently read the papers and watch TV news in prison and a new inmate’s reputation – as it has been constructed – may well precede him.
A second priest, Paul Shanley, was convicted in 2005 on the basis of highly dubious ‘recovered memory’ evidence that the State’s highest court has now accepted for review on Appeal.
I am not here attempting to ‘minimize’ the dangers of sexual experience imposed by adults – and adult authority figures – on the young. But I am concerned about the dynamics underlying these matters because Our whole jurisprudential and legislative system is implicated in what may be some serious miscarriages of justice. A death sentence, which was what Geoghagen’s sentence turned out to be, was certainly not improbable, given the type of publicity that amplified the case.
Again, why this entire phenomenon has been restricted in great part to the Catholic Church is a question that continues to pose itself.
The financial angle is one element of that answer.
And certainly, the Church itself is wracked by all sorts of internal issues. There are ‘traditionalist’ Catholics who fume about gay priests and feel the Church abandoned its integrity with the proceedings of the Second Vatican Council, concluded 44 years ago. There are ‘liberal’ Catholics who want to see female priests, who support abortion rights and resent the Church’s obstructionist position on that matter, who want to see the Catholic Church in America become more ‘democratic’ and not ruled by the Vatican or by bishops but rather want to see ‘the laity’ assume a larger governing position in Church affairs.
I take no position here on any of those tensions. But it is certainly true that any or all of the advocates of the above positions would have ‘motive’ for seeing male priests – especially if their offenses were with young males – substantially delegitimized.
More ominously, there are – and certainly were in 2002 – significant potential elements on the national scene. The Catholic bishops in the early Reagan years exercised a powerful voice on behalf of nuclear disarmament and against the Reagan-era military build-up and its assorted overt and covert incursions and invasions around the planet. A government – as We know now – dead-set on starting a preventive war in Iraq would not want to risk another go-round of all that highly influential opposition. And in the event, the American bishops in 2002 were so thoroughly bethump’t by the sex-offense scandal that they made almost no opposition to the Iraq War (although the Pope of the time, John Paul II, made his opposition clearly known). The American bishops were quite neatly ‘distracted’ and effectively ‘muzzled’***.
And of course, their stances on issues dear to the ‘liberal’ (as it is now conceived) heart were also neatly and effectively undercut. Quite a bargain all around. Rightist conservatism and Leftish liberalism both got a hefty benny out of the brouhaha.
So there’s a great deal going on in this ‘priest abuse’ thing.
Tires should be kicked – because if they’re not, what I think has been deployed against ‘the Catholics’ can be turned on anybody, now that the precedent has been set.
*See my Posts: “Paul Shanley and Us all” of January 29, 2009 and “Can't TellYour Priests" of July 6, 2008.
**Serious readers are robustly invited to review the Human Rights Watch Report on the whole matter here.
***Nor am I suggesting here that they weren’t themselves guilty of negligence in their oversight of offending priests.