Are Priests Their Brother's Keeper? A Catholic Morality Tale
by Perry Bulwer
I really do not understand how the Catholic hierarchy can carry on business as usual in the face of a decades long global scandal of horrific crimes against children and the cover-ups of those crimes by church leaders. Their failure to protect the most vulnerable members of their congregations, and their continual refusal to do the right things to protect children and support the survivors, reveals a moral malignancy at the heart of their institution.
I have closely followed this crime story for several years now and read many of the excuses and justifications made by church authorities and apologists attempting to explain those crimes against children. My disgust grows with each new report of a priest or bishop downplaying the culpability of the church for failing to protect children or for claiming no one in the church knew that raping children was not appropriate behaviour. That is not hyperbole. Recently, a Catholic bishop in Australia publicly opposed a parliamentary inquiry into what the police suspect are 26 suicides by victims of convicted pedophile Brother Robert Best. Here is what Bishop of Ballarat Peter Connors told AAP:
But Bishop Connors on Tuesday said not even revelations from Detective Sergeant Kevin Carson that 26 young men had killed themselves after being abused by priests and brothers in Ballarat convinced him that more would be learnt from an inquiry.
"I think we've learnt a lot of things about what is appropriate behaviour and what's not appropriate behaviour," Bishop Connors said.
"I think people are very well informed nowadays as to what's inappropriate approaches from a male."
While conceding the abuse of children was wrong, he said that in the past it had not always been clear to everyone what was appropriate and inappropriate behaviour.
"In the past a lot of ignorance was there on the part of lots of people. Parents didn't understand, sometimes bishops didn't understand. We have no excuse now."
As to whether there was an excuse when Ridsdale and Best were abusing boys, Bishop Connors said he did not know.
Among the charges laid against Best in Victoria's County Court last month were details of him raping a nine-year-old boy in his office.
The court heard that after Best raped him, the boy thought he was going to die and blacked out.
Bishop Connors said in the past 14 years he had spoken to more than 30 victims of Ridsdale and other priests in the Ballarat diocese.
But he said none had told him they were also abused by Best.
"I can't remember them saying they were victims of Brother Best as well," he said.
The bishop said he had no reason to meet Best's victims "because he being a Christian Brother, I'm not responsible for him."
Yet he conceded that some of Ridsdale's victims he had met could also have been abused by Best, because they were both there at the same time.
The bishop's comments are incredibly insensitive, offensive and immoral. The reporter got it right by pointing out the implication of the bishop's statement, "we have no excuse now", as if there was an excuse for raping little boys before. Either Bishop Connors does not know his Bible very well, or he ignores it when it suits him, as most Christians do. The recommended punishment for harming children is something worse than being tossed into the sea with a heavy weight around the perpetrator's neck, which is already a horrific form of capital punishment (Matthew 18:6). Various translations describe that harm as scandalizing them or causing them to sin or stumble, meaning to turn away from God. That is exactly what clergy crimes against children do, harm them by creating great spiritual and psychological turmoil and causing many survivors to lose their faith. Yet for decades, the response to those crimes by the Catholic hierarchy has not been a Biblical one, and certainly not a secular one, but an institutional one designed to protect the church more than children.
Bishop Connors also shows a callous indifference for the survivors, claiming he has no responsibility to meet Robert Best's victims because he is not a priest, merely a Christian Brother (some of the worst Catholic child abusers). In that claim I hear an echo of Cain's denial of responsibility even though guilty: "am I my brother's keeper?" Here is what Pope John Paul II had to say about that in his 1995 encyclical, Evangelium Vitae (The Gospel of Life):
At the root of every act of violence against one's neighbour there is a concession to the "thinking" of the evil one, the one who "was a murderer from the beginning" (Jn 8:44). As the Apostle John reminds us: "For this is the message which you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another, and not be like Cain who was of the evil one and murdered his brother" (1 Jn 3:11-12). Cain's killing of his brother at the very dawn of history is thus a sad witness of how evil spreads with amazing speed: man's revolt against God in the earthly paradise is followed by the deadly combat of man against man.
After the crime, God intervenes to avenge the one killed. Before God, who asks him about the fate of Abel, Cain, instead of showing remorse and apologizing, arrogantly eludes the question: "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?" (Gen 4:9). "I do not know": Cain tries to cover up his crime with a lie. This was and still is the case, when all kinds of ideologies try to justify and disguise the most atrocious crimes against human beings. "Am I my brother's keeper?": Cain does not wish to think about his brother and refuses to accept the responsibility which every person has towards others. We cannot but think of today's tendency for people to refuse to accept responsibility for their brothers and sisters. Symptoms of this trend include the lack of solidarity towards society's weakest members-such as the elderly, the infirm, immigrants, children- and the indifference frequently found in relations between the world's peoples even when basic values such as survival, freedom and peace are involved.
