Joseph Shaw

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The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops met in Baltimore on November 12, 2018 to discuss the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church. Lisa Bourne / LifeSiteNews

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The abuse crisis needs better rulers, not better rules

March 5, 2019 (LifeSiteNews) -- Many proposed solutions to the crisis in the Catholic Church focus on structural or administrative reform. Administrative solutions are attractive because they promise that our problems could be solved by a committee somewhere coming up with a new set of rules. Wouldn’t that be wonderful? It is true that some administrative systems are better than others, and we should naturally prefer better over worse, but no system is better than the people who administer it. What was going wrong in past decades was already against the rules, but the rules were not being taught in seminary, they were not being preached from the pulpit, they were not being defended in public by bishops, and they were not being enforced by Rome. The rules failed because of a failure of will.

An illustration is given by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s insistence, in 2001, that all cases of the clerical abuse of minors be thenceforth dealt with by the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), of which he was then Prefect. Ratzinger, later Pope Benedict, deserves credit, which he usually does not get, for driving this through. The reason it made a positive difference was not that before 2001 no one had the job of dealing with these cases. The reason is that for many years a huge number of local bishops, and great swathes of the Vatican curia, had lacked the will the deal with the problem. At that time, the CDF was one of the few places one could go to find people who still believed in sexual sin, and in the appropriateness of punishing it.

Ratzinger’s reform was good news for the many victims who, finally, began to have their accusations taken seriously. But it couldn’t address the fundamental problem, the problem of bishops and various categories of officials who were by character and attitude incapable of dealing with clerical abuse in an appropriate way. Their incapacity is obviously closely linked to the attitudes and behaviors of the abusers themselves.

Fate has brought me into contact with only a very small number of clerical abusers, but it has been enough to confirm the generalization often made about their attitude to their crimes. No doubt there are exceptions, but very often these priests are genuinely unable to see what is wrong with what they were doing. They are upset to discover that they had caused hurt to their victims. This is a manifestation, in them, of a deep psychological malaise, but it is also the reflection of a view put forward in all seriousness by psychiatrists and moral theologians between the 1950s and the 2000s, that traditional sexual taboos were damaging nonsense, and that we would all be healthier and happier if we paid less attention to them. This attitude became widespread in the Church in the developed world in the 1960s and 1970s. It gave abusers a way of justifying their actions, and it gave their superiors a way of justifying their own failure to action. It was directly contrary to the teaching, practice, and spirituality of the Church, but who, apart from the CDF and a few cranks, cared about those things?

This was not just a matter of dissent from doctrine. We have all heard of conservative seminarians being thrown out of seminary for being “rigid.” The ones who survived to ordination, and still more those who found advancement thereafter, were not only flexible in their opinions, but in character.

A joke among the English clergy goes like this: a child, witnessing bishops crowding round a man being ordained bishop, asked his father “What are they doing?” to be told, “They are removing his spine.”

Many bishops today are faced with a problem for which they are not equipped by character to deal with. Even the most intense pressure of bad publicity and threats of court action cannot make a man of weak character become a man of strong character. Under such pressure, weak people in leadership positions try to isolate themselves from their subordinates; they look for scapegoats; and in general they search for the path of least resistance. We see all these patterns of behavior among bishops today: bishops not making themselves available to their own priests, let alone to concerned laity or to victims; bishops throwing some accused priests under the bus but failing to investigate or improve seminary training; bishops desperate to agree with whatever the secular world is saying, hoping to gain their sympathy and avoid criticism.

The actions required to address, in a fundamental way, the clerical abuse crisis, can for the most part only be done by bishops. They would be very painful, both in uncovering new scandal, and in attracting negative coverage from the secular media. Only a new generation of bishops is likely to have the will to do them.

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Joseph Shaw

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and has edited a forthcoming book on the liturgy: The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and eight children.