Still The Same #1

Way back when I was in High School, I recall being taught that French was the language of diplomacy. This was because, teacher said, French is a language of subtleties and nuanced meanings. I understand that French continues to be a language of diplomacy even today and is spoken in 40 nations. Wow!

Well, French may be a language of nuances and subtle meanings, but it can also be used to make a point crystal clear as, for example, does this French maxim:

Le plus ca change, le plus c'est le meme chose

A meeting of leaders of Catholic religious orders that was held in Philadelphia on August 10, 2002 provides an excellent example of how that maxim applies within the Roman Catholic Church. The group, calling itself The Conference of Major Superiors of Men, had assembled to address the matter of sexual misconduct by priests and religious. As might be expected, they came up with an apology – these were very much in vogue in those days – and a way to look after their offending subordinates without taking away their jobs. Reading something I wrote back then is what led me to remember that French phrase which, when translated, says: "The more things change, the more they are the same."

That seems to be the case with priests and brothers in Catholic religious orders. Just two months prior to the aforementioned meeting, Catholic bishops met in Dallas to develop a policy for dealing with priestly sexual predators. The Major Superiors supposedly met to figure out a way to adapt the Dallas plan for their own religious communities.

Those who are not familiar with the complexities of the Catholic Church likely are scratching their heads and muttering, "What to figure out? The bishop came up with a program and that should be that."

Not so. The organizational chart of the Catholic Church is more complicated than Enron's financial records—and just as difficult to unravel. You may believe that diocesan bishops are the bosses in their diocese, and you would be correct—at least partially. The bishops do have authority over religious-order clergy serving within a diocese. However, the Superior of an order also has authority; and he is not responsible to the local bishop. These guys have pull in the Vatican and, for the most part, answer only to the Pope. Who are the religious-order priests? To give you an idea, the black-robed Benedictines of Inquisition fame fall into that category. So, too, do the Jesuits, the pope's personal CIA or, perhaps, KGB.

The Superiors acknowledged – reluctantly, I wager – that some them had at times failed to sufficiently discipline errant clergy in the past.

We are deeply sorry for that and publicly apologize for whenever and however we have failed victims or families," they said in the document, which won overwhelming approval by the leaders. "These religious priests or brothers who have molested children or adolescents have broken the bonds of trust invested in them. We feel this hurt deeply. -- Rachel Zoll, Policy of keeping abusers in priesthood OK'd; San Antonio Express-News, August 11, 2002, p. 17A

This latest in a season of Catholic apologies was about as effective in eliminating the pain and suffering of the victims of priestly sexual abuse as John Paul II's apology wiped out the effects of the abuses of the Inquisition. Nothing more than a few Mea Culpa's uttered to the accompaniment of ritual breast-beating.

There are a lot of priests and brothers in the religious orders in America. In 2002, some 15,000 of the estimated 46,000 Catholic priests in this country belonged to religious orders.

What did the Conference of Major Superiors of Men come up with as their program for dealing with sexual predators within their ranks? They were going to give them the boot and turn them over to law enforcement authorities. Right?

Not right. In fact, the religious orders disagreed with the zero-tolerance program the bishops adopted in their June meeting. They felt that a one-strike-and-you're-out policy was much too harsh on priests engage in sexually abusive activities.

The orders believe that approach is too harsh. Priests take vows of poverty when they join religious communities, and the communities say they function as families. They felt strongly that their approach should be guided by the Catholic belief in redemption for sinners.

"Just as a family does not abandon a member convicted of serious crimes, we cannot turn our backs on our brother," the statement read.Ibid.

So what did the religious orders intend to do with those of their members who prey on children and adolescents? We were informed that the conference leaders were not in favor of booting offending priests and religious from the priesthood. Doing as America's bishops had done for years and years and years, they turned to the findings of experts on sexual offenders and there found support for their idea that some abusers can recover and serve the Church in administrative duties that keep them separated from young people. Yeah. Right.

In their document, the religious orders promised that sexual abusers within their ranks would undergo treatment and be closely watched. They also stated that any of those recovering sex abusers who violated restrictions placed on them by their orders would be kicked out. Of course they would. In a pig's eye.

Actually, it appeared to me that the leaders of the religious orders were more concerned for their fellow religious than for the victims of their abuses, though they did vote to improve support services for victims and to start educational programs to prevent abuse.

We are also called to compassionate responses to any among us who has committed this abuse. He is still our brother in Christ. We must share his burden. He remains a member of our family.

Our compassion does not cloud our clarity…We place these men under severe restrictions after treatment and those with the greatest danger to the public are carefully supervised to avoid occasions where they can engage in abuse again.Ibid

The tricky thing about the conference and the plan it came up with is that it is not binding on anyone. The conference lacked the authority to make anything they might come up with binding. When I was in the Service, we called such activities "Murine projects;" nothing more than eyewash.

And now the next phase. Sometime in the following month, staff from the bishop's conference were to meet with staff from the religious orders conference to try to discuss discipline for abusive priests. It is my opinion that the Catholic Church's ways of dealing with offending priests and religious in some ways emulate the action of flowing water—they seek the lowest level. And that explains the title of this piece. The Catholic Church claims to be Always the Same (Semper Eadem), and that seems to describe the way Mother Church has resumed dealing with her predatory priests once the smoke of the scandal had settled.

1 At the same time came the disciples unto Jesus, saying, Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?
2 And Jesus called a little child unto him, and set him in the midst of them,
3 And said, Verily I say unto you, Except ye be converted, and become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.
4 Whosoever therefore shall humble himself as this little child, the same is greatest in the kingdom of heaven.
5 And whoso shall receive one such little child in my name receiveth me.
6 But whoso shall offend one of these little ones which believe in me, it were better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck, and that he were drowned in the depth of the sea.
7 Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
-- Matthew 18:1-7

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