I am also disgusted by the indifference shown by priests who could speak out publicly about child crimes committed by their colleagues, but do not, continuing on as usual as if the moral failings at the heart of their institution do not undermine everything they say and do. A few days before I read that Australian report, an op-ed by Canadian columnist Father Raymond de Souza prompted me to post a critical comment to the morality tale he was telling because the moral issue he was discussing had nothing to do with clergy crimes.
Raymond J. de Souza is a Canadian parish priest and university instructor who also writes a column for the National Post newspaper, always including in his byline his religious title, Father, no matter what the topic. For Catholics the term 'Father' is more than just a perfunctory honorific. It indicates that the man with that title has some authority as a spiritual teacher.
I could understand de Souza using his religious title if he were writing in a Catholic publication, but perhaps I should not be surprised that he also uses it in his National Post column. After all, that paper was founded by former media baron, Conrad Black, as a conservative response to what he considered a liberal bias in Canadian newspapers. Black, who is also a columnist for the Post, is a Catholic apologist who converted as an adult. One of de Souza's recent columns wrote in defence of Black,claiming he was being persecuted by prosecutors for the crimes he committed. Christians really like to claim persecution because they consider it a sign of their righteousness.
If de Souza wrote his personal opinions under just his name, without any reference to his supposed spiritual authority except perhaps in a short biographical note at the end of the article, I probably would not be taking issue with him. I realize that sounds like a trivial difference, but I do not think it is. He is not using his title in the bylines as a mere honorific, he is indicating to the reader that what follows comes from an authoritative spiritual teacher. One way he expresses that authority in his columns is to write about morality. And that is what I am really taking issue with, his apparently broken moral compass, not his religious title.
The column by de Souza that prompted me to comment online and then expand that comment into this article was on the subject of professional baseball. It is essentially a morality tale in which de Souza complains that Roger Maris is not in the Hall of Fame, but deserves to be. Maris was a Catholic, although de Souza does not inform his readers of that fact, merely describing him as "a decent man who brought honour to the game". If anyone but a Catholic priest had written the column I likely would have ignored it, but it wasn't and I didn't. Here is the comment I posted on the National Post site where I read the column:
Is this little morality tale focused on a mere game an attempt by de Souza to deflect attention away from the real injustices a Catholic priest should be focusing on today? It says a lot about the state of the Catholic church that in the face of a continuing, world-wide scandal of clergy child rapists enabled and protected by the church hierarchy all the way up to the Pope, that a priest, any priest, would choose to write about so-called injustices done to rich, professional athletes playing a game instead of actual, evil injustices done to innocent little children, whose lives are forever altered by the abuses they suffered at the hands of those claiming to have a superior morality. Apparently, de Souza is more concerned about a perceived injustice to one baseball player than he is about the crimes and injustices committed against countless children by those within his own organization. Exposing and correcting that immorality and injustice is what de Souza should be focused on, and should be the topic of every single column he writes until the church becomes totally transparent and completely accountable to civic authorities for all crimes committed by church leaders. That would be the moral thing to do.
I admit, maybe it is too much to expect him to devote every column to the child protection crisis within the Catholic church, but I expect that a regular column by a priest would at least occasionally address the moral implications of the scandal. After all, he frequently writes about morality in the political and social realms. For example, he does not hesitate to point out the immoralities of Italy's Prime Minister, accusing him of "promiscuity of the most obscene kind" that taints all of Italy. However, it seems to me that the promiscuity practised by many Catholic priests -- like molesting children in the confessional booth; sexually abusing 200 deaf boys; secretly fathering children and then sexually abusing them; treating captive children in residential and boarding schools as sex slaves; a priest arranging a botched abortion for the teen he impregnated; etc., etc. -- is far more obscene than anything practised by a secular politician or a Hollywood celebrity who do not pretend to be celibate or have spiritual authority over their supporters. Moreover, the cover-ups by Bishops and Cardinals of priestly promiscuity and perversion taint the entire Catholic Church. It seems to me that de Souza's moral judgements are an illustration of Matthew 7: 2-4.
