Comeuppance or Confession – A ‘Reckoning’ on Clerical Abuse?

Jun 14, 2023 | 6 comments

Faced with apparently unending scandal – and dwindling credibility and authority in the societies it has scandalised – should Catholic church leadership look to scripture, especially the story of King David of Israel, for insight into a scenario for resolution?

In 2023, with the global tide of clerical sex abuse scandals still surging in places as far apart as Poland, Ireland and the US state of Illinois, Catholic church leadership seems as bereft as ever of a strategy for ‘getting ahead’ of such revelations.

In December 2022 Irish bishops agreed with the conclusion of Ireland’s national synodal synthesis of August 2022 – that a ‘reckoning’ on the disaster has still to be achieved 1 – but it is far from clear that the Universal Synod on Synodality, to culminate in Rome in the autumn of 2024, will rise to this challenge.

What ‘shape’ could such a reckoning take in any case? How, in particular, would the victims of clerical sexual abuse and their closest kin, picture that?

Comeuppances

Popular secular culture provides one obvious model for closure on high-level concealment of malfeasance. In the classic movie ‘All the President’s Men’ the final sequence is a montage of press headlines, culminating in President Nixon’s resignation announcement – on foot of the Washington Post’s remorseless investigation of the origins of the Watergate burglary of 1972. This was Nixon’s ‘comeuppance’ – the deserved consequence of his paranoid detestation of a critical media.

Similarly a fictional streaming TV epic, the HBO series ‘Succession’, ends with the rivalrous adult children of another ‘mogul’ visiting a variety of betrayals and indignities upon one another – including the takeover by an interloper of the media empire they had all plotted to inherit.

This ‘comeuppance’ scenario satisfies the natural human desire to see what TV readily provides in the form of ‘perp walks’ – the bitter experience of downfall by the highest conspirators, with merited suffering etched clearly on faces. Who can forget Richard Nixon’s grotesque attempts at facial denial of the defeat he had fought tooth-and-nail to prevent, or the fictional Kendall Roy’s final frozen stare into his own endless horizon of failure?

No such comeuppance is possible for the long-dead originators of the Catholic policy of secrecy on clerical sexual abuse.  There is as yet no official history of this cover-up but the best short unofficial account2 tells us that the decisive steps that affected living victims had already been taken by 1962.  Already in 2023 the first decisive media revelations of the phenomenon – those relating to the abuser Gilbert Gauthe in Louisiana ­– are almost four decades old, and very few if any bishops have ever been criminally sanctioned by secular courts anywhere for a cover-up since then.  The secularising principles of distance between church and state, and freedom of the press, have exposed the dysfunctions of power as exercised by the Catholic hierarchy but new state laws cannot now be made against concealment of clerical child abuse in the past.

Would it ever be sufficient in any case to see only some individuals suffer for what is in essence a colossal global institutional failure, with ramifications that must utterly change the nature of our church relationships if they do not shatter the church altogether? Would it not be more satisfying – and redemptive – for the leaders of the affected institution to uncover and confess an utterly mistaken and sinful sequence of decisions that sacrificed the innocence and future of children to preserve the celibate reputation of the clerical institution itself – a sequence that can nowhere find justification in the texts that the church claims as foundational?

Cover Up and Betrayal in the Bible

Are not those texts – the books of the Old and New Testament, the Bible – replete instead with stories of betrayal, victimisation of the innocent and then concealment by those exercising power – including spiritual power? Why has it not yet happened that these scriptural patterns of misuse of power and of divine intolerance of injustice have not yet been officially recognised in the Catholic clerical church’s mishandling of clerical sexual abuse of children and the scandalous revelations that still remorselessly follow?

Take, for example, the two Jewish elders in Babylon who tried to intimidate Susanna into yielding to their lust, well aware that just two elder testimonies to any woman’s adultery would usually be sufficient for a sentence of death by stoning. Those two were thwarted only by the inspired young Daniel’s stratagem for discerning their conspiracy. (Susanna and the Elders: Book of Daniel).

