Sexual abuse in seven words
The criminality revealed in Altoona-Johnstown was driven by deference
By Arthur McCaffrey
May 20, 2016 12:00 AM
From the Link: http://www.post-gazette.com/opinion/2016/05/20/Sexual-abuse-in-seven-words/stories/201605220100?platform=hootsuite
I hope the good people of southwestern Pennsylvania have enough patience left to tolerate further commentary on their recent shock and sorrow: the state grand jury report on sexual abuse by clergy in the Altoona-Johnstown Catholic Diocese, which justifiably labeled decades of child abuse as “soul murder.”
I know the wounds. As an outsider and a New England Catholic who suffered through the meltdown of the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, perhaps I can bring a fresh perspective to this well-worn story. I certainly could do no worse than the current Altoona-Johnstown bishop, Mark Bartchak, who wrote to his parishioners that the grand jury evidence was “filled with the darkness of sin.”
What, no acknowledgement of criminality?
I’m afraid that Bishop Bartchak wears the cope of history on his shoulders: FBI data show, that going back almost three-quarters of a century to the 1940s, he is the heir to four bishops at least 46 abusive priests and hundreds of child victims.
The grand jury report’s 147 pages have many lessons to teach us, but its main message can be summarized in seven words: deference spawns collusion spawns cover-up spawns victims.
This reduction to essentials is not a slight to the gravity or complexity of the grand jury narrative. Rather, it is a thoughtful attempt to identify the major diagnostic markers which can help us better understand the cause-effect dynamics that drive this kind of long-running crime spree.
The first crucial dynamic running through the story is “deference.” To understand the why and how of abuse in Altoona-Johnstown, and in the hundreds of similar cases around the country, we must first understand that, particularly in an institutional context, the documented abuse is not all sexual. To be enabled, to flourish in secrecy with impunity, it requires a supportive cultural context. That support comes from a culture of deference, and the associated collusion it spawns both within and outside the institution. The result is a “… conspiracy of silence [which] has deep roots in the Altoona diocese,” as it was put in the grand jury report.
On the religion side of the supposed church-state divide, the grand jury cited “the hubris of apathetic administrators” in concluding that church authorities colluded to cover up the crimes and enable predatory priests. A clinical analysis of the deranged behavior of the clerical soul destroyers might conclude that their sickness was driven by a compulsion. But when investigators discovered, locked in the bishops’ closets, more than 115,000 documents relating to abusive priests, it was clear that no compulsion drove the behavior of church leaders. Rather, their careful prioritization of institutional reputation over children’s safety was rational, considered, self-conscious, deliberate and actively managed.
On the secular side of the crime scene, we encounter a more insidious kind of collusion, with disturbing evidence of deferential secular authorities and judicial agencies giving the Catholic Church a pass and — what victims never had — options.
From the community leadership, deference was not only expected, but exploited for the church’s benefit, with many officials often owing their positions to the bishop. The Post-Gazette characterized this kind of incestuous interaction in its excellent reporting on the grand jury report, describing the “reluctance” of law enforcement officials to pursue cases of priest misconduct, even when urged by parents.
The lens of deference helps put the Altoona story into perspective.
First, this sordid narrative is at once unique and familiar: different names, different players, but the same violence, the same outcomes, the same pattern of collusion and deference that runs through all the depressing histories of church criminality written in recent decades.
Next, it is painfully obvious that, for a very long time, there was no separation of church and state in the governance of Blair County. With the church extorting a heavy premium for loyalty and allegiance, the conformity between the religious and the secular seemed more akin to Sharia law in Iran than American democracy.
Further, whether demanded, expected or leveraged for advantage, deference is not the unique prerogative of the Catholic Church. Private, secular corporations may also use it as a means of deflecting close scrutiny of their operations. But wherever it occurs, deference denotes privilege, entitlement, special treatment. In Altoona, it perverted the course of justice.
Where can we turn for consolation or commiseration? If misery loves company, Altoona Catholics might well turn for comfort to Ireland, a land to which they are tied by a legacy of immigration and religious heritage. No other country has suffered more from the disease of deference, and no one has spoken more eloquently of its pernicious effects on Irish society and culture than its brave prime minister, Enda Kenny.
Confronted with the sickening results of yet another government inquiry (the third) into a long history of abuse and cover-up in a rural Irish diocese — not unlike Altoona — an exasperated Mr. Kenny made a historic speech from the floor of the Irish parliament on July 20, 2012, excoriating both the Irish Catholic church and the Vatican for flouting the nation’s child protection laws: “The rape and torture of children were downplayed or ‘managed’ to uphold, instead, the primacy of the institution, its power, standing and ‘reputation.’ ”
With striking Celtic oratory, Mr. Kenny addressed the problematic tradition of Irish subservience to a Catholic Church which deemed itself unaccountable, “…where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity, and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world.” But the criminal practices of that church would no longer be tolerated in 21st-century Ireland: “The age of deference is over,” an outraged Mr. Kenny cried.
And if only the United States had a national voice like Mr. Kenny’s to champion the cause of justice for victims.
Arthur McCaffrey is a retired Harvard University psychologist (firstname.lastname@example.org).