An Open Letter to the Pope and Bishops at the Clergy Sex Abuse SummitFebruary 16, 2019
Pope Francis is convening the world’s Catholic bishops this week in a special summit on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The news today of the laicization of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sets the stage for an event that has the potential to move the Church in a bold new direction, but at the same time, Church history tells us that movement is always slow. But whether the Church can afford its customary glacial pace and archaic governance practices given the depth of the scandal is a serious question. For this blog I am imagining an “open letter” to the Pope and bishops discussing some of the key issues that should be on the agenda:
Dear Brother Bishops,
This week, on Thursday, February 21 and extending through the weekend, you are convening at the Vatican for a “summit” on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. You come together prayerfully and earnestly to find a path forward out of the nightmare of this crisis that has harmed so many innocent victims, exposed the failures and sins and crimes of so many priests and bishops, and shattered the trust of the faithful in so many places. I hope that the summit might begin to move the Church from reaction and confusion and denial to a more honest, progressive pathway for rebuilding trust and confidence in the Church.
In order for the summit outcomes to be positive and progressive, however, the meeting must be more than formalities and orotund speeches with deals done by bishops out of sight over long Roman dinners. Perhaps the schedule will lend itself to genuinely open and heartfelt dialogue with victims of clergy sex abuse, and beyond those immediately abused, to include as secondary victims the families, particularly the mothers of abused children, and even to the tertiary level of the members of parishes and dioceses so appalled and disheartened and discouraged by this scandal.
Unfortunately, it seems that, once again, the presence and voice of lay Catholics will be limited in this gathering. While I have not been able to find a great deal about the structure of the meetings, the December 18, 2018 “Letter of the Members of the Organizing Committee” on the Vatican website indicates that the primary participants are the bishops, and part of the meeting preparation was completion of a questionnaire by the bishops in the respective national conferences. While certainly bishops need to confer, and gathering information from them can be useful, once again it seems that the impulse to clericalism has blocked effective engagement of the larger community of faithful Catholics who are feeling marginalized and excluded from discussions about how to address the clergy sex abuse scandal effectively. Having lay Catholics fill out that questionnaire might be eye-opening.
To his credit, in August 2018, Pope Francis wrote directly and with humility to the faithful in his “Letter to the People of God.” In that message he stated quite emphatically:
“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.” (Pope Francis, Letter to the People of God, August 20, 2018)
The “active participation of all members of God’s People” requires dialogue and engagement — not just calling us to prayer and acts of atonement, which some find insulting since the lay people are not the ones responsible for the abuse. Genuine engagement of the faithful means that lay people should be present and engaged in the discussions at ALL meetings on the topic of clergy sex abuse and the governance problems that led to cover-ups for decades.
The hierarchy has been making this crisis about itself and its perquisites and the clerical club for far too long. I recall quite clearly an evening in 2002 at a major Catholic dinner in Washington when then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (now defrocked as of the February 15 order of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) went on a long riff defending priests in the wake of the emerging sex abuse scandal, and never once did he speak of the victims. Now that we know what we know about McCarrick, all of his pious statements seem no more than a tissue of lies.
And in the last six months in the Archdiocese of Washington, rocked not only by the McCarrick scandal but also by the revelations of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report about Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s role in failing to report abusers, and his later admission about what he knew about McCarrick, the most frequent communications about the crisis have been to “Dear Brother Priest” while the rest of us who also work for the Church remained on the margins, not really invited to participate in any substantive discussion of next steps for the Archdiocese.
Even bishops who try to do the right thing, who strive to make change possible, wind up feeling stymied and exhausted. A long article in the February 14 Atlantic magazine about Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s work on the sex abuse crisis is illustrative of the fact that even the best have a hard time changing the clerical culture. If Cardinal O’Malley can’t make a dent in the obtuse clerical culture, who can?