Similarly Jezebel’s scheme for dispossessing Naboth of his vineyard, and then murdering him, was empowered by the divinely anointed status of Jezebel’s husband, the Israelite King Ahab -condemned later by the prophet Elijah for his connivance. (1 Kings 21)

The exposure of the crime of the brothers of Joseph, the most favoured son of Jacob, grandson of the founding patriarch Abraham, took much longer but was also implicitly a result of divine providence – the raising of Joseph to supreme favour in Egypt, where he had been taken when sold into slavery by those siblings. (Genesis 37-50)

Leaving aside the question of the historicity of these and other such narratives, the central focus of their authors follows always the same pattern: power is misused to satisfy the desires of power-wielders at the expense of victims who are innocent – and the God of Israel is revealed as wholly intolerant of this injustice.

Even if it can be argued that there was ignorance on the part of offending bishops of the likely effects of clerical abuse upon children, this raises its own questions as to the safety and wisdom of the church’s governing system – given especially Jesus’s most vehement warning against any adult misleading of a child (Matt 18: 6). Do we not need to know why the clerical church, with an experience of pederasty dating from the earliest centuries3, had to look in the end to secular psychiatry for the truth of the impact of such abuse on the young?

Status Anxiety the Root of Secrecy

Another connection implicit in all of these biblical stories is that between the status anxiety of the conspirators and the secrecy they try to maintain over their own motivations and actions. By ‘status anxiety’ I mean fear of shame, of social condemnation and rejection, in consequence of revelation of the selfish exercise of power. These biblical stories surely reveal a pattern that should have warned against clerical secrecy over clerical abuse – especially because of the repeating pattern of divine intervention on the side of victims.

That this identical pattern has been replicated in the case of secrecy in Ireland must now be obvious. Not until the first criminal prosecutions for clerical sex abuse in 1994 did Irish bishops begin to act decisively in the cause of child safeguarding. Then it took the Murphy report of 2009 to precipitate the Irish bishops’ declaration that there had indeed been a widespread culture of cover-up, motivated by a desire to protect the reputations of individuals as well as that of the church4.

However, this same declaration, seemingly regretted by some Irish bishops at the time, now points to a future church document that builds upon scriptural examples of ‘reckoning’ – to admit that the great conspiratorial sins of Old Testament archetypes have had a near equivalent, with countless child victims, in our own time. That document will surely reference the greatest of all failures by an anointed leader of Israel – King David – and draw inspiration from his example of contrition.

King David’s Confession

Who cannot see that the most obvious reason for David’s betrayal of the Hittite elite soldier Uriah was also David’s status anxiety, his desire to conceal his self-indulgent seduction and impregnation of Uriah’s wife Bathsheba – while Uriah was himself away from home, fighting Israel’s enemies? At length the book of Samuel has previously extolled David’s youthful climb to celebrity, with the women of Israel chanting of his military exploits and his superiority to Israel’s first anointed king, Saul. The fall from grace that David faced in the matter of Bathsheba’s pregnancy was in direct proportion to this unparalleled status – and far too much for him to bear. His despicable betrayal and murder-by-proxy of Uriah then followed. (2 Samuel)

And yet, according to the same narrative, Israel itself was preserved in the Old Testament telling, by the courage of the prophet Nathan and by David’s reciprocal compunction and contrition. This too – the eventual victory of the truth, and not the celebration of any individual or caste – is the true glory of ancient Israel, and of our church’s foundational texts.

It is surely inevitable that the Catholic clerical leadership will someday admit that their institution sinned against children, their families and the Trinity by attempting to keep secret the hard and vitally important fact that a small but significant proportion of ordained Catholic priests could mislead and violate children.  They could also recognise that in making use of the inspired secular principle of a division of power to reveal this mistake the Trinity are not only vindicating all child victims but revealing the future of Catholic church governance.

