Profiles in Catholicism
 
Commentary
When Will the Stories Stop? Why They Can’t.
by Rev. Louis J Cameli


Editor's Note: Father Cameli authored this article in 2012. It is being featured at this time because of the Twitterverse comments with the 88th Annual Academy Awards for Spotlight as Best Picture of the Year.


 

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I have a very personal stake in all the media coverage of clergy sexual misconduct with minors. I am a priest. I am currently the director of ongoing formation for priests in the Archdiocese of Chicago. For twenty-two years I taught and served as a spiritual director at Mundelein Seminary, the theologate of the Archdiocese.

“I’d like to get up some morning, open the paper, and not find a story about priests and bishops and sexual misconduct,” a priest told me recently. I know the feelings. They’re mine too. And I’ve asked myself, when will the stories stop? I’ve concluded that they won’t, not for a long time. The misconduct and the mishandling of the misconduct will stop or be radically reduced. In fact, that has already happened in large measure. The stories in newspapers, on TV, in magazines, and on the radio, however, will not stop. They can’t. Some obvious things fuel the media engines, but there are buried and hidden realities in play as well.

It’s a Big and Important Story

When children and young people are harmed physically, psychologically, and spiritually, that is a big and important story. When those who harm them are among those responsible for their safety and development, the story becomes deeply troubling and urgent. When the safety net of supervision and management that ought to protect children and hold perpetrators accountable gives way and allows the whole system to crash, the story encompasses enormous human and moral failure.

This is a big and important story. On its own terms and especially in its horrific dimensions, it compels those who report the news to relay the story to as wide a public as possible. All of us are indebted to the media for bringing the story of clergy sexual misconduct with minors and the subsequent missteps taken by Church leaders into full public view. In a recent essay in The New Republic [May 6, 2002, p. 6], Peter Beinart correctly notes that members of the American opinion industry really have little to say about the scandal that envelopes the Church, because those outside the Church cannot appropriately identify who should take the blame or what lesson should be drawn from it all. At the same time, Beinart says, “Only secular newspapers have the resources to uncover what pedophile priests and their superiors did. And although the Church may want that information kept private, newspapers rightly operate on the assumption that the more information the public has, the better.”

Remember, too, that the story centers on the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. This is a major institution of national significance that claims the allegiance of nearly twenty-five per cent of the population. Seismic shifts within that religious institution easily achieve high newsworthy status.

Obviously, the reporting is not a uniformly objective and detached account of events, actors, and victims. Coverage has veered into sensationalized sound bites to lure a jaded readership or viewing audience into paying attention. A local Chicago TV station announced just before a commercial break: “A priest of the Archdiocese of Chicago serving in the suburbs has been withdrawn from ministry. Is it your pastor? Stay tuned.” So much for the news as a helpful service to inform the public.

Another unhelpful pattern of reporting parallels coverage of other high profile stories. It is the sound loop. Instead of advancing information with new details or additional facts, sound loop coverage stays content with endless repetition of the same information. Think of the Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton story. Think of the classic Saturday Night Live bit of “Buckwheat has been shot.” Sound loops are all over the place in the story of clerical sexual misconduct with minors. In this pattern, even The New York Times is not exempt and thinks repeated news is fit to print.

As Peter Beinart indicated, media are not content just to report the news of this immensely sad story, they move irresistibly into commentary, opinions, and even practical recommendations. I’ve seen this before. When I was a newly-arrived student in Italy in the sixties, I wondered why the newspapers there did not have editorial pages as we did in America. A Roman classmate explained to me that every story carried not only a news report but commentary and opinion as well. No need for editorials, because they were stitched into the news accounts. This is a style of journalism, legitimate in certain quarters but probably not so helpful in dealing with the volatile subject of clerical sexual misconduct with minors and scores of botched responses to it.For the moment, let’s just concede the limitations of the media’s coverage of the current scandal in the Church. I have noted some of these limitations, and there are probably others as well. Still, I would vigorously affirm that the story deserves the intense reporting it has been given. It is a big and important story, just by common sense standards: children, damage, inept management, institutional credibility. The stories will not stop. They cannot. They ought not.