While it’s too late to change the participant list and agenda for the summit this week, I hope that the Pope, cardinals and bishops gathered in Rome will agree to these essential steps to begin to restore trust and confidence:
- Any future convenings on the topic of clergy sex abuse must include not only victims and families, but also lay Catholics who have to deal with the aftermath of the scandal, including and most especially the educators in Catholic schools who have yet to have any effective communication from the hierarchy around the long-term educational issues at stake, as well as Catholic health care professionals and others who have not only expertise but also the responsibility to address the consequences of this crisis;
- Lay people must be empowered at the parish and diocesan level to participate in ongoing plans and programs to prevent abuse, and to address cases that arise;
- Bishops need to spend some time out here with the everyday people of the Church, not preaching but listening, hearing the voices of the people who are making their own pathways through this mess — and not always in the ways the bishops might like, but in ways the bishops must come to understand.
Finally, there are two huge, intractable issues that we know you do not want to talk about, but that must be on the agenda for change: the role of women in Church leadership, and the issue of celibacy for ordained clergy. Women do bring a completely different sensibility and perspective to life issues, and the presence of women — not just religious women, who have many gifts, but also lay women with jobs and children and families — would change and enlarge the conversation for the better, and would put the Church on a far more progressive pathway out of this crisis.
And for a Church that teaches that life is social, that the family unit is essential to a complete human life, the denial of marriage for priests seems, increasingly, an archaic and unsustainable discipline that is causing tremendous harm in the ways it discourages potentially great ministers from even considering the priesthood. Such losses — the absence of women in leadership, the denial of married persons for ordained ministry — keep the Church structure and culture weirdly isolated and disconnected from some of the most important developments in the human community.
With hope that the Holy Spirit will truly be a source of wisdom for the Vatican summit,
See my other blogs on this topic:
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The Death of ShameFebruary 10, 2019
At the risk of sounding like the Dowager Countess, a relic from a long-gone era, I repeat: Have you no shame, sir?
I’m asking YOU, Ralph Northam, Governor of Virginia. Blackface is an abomination, and you were old enough to know better. Forget about the polls, what about shame? Seriously, Governor, stop the political calculations and own up to the moral failure that photo represents. And do the right thing: resign.
I’m asking YOU, all the other politicians who are excusing away blackface as something you did when you were young and naive. You weren’t that young. You knew it was wrong, racist, despicable. Shame!
I’m asking YOU, Jeff Bezos, richest man in the world. Cheating on your wife, sending selfies of yourSELF to your flame, and now you want people to think you are a hero for standing up to a blackmailer? Have you no shame?
I’m asking YOU, Brett Kavanaugh, now Justice of the Supreme Court. Now that you are safely ensconced in your robes and high chambers for life, do you ever have a moment of feeling shame for what we learned about you at the hearing? Or is your capacity to feel shame dead, anesthetized by the power and privilege and protection you now have?
I’m not bothering to ask Donald Trump, I know the answer. But in the Trump era, we have come to witness the Death of Shame, an old-fashioned idea that once helped normal adults to restrain their own behaviors and keep outlandish actors from seizing power. In a byegone era — say, when Wilbur Mills was chasing Fanne Foxe around the Tidal Basin — a politician caught on tape bragging about assaulting women (as in the Access Hollywood tapes) went into early retirement. Or a leader caught in thousands of lies every day, every week and month, would not have lasted very long.
But in the Trump era, there is no shame, only polls, only political calculations about how long it takes for the tsunami of outrage to crest, for the ebb tide to sweep away the evidence of shameful misconduct. Given the incessant cresting of the news cycle these days, the most shameful behavior lasts only nanoseconds before being swept away by new revelations about someone else.
Yes, it is true, we have seen the most insouciant rejection of shame in other presidents and other eras. Bill Clinton’s famous claim that he did not have sex with “that woman” might have been one of the all-time most shameless statements by a president about his truly shameful misconduct. Richard Nixon’s “I am not a crook” was shameless, brazen, and ultimately belied by the truth of his maudlin resignation speech.
But in our current era, something has happened to the normal restraints on most adult behavior, a deterioration of the firewalls that would normally stop shameful misconduct, or upon discovery of such misconduct (e.g., blackface and klan pix in a college yearbook) would normally result in a loss of power and prestige.