In the meantime are we not all living in the Limbo of our church leadership’s inability to grasp decisively the nettle of compunction and contrition? We are surely in these days as ancient Israel was in the time between King David’s crimes and his heartfelt and full confession. This time of high-level hesitation and bitter revelation cannot end soon enough for a myriad of living victims, and for all of us.

Sean O’Conaill
June 2023

This article appeared first in La Croix International on June 7th, 2023.

NOTES

  1. Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 7th December 2022
  2. A Very Short History of Clergy Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church, Thomas Doyle
  3. cf Didache
  4. Statement following the winter meeting of the Irish Bishops Conference, 9th December 2009

6 Comments

  1. Neil Bray

    We must never forget the plight of the abused. But is there a lack of consistency between this article and the previous one pertaining to Jonah? – especially God not being worried about individual’s guilt!

    Reply
    • soconaill

      Maybe it’s the humidity that’s clogging my brain, Neil, but I don’t follow you here. Can you elaborate?

      Reply
      • Neil Bray

        The previous Jonah article speaks of God not being worried about individual guilt, meaning one need not be worried about one’s sins or their consequences.

        Reply
  2. Sean O’Conaill

    In that article – ‘The Paschal Mystery & the Sign of Jonah’, from the Centre for Action and Contemplation – Cynthia Bourgeault is quoted as follows: “Jesus is not particularly interested in increasing either your guilt or your devotion, but rather, in deepening your personal capacity to make the passage into unitive life…”. The passage goes on to explain this passage as ‘dying to the self’.

    Where is the contradiction between this and proposing that the Catholic magisterium confess the sinfulness of the practice of secrecy, over generations, on clerical sexual abuse of children? I have no interest in ‘increasing guilt’ either, only in getting us all past the roadblock of denial.

    Can you not see the distinction between admitting guilt and remaining trapped in it? Don’t we need to see our sins to be truly freed from them by the experience of frank confession and forgiveness?

    It was surely lust that led to David’s sin with Bathsheba, but it wasn’t lust that led to his sin of plotting the death of Uriah. Similarly it wasn’t lust that led to the policy of secrecy on clerical sexual abuse. Wasn’t it the very same sin as David’s second sin – pride born of the fear of shame, of the scorn and rejection of the people of God?

    It is surely to this sin that Pope Francis is also pointing when he asks his opponents in the church to reconsider the ‘fixation with sexuality’. Never in my life have I heard a homily that sees this distinction clearly, naming the sin that can keep us all trapped in fear of shame and bent upon self promotion. Until clericalism sees itself clearly the clerical church will remain trapped in it.

    Reply
  3. Neil Bray

    An absence of public confession doesn’t mean denial. Claiming denial in the absence of public confession amounts to increasing guilt. And the attribution of motive always runs the risk of loading on guilt.

    Things would be clearer if evidence was provided to instances where the Catholic Church now refuse to confess that child abuse occurred.

    There have been individuals accused in the wrong.

    And of course some guilty individuals have denied the offence. There can be “two perceived histories” to many behaviours. On the one hand, there is “technical and critical history” that relies on the concrete facts available for scientific examination, and, on the other, there is a perception of the genuine reality of the people with which these data were originally concerned. This latter has been a feature of Pope Francis’s response to the proven abuse accusations levelled against some of his episcopal and at least one priest friend, whom he has subsequently defended or befriended on foot of his perception of their characters which emerged through his previous interactions with them. He has confessed in at least one case. In his early Papacy he quashed the concrete facts pertaining to some priests defrocked by Benedict XVI, one of whom re-committed the offence.

    Guilt can be a complex matter at times.

