Tuesday, May 17, 2011


The Catholic magazine “Commonweal” published an article this past week that relies heavily on a complaint made by a member of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia’s sexual-abuse-of-minors Review Board.

The member – also author of the article – has been on the Board for 8 years. The gist of her plaint is that the Board was as shocked as everyone else about the 2005 and 2011 [links available in the article] Grand Jury reports, the most recent of which involved “substantial evidence” of “sexual abuse” on the part of 37 priests who had still been on active service in that Archdiocese.

Let me preface my thoughts by stating that nobody who cannot contain himself sexually should be doing active ministry; it is not possible to presume that one can be dysfunctional in only one area of his ministry and that such active dysfunction can somehow be walled-off within the self such that its effects do not vitiate the comprehensively-defined integrity of the entire self.

That being said, several points raised in the article caught my attention.

Overall, her complaint is that the Archdiocese had not been totally upfront and candid in sharing allegation-files and that the Grand Jury’s critical reference to the Board is not justified because the Board itself was bamboozled by the Archdiocese.

The Board had originally been appointed with an eye to making recommendations to the Archdiocese and on “offering advice on all aspects of the cases” (although it is up to the Cardinal to accept or reject the Board’s input). The Board would not review cases currently under civil litigation or criminal investigation. It would, however, review cases that the District Attorney had deemed not-prosecutable.

It would be assisted by three canon lawyers who would help the Board in questions of canon law. And after the 2005 Grand Jury Report a civil attorney also began to attend the meetings.

The Board does not interview witnesses but accepts for consideration “written testimonies” by allegants and accused and others. It considers those, plus any private investigation reports and makes its determination as to whether abuse of a minor can reasonably be assumed to have taken place, and thus to make a recommendation to the Cardinal as to the accused’s suitability for continued ministry.

She admits that it is a complicated job. If I may quote at length: “Determining whether a minor has been sexually abused is not an easy matter. The charter and norms are supposed to provide criteria to help diocesan review boards determine the credibility of allegations and the cleric’s suitability for ministry. Yet the norms’ definition of “sexual abuse” is vague. What is meant precisely by “an offense by a cleric against the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue with a minor”? What about “grooming”—when an adult attempts to establish a relationship leading to sexual relations? In cases where review-board members argued that grooming constituted sexual abuse, one canon lawyer countered that it does not. Does the definition in the norms regarding the sexual abuse of a minor apply to inappropriate touching of a seventeen year old if it occurred in 1973? A canon lawyer argued that until 1994 the age of majority according to canon law was sixteen; therefore, canonically, a minor had not been involved. If we find evidence that a priest engaged in inappropriate behavior, such as allowing a minor to drink alcohol in his presence, but there is no evidence of actions that involve sexual abuse, should the priest be permanently removed from ministry? About a quarter of the cases we reviewed involved such situations. In several cases, we could not say that a priest’s inappropriate actions violated the norms, but we still determined that the matter was serious enough to recommend his permanent removal.”

You can quickly get a sense of the tremendous complications involved, legally and also in terms of basic justice. The canon law simply refers to a priest who has violated “the Sixth Commandment of the Decalogue”* with a minor; but getting from ‘adultery’ to ‘sexual abuse of a minor’ (especially given the elasticity of that term in the Mania Era) is not immediately clear. And surely the vagueness of the Mania definition of ‘sexual abuse’ is as legally fraught as the noble vagueness of the Canon.

Also, the Canon defines a minor as being under the age of 16, although it was raised to 18 in 1994 (curiously, during the initial years of the Mania in the U.S.); but then what of an action taking place before 1994 with someone over the age of 16?

Additionally, the Board wishes to consider not simply allegations of ‘sexual abuse’ but also instanced of ‘inappropriate behavior’, ‘grooming’, and ‘boundary violations’ – even though they do not rise to level of sexual abuse. These terms themselves are highly vague, and in the one instance given – a priest allowing a minor to drink alcohol in his presence – one has to question the judgment of the priest, but one also has to ask other questions: the age of the minor (a 17 year-old? A single-digit prepubescent?) Did it take place recently or – say – in the wild and wooly 1960s or 1970s when high-schools students who drank but didn’t do weed were considered rather stodgy?

I am not making a case for teens drinking, but the circumstances in cases like this count for something. Given the present legal drinking age of 21 I would imagine that a significant chunk of the armed forces can’t drink alcohol.

Should, she asks, a priest be permanently removed from ministry for such “inappropriate behavior” if it did not issue in sex abuse? At least from the point of view of the Board’s scope, it would seem a question that is beyond the Board’s writ.

Interestingly, she lets out that “a quarter” of the cases the Board reviewed “involved such situations” (i.e. ‘inappropriate behavior’) and in several cases, though the Board “could not say that a priest’s inappropriate actions violated the norms" (i.e. the applicable sex-abuse canonical Norms), yet the Board still determined in several cases that the matter was serious enough to recommend “permanent removal” from the ministry.

