Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Justice’s Last Resort: Accountability in the Roman Catholic Church Sex Scandals

A pattern of deeply violent acts of power-aggrandizement, followed by the efforts of “organizational men” to cover up the atrocities in the interest of the organization and even the offenders at the negligent expense of the offended, cannot but have ripple effects, or make waves, once the stories are revealed to the public. It is sad, very sad, when an offending institution, or “club,” refuses to enforce accountability on its offending functionaries—members of the club. In early August, the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office released to the public an 884-page report finding that six Roman Catholic dioceses in Pennsylvania had covered up sexual abuse—molestation and even rape—by 301 “predator priests” over 70 years in the twentieth century.[1]
With even at least one bishop (then cardinal)—Donald Wuerl--a prime culprit in covering up rapes, the lack of accountability on Wuerl by the Vatican would send a message that within a club, the big guys are essentially beyond reproach, even in such a sordid matter as covering for pedophile rapist subordinates. The sheer extent of injustice within one organization can trigger vigilante acts at justice. Hence, Rev. Basil hJ. Hutsko was thrown to the ground while praying at his church one morning—the assailant saying, “This is for all the little kids.”[2] It is sad, very sad, when justice is so imperfect as to be “accomplished” on an innocent priest. This incident thus reflects badly back on the lack of justice having been enforced by the Vatican on its own.
After the grand jury report was issued by the Attorney General, Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s upcoming appearance at a Roman Catholic conference on the family. Additionally, a Catholic High School in Pittsburgh removed mention of Wuerl from the school’s name—ostensively because Wuerl suggested that mention of his name would “detract from the purpose of Catholic education.”[3] The remaining question at the time was whether the pope would remove Wuerl from the College of Cardinals.
In line with the dictum, where there’s smoke, there’s fire, I got a snapshot of how Bishop Wuerl’s cathedral operated when I was a graduate student studying business and religion at the University of Pittsburgh. Late one weekday afternoon when the church was open, I knelt down near the low fence separating the place for the laity from the liturgical area. A janitor came up to me from behind and pushed me down, even though I was on the people side. So, interestingly, I can have a sense of how the innocent priest felt when he was pushed down from behind. At the very least, I concluded at the time that the bishop was probably a hard-ass, or at the very least he put up with some rather squalid employees. I complained at the time to the church office receptionist, but she gave it only a cursory notice. Clearly, Wuerl’s little world in Pittsburgh was not to be a part of my study of places of worship there.
My point is that the callousness and even violence one a very small scale in a religious organization can be just one sign of a broader and much deeper dysfunctional organizational culture. In such cases, accountability and justice from within are not likely; presumptuous boundary-issues are more likely. The press reported in the wake of the report that American Catholics were demanding action rather than just words in enforcing accountability; even so, I was struck by how many Catholics kept going to their same Roman Catholic church as if news of the report had not been made public. Perhaps accountability can easily be slighted by religious laity who believe that going to their church—receiving Catholic communion—is vital soteriologically even if not ethically. Yet Jesus surely would have tapped the dirt from his sandals and moved on had he been amid a religious group that covered up rapists in the group and even the cover-uppers. Great harm to others is antithetical to the Golden Rule, let alone the notion emphasized by Augustine and Calvin both that God is love. How can love of this sort overflow in an organization that covers up rapists and then the cover-uppers? We all know what Jesus thought of the hypocrites—the Pharisees.

[1] Hayley Miller, “Indiana Priest Beaten Unconscious, Allegedly Told ‘This Is for All the Little Kids.” The Huffington Post, August 22, 2018.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Michelle Lou, “Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s Name Removed from School after Abuse Coverup,” The Huffington Post, August 22, 2018.