Spiritual Paternity, Anger, Lying and Vulnerable Adults

Church renewal must include the renewal of spiritual fatherhood among the clergy — and an intolerance for bishops who tell lies.

Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2013
Cardinal Theodore McCarrick in 2013 (photo: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images)

In the last two weeks, there have been ongoing developments in the clergy scandals that erupted with the revelation of the sexual abuse committed by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, widened with the publication of the Pennsylvania grand jury investigation of sexual abuse of minors, and mushroomed further with the publication of testimonies by Archbishop Carlo Viganò, a former apostolic nuncio to the United States.

On Sept. 12, the Holy See Press Office announced that, after meeting with his cardinal advisory board, Pope Francis had decided to gather together the presidents of national episcopal conferences five months from now to discuss the prevention of “the abuse of minors and vulnerable adults.” The following day, Bishop Michael Bransfield of Wheeling-Charleston, West Virginia, resigned under plausible suspicion of the sexual harassment of adults, and in the Vatican, the leadership of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, together with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, met with Pope Francis to discuss the crisis, without announcing any concrete outcomes. Similar scandals in Germany, Holland, Chile, Australia and Honduras have also grabbed headlines.

Many people continue to raise legitimate questions, both lingering and new. As in previous columns, I will do my best to answer some of them.


What does the phrase “vulnerable adults” mean and is this a step in the right direction?

The phrase doesn’t exist in canon law or in the U.S. Bishops’ Charter for the Protection of Young People, but does exist in the sexual abuse policies in various dioceses. It refers to those with physical or mental impairments who are incapable of defending themselves, giving consent or reporting abuse suffered. It’s a phrase that encompasses, for example, those with Down syndrome, patients in a coma, dementia patients in group facilities, etc.

To use the phrase is an acknowledgement that the sexual abuse crisis does not concern merely attacks against minors. This is obviously a step in the right direction. But it’s a very small one. There are at least three concerns with the phrase.

First, it limits the “vulnerable” to a very small segment of adults. The word derives from the Latin vulnus, which means “wound.” Vulnerable means someone capable of being hurt. But who doesn’t fall into this category? Anyone who has known adult victims of sexual harassment and abuse recognizes how deeply wounded they have been. Those who have been victimized by priests are often even more so because of the spiritual abuse that accompanies the physical or sexual. The phrase “vulnerable adults” should not stop with those with serious mental or physical disabilities but should include everyone.

Second, by circumscribing the term “vulnerable adults” to those who are incapacitated, there’s a shift of responsibility toward victims who are not impaired. The phrase, as used, implies a desire to protect those incapable of defending themselves, but excludes adults capable of giving consent, fighting back, or reporting things on their own. This is a first, surely unintentional, step on the path toward “blaming the victims.” In fighting sexual abuse by clergy, the emphasis, however, should not be primarily on the capacities of the victim but on the sinful desires and actions of the priest. It should not be on the qualities of the object of abuse but rather on the abusing subject

Third, the reason for the restriction to “vulnerable adults” seems designed to evade discussion of the much larger problem of unchastity among the clergy with men or women. Some in the Church evidently want to avoid that topic at all costs.

One reason is because it would admit what the facts show: The vast majority of cases of the sexual abuse of minors concern homosexual attacks on teenage boys, and, as we see clearly in the case of former Cardinal McCarrick, such abuse often and unsurprisingly is found together with same-sex sinning with adults. Another reason is because some bishops recognize that addressing clerical unchastity is like attacking a hornet’s nest. They foresee a rebellion on the part of their clergy who self-identity, secretly or openly, as gay, or fear seeming to scapegoat all priests with same-sex attractions, including those who are chaste, or being labeled “homophobic” by those who obstinately refuse to admit the same-sex prevalence of the clerical sexual abuse of minors or of priestly unchastity with adults.

They know that if they pursue this path they’ll probably end up losing some percentage of their presbyterate at a time when bishops are struggling to keep parishes open. This response is understandable, but unsatisfactory.

Failure to address the larger context of the sexual abuse of minors would be to repeat the inadequacies of the U.S. bishops’ response in Dallas in 2002, which partially led to the problems we’re facing in 2018.

The context of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy is the problem of generally tolerated unchastity in the clergy and in the Church, a de facto “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in which sexual infidelity just worsens quantitatively and qualitatively.

The Church needs to have the courage to call — and demand — its clergy to live by the Ten Commandments and their priestly promises. Any attempt to duck the problem as if it will just disappear on its own is foolish. The Church shouldn’t tolerate priests sexually wounding anyone.


Why do so many leaders in the Church seem not to be angry?

A friend of mine told me last week, “What makes me most angry is that some bishops don’t seem angry at all!” He named various Church leaders and said that they appear to be making statements written by lawyers and public relations consultations that they deliver without any evident conviction behind the words. They express “shame,” “regret” and “sorrow,” but few express the holy anger that would engender confidence that they’re going to persevere in fighting to eradicate the problem.