This is going quite a bit further than anybody who read the Norms would think.

There is a lethal, if not fatal, abyss here, and it is one characteristic of the Mania in many ways: the confluence, and lethal mixing, of the ‘therapeutic’ and the ‘juridical-legal’. In the therapeutic forum, a clinician can make inferences from behaviors and what s/he observes of a patient in interviews and therapy sessions. On the basis of an informed hunch, then, a therapist can formulate a treatment plan and recommendations which s/he will present to the patient (who presumably is there wanting to ‘get well’).

But then you get into matters of ‘industrial psychology’ where a psychologist is not there necessarily with a willing and self-referred patient, but rather with an employee who has been required to ‘see the shrink’. Here the matter becomes complicated: whereas in private (and voluntary) therapy the patient and clinician can go with a plan, and mutually iron out its large or small inadequacies as they continue the course of treatment, in the industrial or employment setting an interviewing professional may have to take his/her inferences and offer a recommendation to the employer that could result in the termination of employment.

And in matters of forensic psychology, such inferences – educated as they may be – could result in civil or criminal (or in these Catholic cases, canonical) legal action.

As in much of the Mania, the Board wears many hats: evaluative and almost forensic, preventive, and only as a modest third, therapeutic. This fits in well enough with the Carol Gilligan vision of Mommy presiding as Benevolent and Omniscient Autocrat of the breakfast table, blending and mixing her modes of authority to create, sustain, and enforce some order among many squalling and squabbling children. But no government can be trusted with such total authority. (Indeed, I often wonder if anybody ever sat down before the Mania legislation was begun and asked the profoundly important question: What sort of government will it take to impose and enforce a Regime of such laws?)

And one can only imagine what would happen if the Board were to seek authority not only over priestly interactions with minors but with any other persons whatsoever? Especially if one could be accused of ‘grooming-without-sex’ or ‘inappropriate behaviors-without-sex’, what priest could avoid suspicion for almost any interaction at all?

In fact, given the way the Mania dynamics work, such ‘mission creep’ is hardly out of the realm of the possible.**

So if the Archdiocese is a little leery, I wouldn’t simply write it off  - as the author of the article does – to “clericalism” and a cover-your-tracks dynamic. Not that there isn’t enough of that in the Church (or any organization) but there are a lot of dangers posed here by a) the ever-mushy yet always ‘creeping’ Mania concerns and b) the general and hardly irrational concern that behind the Mania itself is a far more insidious urge to get rid of a ‘rival’ (on the part of ‘secularism’) and a desire to turn the Church polity into ‘democracy’ (on the part of certain strains of liberal Catholic elites within the Church polity).

And although the writer doesn’t give more specific time-frames, it would be interesting to know just how far back some of these ‘cases’ go; she does mention that there are problems that arise from cases going back years or decades, but nothing more.

Further, she notes – possibly wearing her therapy-hat – that the presence of ‘lawyers’ is proof-positive that the Church is not being open. Yet from a canon-law point of view, if not also in terms of further civil or criminal action, the Board’s advice may involve canon-law sanctions of the most grievous sort, including depriving a man – and perhaps not a young one – of his livelihood and, as is so often the case with priests, putting him in a position where his limited work-experience history destroys any possibility of employment (and that’s without even considering the dark cloud of abuse-suspicion that will follow him). And all of that perhaps on the basis of an assessment of ‘inappropriate behavior’ or ‘grooming’ or ‘boundary-violations’ or something-without-sex.

But as even the canonical Norms demand, the ‘presumption of innocence’ is to be made until reasonable proof has been determined. And this is another point where the Church’s canon-law differs from the reigning Mania law: the Church in its canon-law and practice, unlike American law, refuses to yield the presumption-of-innocence that has been neatly and slyly swept away in the Mania Regime.  

The Mania Regime, as I have mentioned in prior Posts, surfs the civil-rights legal practice that goes back almost half-a-century to the days of Jim Crow and Southern racism: in any allegation made by a black person against a white person, racism is to be presumed. Essentially, that places the burden on the accused rather than on the government or the accuser.

This hugely fraught ‘re-balancing’ in effect works against a vital and primary American (and Western – where the Church preserved it from Roman praxis) legal principle. In the matter of the thorough-going racist legal codes of the Southern Jim Crow regime, such a temporary un-balancing was perhaps necessary, but then it was expanded to all racial interactions, and then in the 1970s it began to be applied to gender-interactions (women being assigned the role of the ‘blacks’ and men being assigned the role of the Southern whites of the Jim Crow era) and then in the 1980s to victimist legislation (where ‘victims’ got the role of the ‘blacks’ and ‘victimizers’ – however defined – were assigned the Southern-white role). The temporary and somewhat focused un-balancing thus became permanent even as it expanded exponentially.

