Occasionally, I feel guilty I am doing as well as I am, thanks to the effectiveness of my chemo treatment. Some of my fellow patients are not doing as well. A close friend, diagnosed some months after I was, is already presently being transferred to hospice care. Another, having gone through a recent multi-hour multi-specialist surgery, is entering an aggressive treatment protocol combining radiation with radical chemotherapy. A third has declined surgery altogether and is choosing treatment of his cancer through a variety of nutritional and mindful exercises intended to focus his entire physical and psychological strength against the incursion of his disease.
Cancer, I’ve been reading, is a highly personal disease. Many researchers agree that our cancers become active in response to immune deficiencies, or environmental triggers that are not, even now, well understood. Some researchers suggest that cancer cells are present, latently, in our bodies from birth. This makes generalized therapies impossible.
The current spate of distressing news about the widespread clerical abuse in the Catholic Church is similar in this respect. The abuse of the powerless is a source of guilt far more justified than my quasi-guilt from the positive experience of keeping my cancer at bay.
As dreadful as it is to think of the hundreds of individual priests, torrentially documented in the press, who perpetrated abuse against others, it is even more shameful to consider the bishops who hid the crimes and avoided accountability for the perpetrators or for themselves.
The facts of the immoral crimes are difficult to consider, much less explain.
Contrary to depictions of the abuse we are finding out about, labeling it as “sexual abuse”, what seems certain is that the violations are acts of aggression; psychologically misguided expressions of power.
Were the perpetrators committing their heinous acts because they possessed power over their victims or because they were (or believed they were), in fact, held in thrall, themselves? Is there a relationship of their acts of abuse to the rule of celibacy? If so, what is the nature of that relationship? How is it normally and abnormally expressed? When abuses are perpetrated by the very powerful, how can we respond?
How did this aberrant behavior spread? Did perpetrators communicate with and influence one another? If so, what were the mechanisms and influences exchanged? If not, what does it say about the remarkable numbers of individual perpetrators? What is the underlying source of the horrible anger that is evidenced by the events that have been discovered and recorded? What are the structural components that are complicit in permitting (or turning a blind eye to) the behaviors we are learning about? How does gender play a role? (The recent news in the US media is full of details involving men, whereas the abuses known as the Magdalen Laundry Asylums were conducted, in Ireland, by women.) Does sexual orientation play a role? If so, what role?
Do psychological signals exist that can be unearthed by early testing, that can predict the possibility of aberrations of such kind? Were they employed? With what effect? What kind of professional advice was given bishops by contemporary doctors, psychologists or lawyers? How did such advice contribute to permissibility; or was professional advice ignored? Where and how does peer pressure enter in? Are there patterns of behavior among priests or bishops that reveal or suggest the likelihood of abuse?
What can/should be done to help victims? How to explain what happened and why? Given what we know about historical cultural evidence, are there psychological/cultural influences at play? How to remediate; if remediation is even possible?
There is a widespread ripple effect of learning about such abuse, from the individuals immediately involved to the wider society that suffers because of the overall degradation of trust and exemplary behavior. How can we address the scandal to the community of families and persons immediately involved in abuses; to the Catholics only proximate to such crimes; to Christians in general; to the wider secular society who already evidences a distrust of religious instinct?
How do we appropriately respond, on a personal basis, to the revelations that are swirling around us with the result of wide moral and personal distress?
How do we most effectively press for accountability and effective change to eliminate the possibility of ongoing aggressions of a similar nature? How can we proceed with immediacy at the same time as we defend the need for careful deliberateness?
The revelations of clerical abuse evoke strong personal emotions: feelings of shock, betrayal, disgust, disbelief, shame, anger, empathy, and dismay. How do we help our local communities (and ourselves) address legitimate emotional and visceral reactions, particularly given that they/we may not have participated or experienced, first-hand, the abuses being written about?
These, and many more penetrating and nuanced interrogations must be articulated, investigated, and analyzed in an open scientific and moral inquiry. Simultaneously, punishments and calls to account must be meted out to the various complicit individuals. Meanwhile, as we proceed, we must be careful to protect the privacy and innocence (until proven otherwise) of individuals who might be wrongly accused.
We need to address and answer all these questions for all those personally involved, as well as for all members of society.
Some people have been surprised at the statement that the “Devil is behind” these extraordinary events. Foremost we must recognize a distinction between diverting responsibility to a scapegoat figure. Responsibilities are due to individual persons not to vaporous fiendish figures. Whether or not one recognizes or believes in an a personified, individual entity identified as “Satan” or “Beelzebub” is irrelevant. Though “evil incarnate” might well frighten or disturb, it cannot, itself, incite or unleash some objective evil upon humanity. The truth is that the Devil can only leverage the vulnerabilities and susceptibilities that preexist in each of us. The source of Evil in the world is—like it or not—ourselves. (Recall Pogo’s realization, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”) The evil that we all possess—much as we would prefer to deny it—are like the cancer cells oncological researchers suggest might exist in our chemical and biological cells from birth. Evil is a part of humanity in general, and individual humans in particular.
The existence of personal evil has been recognized at least since the authors of the earliest books of the Bible composed the Cain and Abel narratives. Latent evil, exploited in damaging ways, is evidenced in the events that are recorded to have taken place in the Garden of Eden.
Spiritual leaders and writers, over time, have recommended practicing self-abnegation, penance, even the employment of physical disciplines (wearing hair-shirts, denying oneself, flagellation, and other “mortifications of the body”.) These time-honored disciplinary measures are not, to be sure, “solutions”. No less a figure than the Carmelite Saint Thérèse of Lisieux (recognized as a “Doctor of the Church”) cautioned against corporal disciplines, which, themselves, can easily be abused. But the goal of such penitential practices were designed to help us recognize our own entanglement with evil. Part of our shame, in this case, is our potential blindness or passivity to the abuses of power. It is woefully easy to be intimidated by power. It is similarly easy to be intoxicated by power. (Recall Lord Acton’s memorable quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”)
We have legitimate reasons to express our shame through acts of penance. The abuses that are so shocking are perpetrated by individuals. But as we point blame on individuals other than ourselves, we can identify and admit, too, our own corporate and personal guilt. Admitting our own shame may help us respond appropriately to the work in which we each must now seriously engage in order to understand and eliminate the anguishing situation before us.