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.

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.

"Every religious group invests heavily in authority and respect for its leadership, but there is a terribly inflated clericalism in the Catholic church," adds Dr. Groome

Clericalism has been an issue within the church for centuries. A 1983 study by the heads of religious orders in the US described it as involving an authoritarian style of leadership, a rigidly hierarchical worldview, and virtual identification of the holiness of the church with the clergy.

The 1960s church council known as Vatican II was supposed to have fostered a different perception of the church as "the people of God," but attitudes persist.

The Rev. Thomas Doyle - a canon lawyer who co-authored the 1985 report to the bishops on clergy abuse that was virtually ignored - says "there are bishops who have wanted fundamental changes, but they have been stifled by the system."

Father Doyle has studied the history of clericalism and sexual abuse in the church, and says not only has clergy abuse occurred throughout the ages, but at times it was dealt with more firmly and openly.

Many lay Catholics also exhibit clericalist attitudes, with an exaggerated sense of awe toward clergy that verges, in the view of Shaw, on superstition. This has made it difficult for them, including many victims' families, to believe priests could be guilty.

"For parents to come out and criticize a priest or bishop, it's almost as if they were tampering with their own pathway toward salvation," says Phil Saviano, whose family didn't want him to make his story of abuse public.

Clergy, too, are trapped by the culture. Priests and bishops who were aware of abusive behavior didn't keep quiet "because they ... condoned the behavior," Shaw says. "I strongly suspect they felt they had to deal with the problem this way - jollying the man along even in the face of the most horrendous behavior because they were locked into this clericalist thinking and victimized by it."

The Rev. John McCloskey, head of the Catholic Information Center in Washington, sees it differently. "The church by its nature is merciful, it looks to forgive the sinner and rehabilitate him; the bishop has the relationship as a father to his priests, so he wants to rehabilitate them. "But," he agrees, "there was some type of blindness, myopia, which prevented them from seeing they were worrying more about priests than their victims."

The Rev. Kenneth Lasch, pastor of a New Jersey church, recalls an experience in the 1960s when he was secretary to a bishop, and bishops received a directive from Rome to affirm the pope's encyclical prohibiting birth control. They were also told to say the faithful were behind this. "'You can't say that,' I told him. 'We know the laity in this diocese are divided and probably more disagree with it.' "

The bishop complied. "He saw no deception in that because his role as a bishop was to protect the church," Father Lasch says. "This current crisis - what seems to be a coverup - falls within that thinking."

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