2 You’ll receive the same judgment you give. Whatever you deal out will be dealt out to you. 3 Why do you see the splinter that’s in your brother’s or sister’s eye, but don’t notice the log in your own eye? 4 How can you say to your brother or sister, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ when there’s a log in your eye?While he is able to see immorality in those he judges, he seems wilfully blind to the immoralities of his peers and superiors, which itself is immoral.
Certainly, there seems to be no end in sight to disturbing news concerning child abuse in the Catholic church that de Souza could address on a regular basis in his column. From June 2007 to June 2011 I archived over 3000 news articles related to religion and child abuse. Around 400 or so of those articles concern child abuse in the Catholic Church. The only article by Raymond de Souza on clergy abuse I could find in this list of his columns is dated April 29, 2010, but it is nothing more than an attack on a church critic, Christopher Hitchens. It is merely a rebuttal to some of Hitchens' arguments, and provides some factual corrections, but does not address in any way the moral failings and culpability of church leaders. From April 2010 to June 11, 2011, when I closed the archive, there were 94 articles specifically on Catholic clergy crimes posted there, yet during that same period Raymond de Souza wrote exactly one column related to Catholic clergy abuse. Perhaps de Souza thinks the crisis is now over. It is not. Or maybe he is just waiting for more scandals to erupt in Canada before writing on this topic.
At the end of his column on Roger Maris, de Souza writes: "Fifty years after the real thing, it is time to do the right thing. Maris belongs in Cooperstown." I agree, after decades of clergy abuse around the world it is time for the Catholic church to do the right thing. One way de Souza could help with that is to end his silence on clergy crimes against children and turn his moralizing towards his peers and superiors. I am sure the public would be bettered served reading a discussion of the moral issues involved when priests abuse children and their superiors cover it up than they are reading about a professional athlete being snubbed. Following are a few recent cases de Souza could start with.
Despite all the claims by Catholic leaders that new child protection policies and programs are effectively safe-guarding children now, evidence from Ireland, Philadelphia, Missouri, and Italy, shows that Bishops and Cardinals have hindered and undermined those protections. Perhaps de Souza does not write about that issue because that evidence does not implicate the Canadian church and he thinks, like the Bishop of Calgary, that the new practices really will protect Canadian children. That remains to be seen, of course, but the fact that Bishops and Cardinals in other countries have undermined child protection policies taints all Catholic programs purporting to protect children.
Perhaps another reason de Souza does not write about the clergy abuse scandal is because he thinks, like many apologists claim, that the child abuse is all in the past. That is a lie, of course, new cases are cropping up all the time. The Missouri case referred to above is an example of that. It involves a priest, Shawn Ratigan, who secretly took lewd photos of the genitalia of five girls aged 2 to 12. The role of Bishop Robert Finn of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph in this scandal is just as obscene, as his deliberate neglect endangered more children.
Maybe de Souza does not want to write about that pornographer priest because his crimes do not involve a Canadian, but that cannot possibly be the reason because he has also chosen not to write about the Canadian Bishop who has been convicted of importing child pornography. This too is a recent case. Bishop Lahey was highly praised for his role in an historic clergy abuse settlement in Nova Scotia. Historic because it was "... the first time the Roman Catholic Church has apologized and set up a compensation package for people who claimed they were sexually abused by priests without fighting the charges in court." Lahey apologized to the victims, knowing full well that some of them were as young as eight when they were abused, but events that unfolded just a few months later completely destroyed the credibility of his apology.
Less than two months after that historic settlement, Bishop Lahey resigned his position without announcing why. Less than a week later he turned himself into the police to face charges of possessing and importing child pornography. In hindsight, it is obvious that Lahey's guilty conscience for his own immoral behaviour was behind his willingness to settle the civil case, to turn himself in after his computer was confiscated by border guards, to plead guilty, and to ask the court to jail him immediately before a sentencing hearing. After all, authorities had evidence that he had travelled extensively to countries that are sources of child pornography. Even while he was negotiating with and apologizing to survivors of vile child sex crimes, and gaining high praise for that from all quarters, he was consuming pornography that included depictions of rape and torture of little boys. Moreover, witnesses reported to police over 20 years ago that they saw child pornography in Lahey's home. This was a corrupt man, appointed by the supposedly infallible Pope, who seemed not to mind that little boys were being raped and tortured, as long as they were not Catholic children. After all God loves Catholic children more, at least according to this page from an old Irish Catholic schoolbook.
I wonder if de Souza would care to comment in his column on the morality of that particular dogma, or any of the other cases I have mentioned here? And if those don't interest him, there are many, many others. He would do well to remember, that when he points the finger at others, such as politicians, celebrities and church critics, there are three others pointing back at him and his church.