Instead, in the Trump era, exposure of bad acts seems to lead to brazen defiance followed by a torrent of rhetoric some of which is untrue, most of which is simply a torrent of words with no real meaning other than to get past the news cycle.
The Death of Shame results in three truly evil collateral diseases:
First, the End of Ethics as any kind of reasonable moral guide for both public and private conduct. By anesthetizing any real conscience about the impact of personal acts, public officials have fewer restraints on their conduct, leading to the potential for even worse abuses of power and position.
Second, the endless news about ugly cases of shameful conduct by public persons has a deadening effect on the conscience of the society, itself. As we read about, hear about, more and more cases of famous or powerful people engaging in the most ugly sorts of conduct, we tune it out, look the other way, slowly come to accept the abnormal as very, very normal, even requisite for powerful people. Social fragmentation is hastened when the fundamental ethical principles of our lives erode.
Third, perhaps the worst consequence, the rising generations come to see shameless behavior as acceptable and even desirable. If the president of the United States lies constantly, how can we teach kids about truth? If a leading journalist commits plagiarism in a book and defends it mightily, how can we teach our students that plagiarism is completely unacceptable. If the powerful Amazon creator sends those kinds of pics, why not a teenage boy? If a justice of the Supreme Court engaged in drunken misconduct and sexually abused women in his younger days, how can we convince the future leaders of our nation that this behavior is simply wrong?
Yes, Virginia, YOU are a mess right now in so many ways, though you are not alone. But you are a real case study. Your lack of shame, your denial of historical truths, your claims to rehabilitation while tolerating the most shameful forms of racist expression are a disgrace to our nation. Your leaders have betrayed our values, and no amount of television interviews and newspaper columns and apology tours can make up for the fundamental lack of shame in their response to this crisis.
I am not commenting right now on the situation with Lt. Governor Justin Fairfax because we await more on the facts. But if he is at all guilty of what his accusers say, then he, too, must go — and shame on him if his defense is a lie. But also — and here is the real test for Virginia right now — shame on Virginia if Northam gets a pass while Fairfax gets grilled. BOTH men face terrible scandals, and both must do the right thing to atone for what they have done. I have no patience with those who say it’s a political calculus blue-red thing. It’s about ethics and what’s right. Shame on those who don’t understand that.Continue reading →Read comments (0) Add Comment
Black Lives MatterJanuary 20, 2019
When we realize that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., would have been 90 years old this year, when we realize that he has been gone for half a century, that he was only 39 when he was assassinated — we realize his extraordinary power to influence and even inflame social imagination, the power of his words to confront and command the kind of profound change in hearts and souls that eliminating racism requires. Across the sweep of the last century, we see his image still towering over all others who have devoted their time and talents and entire lives to the cause of racial justice. His equal as a civil rights leader has yet to emerge, and perhaps never will. Socially, culturally, spiritually, the struggle for racial justice is in a different place, no longer a singular movement led by an icon demanding an end to racial injustice with resounding clarity. Today’s movement seems more diffuse, organic, angry and audacious in powerful ways but also more prone to fragmentation, disputes and distractions in the blinding whirls of the 24/7 news cycle. The need for leadership for racial justice seems as urgent as ever in this era when blatant white supremacy and increasingly bold instances of racial hatred erupt every week.
Black Lives Matter is the name of the grass roots movement that is one of the most prominent successors to the historic Civil Rights Movement. Founded in reaction to the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the killing of Trayon Martin, and later galvanized by the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, among others, BLM today is a global network of chapters and organizers working to confront conditions of racial oppression. The movement has many allies among people who work for social justice, but the movement has received criticism because of its tendency to violence.
Some commentators wonder aloud if Dr. King would embrace Black Lives Matter today, largely because some of the movement’s organizers and activities have resorted to violence. Dr. King’s insistence on non-violent resistance and protest was a hallmark of his leadership in the Civil Rights Movement, but not all black leaders agreed with him. Dr. King’s intellectual and spiritual leadership was such, however, that I am sure he would have embraced the purpose and goals of BLM even as he might have counseled the organizers about tactics. Good leaders debate tactics all the time, but work hard to keep everyone in the movement because unity is powerful.