Gotcha: Claiming the Moral High Ground

It is no secret that most American intellectual types and many of their cousins in media share a common ethos. This looks like shared values that center on personal autonomy and self-fulfillment personally defined with some nods toward liberty and justice for all and a vigorous shake of the head for the pursuit of happiness. Then in this enlightened, modern, and post-modern company steps a most unwelcome guest, the Catholic Church and its moral teaching which is personally annoying and socially retrograde. And this church represents a threat to be taken seriously, namely, that we can fall back into dark ages and lose the gains of the last several centuries.

There is no animus toward Catholics. They are, after all, among everyone’s best friends. It is the Catholic Church which stirs the trouble: fighting abortion rights, forbidding condoms to fight AIDS, trying to block cloning for therapeutic purposes, critiquing unbridled capitalism, offering alternatives in education, sponsoring hospitals that ignore reproductive rights, decrying the death penalty, and urging that immigrants be given a break. The Catholic Church claims not only to be a moral voice among other voices, it dares to proclaim the norm of authentic morality not only for Catholics but for everyone.

 Now with a major story of a sexual and a leadership scandal in the Church, who can claim the moral high ground if not those who have always advocated a freer approach to sexuality and a dose of democracy in every corner of life? There is immense sadness in  broken victims of abuse, in the pathology of abusers, and in the shattered trust of faithful Catholics. At the same time, for some so grievously offended by the Church’s moral positions, there are huge quantities of Schadenfreude, not so much caused by the sufferings of innocents but by the unveiling of institutionalized hypocrisy.

This is an obvious reason why the stories do not stop, why they cannot. A fuller, more extensive, and often repeated narrative of the leadership failures and moral lapses of the Catholic Church in the United States is the necessary instrument to disabuse the American people of Catholic moral positions at variance with the very prospect of the forward movement of this enlightened republic.

For all Catholic people in the United States but especially for bishops and priests, this is a dark hour. Still, in the darkness a grace is growing that invites all of us to a renewed integrity so that we can be more transparent witnesses to values which we firmly believe will save this beloved nation. In the meanwhile, the stories will continue, in part as legitimate reporting but also in part as instruments to discredit the Church’s moral voice.

All this, so far, is fairly clear and obvious. There are two other elements that fuel the stories, and they are far from clear and obvious.  

The Secret Sorrow that Dwells Deep within Us

Priests in Chicago, and elsewhere I imagine, have been addressing the current crisis prompted by the scandal in their Sunday homilies. Recently, a young priest, one of my former students, told me about his experience of preaching on clergy sexual misconduct. He spoke forthrightly about the shame and the sin when clergy robbed young people of their innocence. Then he took a turn the congregation did not expect. He looked at them and spoke directly to them. He wondered about the others who were abused, not by priests but other trusted people in their lives. He wondered if some of those victims of abuse might not be there. At this point, as he related it to me, a strange and thick silence came over the congregation. He had touched a secret sorrow that sadly dwells deep in many people.

A religious sister told me a similar story. She was in conversation with a woman and shared a thought about abuse as a reality more common than we would expect. At that moment, the sister told me of the same kind of deep silence that came over the woman and something in her eyes that spoke of immense sorrow, although she never said a word.

I think abuse and its companion, betrayal, is very common but also very unspoken. This deep, silent sadness which is the result of abuse also fuels the stories of clerical sexual misconduct in newspapers and on TV. There may be coverage because it is a big and important story and even because it exploits hostility toward Catholic moral positions. But at some point, people tire of reading and seeing the same thing. The coverage slows, eventually the stories stop. These stories are not stopping, perhaps in part because of the hidden undercurrent of wounded history carried by so many people. It does not, of course, all have to do with priests. Those like priests, however, in positions of closeness and trust have betrayed the little ones. And those who have suffered and are still steeped in sorrow and silence come back to today’s stories over and over again with a hope of finding some sense and some resolution. Another, hidden reason why the stories do not stop.