And then matters were ratcheted up exponentially again when the Mania Regime started up in the very early 1990s. The offense was ‘so awful’ that normal due-process was considered an ‘obstruction’. And, as I mentioned above, no Mommy trying to enforce order at her breakfast table full of squalling and squabbling kiddies would consider ‘rational due process’ to be anything but an obstruction to getting through the meal. Which is why Mommy At the Breakfast Table is no basis for a system of government, certainly not for the American Founding vision. Gilligan’s Mommy, translated into a government, becomes a Leviathan in Hobbes’s worst sense of the term.

Note too that in the Mania vision, a law that ‘obstructs’ prosecution of a presumed offense is clearly baaad, as are the attorneys who are tasked with trying to defend the accused against the charge or who simply try to maintain some level of legal due process. But that is precisely what attorneys have to do in the legal forum. But again, the Board simultaneously seeks to operate in the therapeutic forum and in the canonical-legal forum and in the protection-and-prevention forum as well. The Board is, by the very workings of the fraught Mania dynamics that created it, bound to be frustrated because its several operational purposes are to some extent mutually exclusive.

And the Grand Jury may well be reflecting the general confusion of current Sex Offense Mania law, operating under the assumption that a law that stands in the way of going after a presumed offense is clearly a bad law. Thus the Board’s telltale frustration with archdiocesan civil attorneys who prudently and intelligently counsel that any transactions that could probably lead to civilian or canonical action must be carefully structured to preserve the rights of the accused (who to the Mania mind is presumed to be guilty, even if only in the ‘general’ sense that these accusations involve so repugnant a crime that standard legal protections don’t apply).

And I note strongly here that this frakkulent conception migrated to another area when ‘terrorism’ was later touted to be another offense so horrific that no ‘obstruction’ could be allowed by concerns for evidence, careful definition, or due-process … and can you say Abu Ghraib and Gitmo?. Any attorney who stands up for the integrity of the process and for the integrity of the Law itself is considered to be obstructionist, and this is not absolutely so at all.

The author further complains that the presence of attorneys “creates an adversarial situation”. Yet in the Mania setting, the dynamics of the Mania-victimist presumptions automatically create an ‘adversarial’ setting simply by declaring that there is a ‘victim’ (self-declared) and that therefore there must be a perpetrator who is presumptively guilty of the victimizing. This is, I think, a marvelous way that the Mania can have its cake and eat it too: your own presumptions create the frakkulent danger to any accused, but it is only the attorneys who try to discharge their duties who are labeled ‘adversarial’ (and ‘obstructionist’). And while the Mania can wear its ‘therapy hat’ when claiming it only seeks to ‘help’, it then creates the most exquisite and lethal legal (or in this case canonical) consequences for the presumptively-guilty accused.

And any bishop is now caught between trying to satisfy the Mania requirements and simultaneously to protect the canonical rights of a priest who might, on the most elastic of inferences and definitions, be subjected to highly lethal life-consequences. To simply write all that off as some form of obstructionist-clericalism is not sufficient.

I suppose it is another marvelous aspect of the Mania that – having created the stampede – its supporters don’t even need to worry about such things. Even if an organization realizes all this, how can it share its misgivings and concerns with the public? Such candor will simply be spun by the Mania as proof-positive of being insufficiently zealous in the pursuit of – or the truckling to – the Mania’s demands. Neat.

I hold no brief for actual sexual imposition by anybody against anybody else.

But I can’t believe that after all these decades and even the past 9 (10, come January) years of Catholic repair of its ministry standards, under the heavy scrutiny of Mania-happy media and untold numbers of ‘lay reviewers’ and Boards, that such problem as there was still exists in its pre-reform state. If it still does, then the question that should be asked is: If after all this the problem has not been reduced to manageable proportions, then why has the draconian ‘solution’ not worked?

And yet I think that the problem has been greatly ameliorated, such as it was to begin with. In fact, it’s probable that the Church is now one of the more reliably non-abusive organizations in the country, compared to the many institutions that have somehow been left out of the scrutinizing glare of the Mania klieg lights.


*A glance at Wiki (to use an easily accessible reference) shows that there are several ways of numbering ‘the Ten Commandments’ and while many methods number Thou Shalt Not Kill as the Sixth, the Roman Catholic version numbers Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery as the Sixth.

**Which again gets me to thinking about the curiously rigid focus on the Catholic Church in all of this. Whereas in other venues advocates claim that ‘sexual abuse’ is rampant, yet no other organization is subjected to this level of sustained official assault (almost 30 years and still going): public school teachers, other religious groups, other of the professions (as they used to be called). I still can’t dismiss the deep suspicion that what is actually going on here is a ‘secular’ drive to neutralize its most formidable ideological opponent, the Church that continues to represent a Beyond that secularism claims does not and need not exist, the very existence of which stands as a rival or a witness against or simply an alternative to secularism’s most cherished presumptions. I am not here seeking to ‘let off the hook’ genuinely abusive clergy, but rather noting that this sub-mutation of the Mania is driven by far more, and far more hidden and darker, dynamics than the ones given out in public.

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