Writing in April in the Washington Post, on the sad occasion of the 50th Anniversary of King’s Assassination, Author Richard Lisher noted,
“We have no one of his stature to set the mark sufficiently high for us — to illumine our national sins, inspire us with hope or tell us who we are as a people. Within the nationally prominent Black Lives Matter movement, no single voice has emerged to lead the way as King did.
“King spoke powerfully from the great tradition of the black church. Today, his preacher-led movement seems somewhat out of step with the more secular approach of the activists leading the way 50 years later. So much so that it’s easy to overlook the powerful links between them.” (Richard Lisher, “What Martin Luther King Would think of Black Lives Matter today,” The Washington Post, April 4, 2018)
(Trinity Student Shelley Ward asking Speaker Pelosi a question, January 4, 2019)
Black Lives Matter is a topic of great importance for Trinity. At the MSNBC Town Hall at Trinity on January 4, 2019, the day after Nancy Pelosi ’62 was elected and sworn in for the second time as Speaker of the House, Trinity Student Shelley Ward, a Journalism major in the School of Professional Studies, asked Speaker Pelosi, “Do you support the Black Lives Matter movement?”
Speaker Pelosi replied, “I support the recognition that Black Lives Matter, for sure, and I have incorporated that in many of my statements.”
Speaker Pelosi then went on to say something that has generated criticism: “I think that all lives matter, yes, but we really have to redress past grievances in terms of how we have addressed the African American community.” She went on to discuss the need to address racism, poverty and voting rights, among other issues.
Critics on Twitter and other social media pounced on Speaker Pelosi’s use of “all lives matter” — a phrase that has been repeatedly discredited as diminishing and even denying the whole point of Black Lives Matter. While I do not believe that Speaker Pelosi intended to diminish Black Lives Matter, especially given the entire context of her answer, as an experienced politician she must surely know how people hear “all lives matter” as a temporizing phrase in opposition to Black Lives Matter.
Unfortunately, the television Town Hall format did not allow follow-up dialogue. So, offline, I asked our student Shelley Ward, how she felt about Speaker Pelosi’s answer, and Shelley wrote this in an email that she gave me permission to cite on this blog:
“I sincerely believe that Speaker Pelosi meant what she said when she stated “All Lives Matter”. I also I agree with that statement. However, I asked whether or not she supported the “Black Lives Matter” movement. While I feel that her intentions were good, I understand why the statement would spark a conversation. It has been statistically proven that more black lives are being lost at the hands of police brutality than any other race….no one wants to hear that “All Lives Matter”. Many people, not just from the black community, want to know that there lives are just as important as anyone else’s. To some, the statement “All Lives Matter” adds insult to injury as the issue at hand is whether or not the lives of the most oppressed race in the country matter to the very people who are suppose to protect and serve.” (Shelley Ward, Trinity JAMS major)
We need to keep having this conversation. I am so proud of Speaker Pelosi and grateful that she chose to be at Trinity at such an important time, and I am also so proud of our students who posed urgent and important questions for her. I am glad that Shelley Ward provided her great analysis of the issue, and I hope this exchange can be an opportunity for all of us to think more deeply about our words and phrases and how they support or block the achievement of justice.
We all need to keep working for an end to the racial hatred that is causing so much damage to our society. Too many lives have been lost to racial violence, too many bright hopes extinguished by the hatred and bigotry that continue to plague our communities. The most important thing we can do to remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., is not to treat this annual day as a holiday or memorial to something long past, but rather, to take up the cause for which he gave his life and carry it forward with courage and conviction. We need to declare Black Lives Matter without hedging or fear. We must not shrink from the hard, continuing work of achieving justice each day.Continue reading →Read comments (0) Add Comment
Welcome to the “Spring” 2019 Semester!January 14, 2019
Mother Nature doesn’t seem to know that we are starting the “Spring” semester, but January snow is really right on time! Welcome back to all students, faculty and staff — and welcome to new students as well! We have a lot going on this semester, and we are eager to make the most of our time together.
