The Role of the Institutional Culture of the Catholic Church in the Priest Sexual Abuse Crisis.

Pope FrancisYou might expect that in the earlier days of the priest sexual abuse crisis, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church would have been more sensitive than the general public to the damage done by priests to minors, but that was far from the case. The focus of the hierarchy then was on the priest abuser, not his victim. This official neglect of victims was one reason priests continued offending. But if you have ever heard a Church leader expressing remorse for that early neglect, please let me know because I haven’t. Some U.S. bishops then, and most likely even now, would not even discuss the problem except with consultants committed to confidentiality. As the 2011 report to U.S. bishops that I have cited during these posts declares, “the absence of acknowledgment of harm was a significant ethical lapse on the part of leaders in some dioceses.”

“Ethical lapse in some dioceses” is putting it mildly. The response of Catholic Church leadership overall to the sexual abuse crisis was defensive, not pastoral.  The Church is, after all, an institution and in some ways acts just like any other. Among the primary goals of an institution–from law firms and banks to Wall Street trading companies–is financial survival. The Catholic Church no more wants to disappoint those who have “invested” in it than does Morgan Stanley. As the 2011 report says more pointedly says, “it is the voices and narratives of victims that have confronted priests, enabled dioceses to act responsibly and brought diocesan leaders to an understanding of the harm of abuse.” In other words, if anyone is responsible for the Church’s more recent pastoral interventions into the lives of the abused, it is the abused themselves.

Pope Francis began his papacy by calling the Church a “field hospital” like those that nurse the hurt and the maimed on the battlefield back to health and life.  But Pope Francis himself was recently quoted as saying that expectations of the upcoming meeting of the hierarchy on the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church should be lowered because that abuse is a “human problem.”  That is true of course: it is not just a Church problem. But if movie stars and gymnastic coaches are guilty as well, is the responsibility of the Church somehow lessened?

Upcoming: my final current post on this subject: The Jesuits and the Crisis of Priest Abuse


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