    Did God always pursue culprits with comeuppance in the Old testament? The spiritual reality, the activity of the OT is not wholly represented or exhausted by the historical phenomena. In the same way history as a discipline is unable to recover the reality of previous times due to the perennial psychological and moral problems implied within human life. Sexual abuse has always occurred and will continue to do so. Historical observation generally describes the previous occurrences and through the inductive method goes some way to enlightening us of the processes that govern its practice. But induction aided by personal reflection enables us to know that we are not trapped in an an evil plague. Great progress has been made to significantly lessen the probability of clerical abuse in the future. Society is less successful in addressing it in the broader cultural world.

    Extreme vigilance is praiseworthy, but always inadequate. The Church has a great gift to offer society at large and to its own members – the virtue and practice of chastity. Even if it were possible to name and create a comeuppance for all Catholic culprits of the past, this in itself would do little to offset future acts of sexual abuse. The virtue of chastity is the key. It is noteworthy that David’s uncontrolled tendency to lust after the said lady was a component part in the emergent probability of his act of murder. There but for the grace of God ….
    As usual, last word to you Sean

    Reply
  4. Sean O'Conaill

    “Things would be clearer if evidence was provided to instances where the Catholic Church now refuse to confess that child abuse occurred.”

    Why, Neil, are you implying – mistakenly – that the article is alleging denial now by the church of the fact of clerical sexual abuse?

    The article is instead obviously calling for a full explanation of the past historical cover up, by bishops, over generations, of the fact of clerical abuse – the acknowledged policy of secrecy on the matter – the secrecy that left Catholic children – many still alive today as unhealed adults – totally unprepared for and bewildered by what happened to them.

    Yet again I insist that this call for a full accounting for the past policy of secrecy is solely in the interest of a full healing. Would you seriously tell a survivor of past child clerical abuse that they should be satisfied that this policy of secrecy has now been abandoned?

    The Instrumentum Laboris for the autumn 2023 synodal assembly poses the following question and invites the wider church to discuss it:

    “How can we continue to take meaningful and concrete steps to offer justice to victims and survivors of sexual abuse and spiritual, economic, power and conscience abuse by persons who were carrying out a ministry or ecclesial responsibility?” (Q5, p. 34)

    Please simply take my article as an honest response to that question.

    Reply

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ACI’s Campaign for Lumen Gentium 37

The Promise of Synodality

What we have experienced of synodality so far gives ACI real hope that a longstanding structural injustice in the church may at last be acknowledged and overcome.

As all Irish bishops well know, the 'co-responsibility' they urge lay people to share - as numbers and energies of clergy decline - has been sabotaged time and again by canonical rules that deny representational authority and continuity to parish pastoral councils.  ACI's 2019 call for the immediate honouring of Lumen Gentium Article 37 becomes more urgent by the day and is supported by the following documents - also presented to the ICBC in October 2019.

The Common Priesthood of the People of God and the Renewal of the Church
It was Catholic parents and victims of clerical abuse who taught Catholic Bishops to prioritise the safeguarding of children in the church

Jesus as Model for the Common Priesthood of the People of God
It was for challenging religious hypocrisy and injustice that Jesus was accused and crucified. He is therefore a model for the common priesthood of the laity and for the challenging of injustice - in society and within the church.

A Suggested Strategy for the Recovery of the Irish and Western Catholic Church
Recovery of the church depends upon acknowledgment of the indispensable role of the common priesthood of the lay people of God and the explicit abandonment by bishops and clergy of paternalism and clericalism - the expectation of deference from lay people rather than honesty and integrity.

For the full story of ACI's campaign for the honouring of Article 37 of Lumen Gentium, click here.

Prayer

"Come Holy Spirit, Renew Your wonders in this our day, as by a new Pentecost. Grant to Your Church that, being of one mind and steadfast in prayer with Mary, the Mother of Jesus, and following the lead of blessed Peter, it may advance the reign of our Divine Saviour, the reign of truth and justice, the reign of love and peace. Amen."

Saint Pope John XXIII, 1962 - In preparation for Vatican Council II, 1962-65.

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