The snow this week made the campus look very beautiful, some photos below. But the most important message is that we have wonderful members of our Aramark Facilities Team who worked tirelessly for three days (!!) to make sure all of the roads, walkways, parking lots, steps, etc. were clear of snow and ice. Please thank them when you see them. Also please thank our Allied Universal Security team who worked through the storm, and also our Metz Food Service team who came in despite the storm to make sure our resident students were well fed! Here are some photos of our great Facilities Team clearing snow:
Here are some photos of the campus in the snow:Continue reading →Read comments (0) Add Comment
Shameful ShutdownJanuary 11, 2019
Liberty is closed. Air and Space is closed. The beautiful places of our nation are closed. Federal workers will not receive paychecks today. Government contractors are in financial distress. Retailers who depend on federal workers are facing fiscal disaster. The food truck workers, the custodians, the ticket takers, the park rangers, the tour guides, the tech guys, the cafeteria cooks, the administrative assistants, the truck drivers, the research assistants, the laboratory directors, the analysts, the security guards, the photocopier repair technicians, the mail clerks, the receptionists, the help line specialists, the HR staffs, the payroll processors, the facilities crews, the wildlife experts — the real people who make our government work every day are out of work, or being forced to work without getting paid.
The REAL “national emergency” is a political leader who is using people as pawns, playing games with the livelihoods of federal workers held hostage to a demand that has nothing to do with them, blatantly breaching the responsibilities of the president of the United States to lead a functional, effective government and to care for ALL citizens, not just those who happen to agree with him. Holding federal workers hostage for a corrupt political purpose is unjust and immoral.
The government shutdown is shameful, and the reason for the shutdown is simply appalling. If the issue were simply coming to agreement on the best tactics for border security, we would not be at this impasse, the legislation would have been crafted with reasonable compromises, and the president would have long ago signed the bill. But we are witnessing an extraordinary act of selfish political extortion by one man and those who are egging him on — the relentless demand for “Wall” is not a quest for better border security, which certainly can be negotiated, but a ransom note to construct a symbol of power, a monument to fearmongering, to racism and ethnic hatred, to political pandering at its most obscene baseness.
The solution to the current morass is obvious, but it requires moral courage in the Senate, which seems to be in very short supply. The Founders of this nation envisioned a government of checks and balances, three co-equal branches of government so that one branch does not become too powerful. If the president vetoes legislation that the two houses of Congress agree upon, then the Congress can vote to over-ride the veto and the bill becomes law. That seems so very obvious in a case such as we have at present, in which the life of the nation is grinding to a halt because of one man’s insistence on spending $5 Billion for something that is of dubious effect. Before Christmas, the House and Senate did agree on legislation and they thought the president was on board with it; but suddenly, because a television talking head said something negative about him, he withdrew from the agreement. Congress should have proceeded, but the leadership in the Senate has now demurred; Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stepped back, saying he cannot do anything about the impasse, which is not true. A real leader would tell the president he’s wrong; a real leader would pave the way for a Congressional over-ride of the president’s veto. McConnell could be a hero, but he chooses to be an accomplice in allowing innocent people — the federal workers and all affected by the shutdown — to suffer grievous harm and undue stress.
Trinity students who are federal workers and contractors, or who depend on retail services to them, are among those deeply affected by the government shutdown. Some students have already written to me to say that they might not be able to enroll this semester because they are worried about not getting paid, or that they’re not sure if their agencies will provide the usual tuition remission, or that if they have to dig into savings or retirement funds for living expenses they will not be able to buy books or afford transportation here. The consequences of missing a semester are also large: delayed graduation by a semester or two means ongoing college expenses and even more important, the lost salary increases that they could obtain once they receive their degrees. The economic consequences of political folly are enormous, rippling well beyond this moment.
Trinity will do everything we can to help our federal workers and those affected by the shutdown. But our resources are also limited, and like many institutions in Washington trying to help close the gap, we know that we cannot possibly be a suitable substitute for a functioning federal government. We all must ratchet-up our advocacy and insist that the government reopen immediately, that negotiations about border security ensue as a separate matter that does not hold innocent people hostage to political ambition.
To our political leaders we must fairly shout: open the government NOW!Continue reading →Read comments (1) Add Comment