There is more to this, a piece we are so reluctant to admit. For all those who silently carry the secret wounds of abuse, there are those who abused them. They, too, are among us. They, too, more likely than not carry a deep and secret and silent sorrow for what they have done in thought, word, and deed. They, too, search the current stories probably over and over again to try to find some sense and resolution.

 The world of unreported personal histories is a shadow world. We do not easily navigate it, because the darkness is compounded by the loneliness. Paradoxically, the Church which has come to represent for many an intense source of pain, could become the safe place where secrets, silence, and old wounds could come unfurled. The Church could be the place where a community could break through the painful isolation of a life-long shame. Perhaps that possibility for the Church is another grace growing in the darkness.

Because abuse is deep and extensive in many lives, hidden and painful in ways many of us can scarcely imagine, when it surfaces in media coverage it draws attention and continues to draw attention. The stories do not stop.

Destabilization for Everyone

There is another, final reason—I believe—why the stories will not stop and cannot stop. It stretches across the whole landscape of the nation, it affects everyone. But it is quite hidden. First, some history.

The Second Vatican Council brought major changes to the Catholic Church, an obvious fact but whose implications are not always fully appreciated. Change is difficult, and change in religious institutions which provide stable reference points for believers can be especially difficult. The major negative reactions to the changes initiated by the Council, we would assume, belonged to traditional Catholics. That is partly true, but it does not reflect the whole story. The Council and the changes it launched involving everything from liturgy to church organization deeply disturbed many Protestants as well. Why was this so?

For many Protestants the Catholic Church had been a stable (think four hundred years) point of reference. Whatever their particular cut—they might hate the Church, admire it, imitate, fight it, vilify it, or inch toward it—many Protestants still found the Catholic Church to be a necessary point of reference for their own identity. They were, after all, protesting something, standing in contrast to another reality. The changes ushered in by the Council destabilized that reference point. And, as a consequence, it caused great unease, perhaps deep distress for numerous Protestant believers.

I suspect that something similar is happening today. Although the ex professo secularized newspaper and TV reporters cannot bear to admit it, they are proposing a story that destabilizes them and the entire country as much as it shakes the Catholic Church in the United States. In the chiaroscuro triggered by shame and confusion, the Church in this nation emerges as a shaken point of transcendent and moral reference.

As much as intellectual types proclaim a post-modern relativist ethic, as much as Boomers and others maintain deeply embedded suspicions of all institutions, as much as a value-free and profit-driven driven techno-economy seems to overtake us, we—all of us—have not lost our need for values, purpose, and hope.

The Catholic Church in the United States because of its sheer size and its traditions and symbols so deeply anchored in our collective history has been a necessary reference point. People may love the Church, hate it, fight it, imitate it, vilify it, or admire it distantly. Whatever their stance, it remains a very powerful reference point whether or not it is explicitly acknowledged as such.

The current scandals in the Church have destabilized that reference point, and we all suffer the consequences—believers and non-believers alike. Is not that—that hidden and perhaps buried role the Church plays in the United States—sufficient to keep the stories coming? It is. And so the stories will not stop. They cannot.

What to Do 

Nothing pleases me more than to offer practical possibilities to people who are struggling with questions or problems. It is in my blood to help people. When I stand before this current situation, my arsenal of bright ideas shrinks and disappears. I really do not know what to do or what to suggest. There are plenty of proposals circulating around, some of them are sound and commonsensical: protect children by establishing uniform screening and supervisory features in the Church, care for victims of abuse, and be forthright in administration. Other proposals use this sad platform to advance other agendas. Deep down, however, at a point of recognizing a fundamental destabilization has occurred for all of us, there is little to do.

Spiritual writers who speak of discernment develop a contrast. It is one thing to figure things out, it is quite another to discover God’s truth emerging in our lives. The former requires a rigorous application of our intelligence, the latter noticing, watching, and waiting in trust.

While the stories go on, as they will and as they must, we ought to set aside our bright ideas and try to catch God’s truth as it will inevitably dawn.

© 2012 by Louis J Cameli