Tuesday, November 12, 2002

Outraged Christians in an Age of Buck-Passers

Once again the Vatican and the US Catholic Bishops are in the news as the latter meet this week to discuss and implement Rome’s directive to bring the June 2002 draft of the Bishops’ new “zero tolerance” policy on clerical sexual abuse of minors into conformity with the Church’s Canon Law.

According to an editorial in The Washington Post last week, one of the objections Rome raised was two-fold: (1) the Bishops’ new policy overlooked or ignored the due process rights of accused clerics under the Canon Law; and (2) the Bishops’ new policy ignored the Canon Law’s 10-year statute of limitations on charges of clerical sexual abuse. That is, a victim of sexual abuse by a priest must report the incident(s) within 10 years of his or her 18th birthday –a proviso which seems to have been difficult at best for victims in the past because much pressure was placed on him or her and/or his or her family by their diocese to protect Mother Church against needless embarrassment in the public eye, a priority the Vatican seems to consider still rather paramount.

The Post also notes that the Vatican likewise objected to the Bishops’ June decision requiring all Bishops and clerics in all dioceses to immediately report all accusations of clerical sexual abuse of minors to the civil authorities whether or not state or local laws mandate such reporting, and even whether or not state or local governments which mandate such reports specifically exempt religious organizations. Instead, the Vatican said, Bishops should be required to do no more or less than comply with whatever the civil laws in their dioceses happen to be.

Ironically enough, mostly non-Catholic and highly secularized average American citizens and civil leaders seem to take this problem much more seriously than do some leaders within the Catholic Church, even at the Vatican level: Many, if not most, American state and local legal codes include no statute of limitations on either statutory rape (consentual sexual relations between an adult and a minor) or sexual abuse of minors, the latter of which is considered a deeply serious crime to which are attached severe penalties up to and including long prison sentences. Moreover, in almost any school district in the country the mere accusation of any form of sexual involvement by any teacher with any student of any age, with or without that student’s consent, results in that teacher’s immediate dismissal. In most cases, the offender is turned over to the civil authorities for prosecution. But, with perhaps a few rare exceptions, offending teachers are never transferred to other school districts and victims and/or victims’ families are never urged to keep quiet to avoid embarrassing the school system.

On the surface, the Holy See’s desire to protect the rights of priests as well as the reputation of the Church seems all well and good, as well as fair and proper. That is, until one remembers a couple of (in our opinion) important caveats:

(1) One of the roles of the Church and her clergy is to protect the family, without which the Church cannot exist. It’s NOT the role of the family to protect the Church and her clergy. After all, the family as a God-ordained institution precedes the Church as a God-ordained institution, both in terms of history and theology:

God –Himself a family in the form of three Persons!-- created the family first for a reason, and founded the ancient nation of Israel –the Church’s prototype-- upon families for a reason, primarily to image Him. Thus the integrity and security of the family --especially its most vulnerable members, its children-- has primacy over the integrity and security of the Church –especially its most powerful members, its clergy. God has even built into human nature the tendency of all human beings to protect and defend their immediate families –especially their children-- from any person or institution which threatens them either unwittingly or self-consciously, up to and including the Church or her clergy. In its understandable (and even proper) desire and haste to protect the rights and reputations of her priests and the Church, the Vatican seems to have forgotten these first things.

(2) Too many of the world’s institutions –civil government, the multi-national corporation, the investment firm, marriage, and even charity and volunteerism are being both overrun and run by weasels, those folks who, in the words of “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams, operate in “a gigantic gray area between good moral behavior and outright felonious activities” which Adams has dubbed “the Weasel Zone” (see Dilbert and the Way of the Weasel HarperBusiness; 2002).

While only the most skilled weasels are also lawbreakers who don't get caught (once you're caught and prosecuted, you cease being a weasel and become a criminal), most weasels engage in less-than-illegal yet less-than-moral activities such as "acts of omission, conflicts of interest, manipulating public opinion, deflecting blame, avoiding issues, hypocrisy, false claims of discrimination, obfuscation (weasel words), cover-ups, unwarranted optimism, turning a blind eye, ignoring scientific data, scapegoating, and anything else that strikes you as just-plain-wrong."

Weasels will never take responsibility for any negligence or incompetence on their part, especially when it results in harm to those around them and under them, or to their organization as a whole. Instead, weasels will blame someone else inside their organization, usually an underling. Or they’ll try to blame their organization’s rules or policies. Or they’ll blame outside “forces” (such as competitors, the media, or the civil authorities) who are “out to get them.” In any case, weasels pass the buck from themselves to something or someone else.

This latter phenomenon may be one of the factors many otherwise loyal and compliant Catholic lay people have been especially outraged by. As they see it, the Vatican’s –and some American Bishops’-- response to and attitude toward the Bishops’ “zero tolerance” policy is and has been an example of operating in the Weasel Zone.

Instead of using the Canon Law to preserve the status quo, or –worse yet— as an excuse for avoiding accountability and its stepchild, reform, the Vatican should acknowledge that the Canon Law needs to be changed radically (“at the root”) to place at least as much emphasis on protecting the natural rights of Catholic children who came into the Church’s life involuntarily as on protecting the man-made rights of Catholic clergy who came into the clerical life voluntarily.

This is especially crucial in light of one of the foundational principles upon which the Catholic Church’s social teaching is based; namely, consistent emphasis on the rights and dignity of the most vulnerable over the rights and dignity of the most powerful –a principle which has rightly earned the Church worldwide admiration and respect, even from many of her toughest critics. It’s time to bring the Canon Law into conformity with that principle, and to bring out of the Weasel Zone everyone in the Church’s hierarchy who may to still be in it.

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