A church culture draws scrutiny
Catholic critics say 'clericalism' helped shelter sex abuse
Mounting public clamor for the resignation of Cardinal Bernard Law is bringing renewed focus to a quiet debate in the Roman Catholic Church over what some say is an overly insular hierarchy.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
Cardinal Law's failure to remove sexually abusive priests is a symptom, critics say, of wider problems within the clerical system - a culture of secrecy and elitism that isolates leaders from everyday concerns.
That culture may help explain why intelligent, presumably well-intentioned officials have made judgements that they now acknowledge were deeply flawed.
Law, who as head of Boston's archdiocese has been at the eye of the storm over abusive priests, has been seeking forgiveness from the faithful. But documents released last week reinforced the view that he has failed, even recently, to address the problem. Many Catholics, including local priests, are calling on him to resign - and voicing doubts about the style of church governance.
"How can good people do such things? It has to do with the code of behavior dictated by the clericalist culture," says Russell Shaw, a former spokesman for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. "Clericalism isn't the total answer, but its influence must be recognized."
Within any organization, of course, the tendency is to trust colleagues, to give them the benefit of the doubt if they are accused of wrongdoing, and to defend the authority of the institution to guide itself rather than be swayed by public pressure.
The extraordinary crisis over abuse has already forced a new level of openness on Catholic dioceses in America. A question for bishops and other clerics now will be whether new policies to deal with abuse are enough or whether deeper changes in culture are needed.
The clericalist system, Mr. Shaw alleges, acts as a caste or club that considers itself spiritually superior and is socialized to protect its own and the church institution, which it equates with the clergy. He is a layman who has worked for the church institution for 40 years.
The documents released last week revealed that Law and other bishops knew more about matters ranging from alleged abuse to illegitimate children by priests than had been public before.
"These documents reveal a ...lack of pastoral responsibility ... and a culture of deep clerical secrecy [that] has protected moral depravity," says Jim Post, president of Voice of the Faithful, a Boston-based lay group that grew out of the scandal.
Last month, the US bishops said they had dealt with the clergy abuse problem by approving the charter to protect children and the legal norms for investigating and trying accused priests in clerical tribunals.
"The charter will be effective in preventing this dreadful crime in the future," says Thomas Groome, professor of religious education at Boston College. "But the charter treats the symptoms, and these revelations point to a far deeper malaise built into Catholic structures around authority and sexuality.