Thursday, July 15, 2010

Another yawning failure

Another yawning failure
By Janice Kennedy, The Ottawa CitizenJuly 15, 2010 9:08 AM
As headline news, it's reached the same status as the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico: terrible, tragic, indescribably sad -- and so hopelessly, unrelentingly constant, it no longer commands our attention.

"Another church scandal? Another priest accused of sexually abusing minors? Ho hum. What's for dinner?"

That's a challenge for those of us who have written publicly about the issue before -- many times before -- voicing the rage and profound sense of betrayal so many ordinary people, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, have felt at revelations of priestly abuse. You don't like to keep harping on the same theme -- and yet, how can you not?

You hear about yet another priest in your own community. Eighty-year-old William Joseph Allen -- whose Ottawa-area workplaces included both a number of local parishes and, disturbingly, a high school -- has been charged with indecent assaults from the 1970s. Official Catholicdom is appropriately shocked, appalled and, in Ottawa Archbishop Terrence Prendergast's case, "deeply saddened."

The reaction, all very proper, says all the right things.

And yet. How do you ignore this latest revelation, no matter how commonplace such revelations have become, if you care about the protection of kids? How do you decide -- just because these stories have been in the news over and over again -- that you're no longer concerned about the criminality nestled, sometimes sheltered, in the heart of a vast global institution nominally dedicated to God?

Because it is criminality. Make no mistake. In civilized societies the world over, sexual assault and the sexual exploitation of minors are crimes that warrant conviction, condemnation and punishment. (And in my view, the sexual exploitation of minors by an unequivocally trusted authority figure is a crime for which there is no punishment too harsh or cruel. But that's beside the point.) Law-abiding societies do not permit such deeds to be dismissed as regrettable moments of weakness. They do not allow them to be brushed off as forgivable, if unfortunate, failings of the human flesh. They are crimes.

And yet that distinction seems to be something about which the official church is self-servingly unclear.

Consider the position articulated by Ottawa's Prendergast, another of the prelates hand-picked by the Vatican to continue the global archconservatization of the church, a process begun by John Paul II and continued so ably by Benedict XVI. Prendergast, who is headed to Ireland this fall at the pope's behest to teach the Irish church how to deal with sex scandals, has declared criminal justice an "option."

Victims of abuse, he said last fall, might want to consider that the church has long offered other avenues, beyond criminal investigation, for their complaints. (And that's turned out so well, hasn't it?)

"Some victims have chosen a process outside the criminal justice system," he said, adding encouragingly that "every inquiry will be treated justly and with discretion." (And, of course, with reduced public shame for the institution.)

Except we have a criminal code. Does the archbishop not care what it has to say about those who would "obstruct, pervert or defeat the course of justice?"

Today's conservative Catholics -- that is to say, the current church establishment and their devotees -- love to cite the words and actions of their church's founder in a most literal way. Jesus had 12 male apostles? Well, that must mean that women can never, ever become priests. Unencumbered by contextual thinking, these conservatives.

So how have so many of them (especially the ones calling the shots) managed to ignore that challenging line attributed to Jesus in three of their four gospels? I mean the one about not only rendering to God the things that are God's, but rendering to Caesar the things that are Caesar's.

Scholars have debated that admonition for centuries, and it is indeed open to myriad interpretations, from circumstantial to language-specific. But there should be little debate about the fundamental truth at the heart of it: the acknowledgement that we exist in a temporal world, a world with governments and taxes and legislation -- and that there are duties that come with living in it.

Among those duties? Obeying the law. Not sheltering those who break it. And not obstructing those who, when the law is broken, pursue justice.

Sadly, what we often get instead are weasel words from leaders whose reputed moral authority suggests they should know better. Prendergast, who would rather church victims didn't go public, is "deeply saddened" by the latest charges.

It's a textbook reaction straight from Damage Control 101, that set of responses the church has had to cobble together in recent years to deal with an unstoppable flow of ugly revelations.

Which, come to think of it, is not unlike BP's ineffectual caps on the toxic undersea gusher in the Gulf. It may no longer be newsworthy. But it remains vile.

Janice Kennedy writes here on Thursdays.

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