The lack of anger flows, I think, from a lack of sufficient horror at what has been done against the victims, their families, God and the Church. This lack of horror comes in turn, I believe, from having been so accustomed to sin that they are longer shocked at the destruction sin wreaks.

Confronted with scandals, even with things like the Pennsylvania report, they peruse it without weeping, vomiting or holy indignation. Habituation to the evil of sin originates in a lack of adequate, true love for God, for others, even for perpetrators who could go to hell for what they do to others. And that lack of love comes from a failure to identify themselves enough with God, with his call to holiness, with his passionate summons to have his shepherds defend the flock entrusted to them against rapacious wolves. It flows ultimately, I think, from a lack of spiritual fatherhood and genuinely fatherly love.

Most fathers I know, including dads who struggle to live up to many of their duties, would immediately risk their life to protect their children from assailants. Most grown men would similarly give their lives to protect other people’s children from attackers. The only dads I can fathom who wouldn’t, would be abusers themselves.

In a talk I gave in 2004 on the scandals, an elderly man asked what I would do if I returned that night to the rectory and found another priest attacking a child. I asked permission from the man asking the question to respond honestly, even if my reply might scandalize him. When he consented, I said, using a string of totally unpriestly expletives, that I would free the victim, pummel the abuser, drag him down to the police station myself by his most sensitive body parts, and then call my bishop to explain what had happened and what he must do.

There was silence. Then applause. Then a sustained standing ovation. Once the applause abated, I asked the man if he would in turn answer a question for me and he assented. I asked whether, when his kids were still young, if he had returned home and discovered that his live-in brother was in the act of abusing his kids, wouldn’t he have done the same thing? The man replied, “I reckon I would have.” That’s what dads do.

This, for me, has always summed up the central issue in episcopal malfeasance with regard to the abuse crisis. Many bishops just don’t behave like spiritual fathers in defending their spiritual sons and daughters. What’s so black and white to most dads and moms is somehow, inexplicably complicated for some prelates. I think the fundamental reason is that many are tempted to look at the world as CEOs who say their prayers rather than as true spiritual dads.

I also think that this is the reason why there is a crisis of unchastity among many clergy.

If a priest looks at others with the eyes of a spiritual father, sexual relations with anyone is spiritually incestuous. And only the most perverted are ever attracted to incest. The crisis of fidelity begins, in other words, with a crisis in identity. Good spiritual dads not only don’t abuse their children but become ferocious in protecting their children from those who try. They also justly become white hot furious whenever anyone hurts their kids or looks the other way.

The renewal of the Church begins with the renewal of spiritual fatherhood among the clergy.


Aren’t bishops lying?

At a conversation with journalist friends, a few brought up how dispirited they are that some very prominent bishops seem to have been lying about what they knew or didn’t know. Bishops who have a reputation for being uber-competent, highly-connected, micromanagers seemed to be the only priests in their dioceses unaware of the rumors, for example, against former Cardinal McCarrick. If these bishops had, in their denials, admitted minimally that they absolutely should have known what they apparently didn’t know, if they had given shown that they felt stupid, naive and betrayed, their denials, my friends said, may have been credible. But their denials feature none of that, they said, but seemed to mimic the implausible disavowals of politicians caught in scandal.

“My teenage son lies better about his dog-eaten homework,” one said. “They can’t even lie with conviction,” another added.

Christ calls his Church to be truthful, to say “Yes” when we mean “Yes” and “No” when we mean “No,” telling us everything else comes from the devil (Matthew 5:37).

Lying is not a sin of weakness, but calculation. It can happen to men of the cloth when some get so used to “mental reservations” that partially obscure truth that those mental reservations can expand until there’s basically no truth left.

It’s incalculably destructive when men of God get the reputation for speaking like the “father of lies” (John 8:44). The suspicion that some bishops aren’t telling the truth is clearly a principal cause in the lack of trust the Church is now facing.

“A bishop can do no greater disservice to his flock than to lie,” a priest friend wrote back in 2002. “Lying is immeasurably more destructive than scandal given by sexual turpitude, jobbery or peculation. Any lie, regardless of gravity or occasion, gives his hearers reason to believe that the apostles lied about Christ and that the Church is lying when she claims to be a reliable transmitter of divine teaching. If a bishop, a successor of the Apostles, has lied to me about what he knew about a priest before reassigning him, why should I believe that he is telling me the truth when he says that Christ rose from the dead, or that it is God’s will that I refrain from sex outside marriage?”

This is one of the reasons why for the future of the Church bishops and priests demonstrate total transparency and verifiable truthfulness. To be icons of Christ the Truth incarnate. Otherwise no one will believe anything clergy say, including the Gospel.

I’ll continue to try to take up further questions in upcoming columns.