Day of Healing Colloquium, St. Mary’s Church, December 16, 2018, by R.M. Douglas
R.M. Douglas, a parishioner at St Mary's for the past twenty-three years, is the Russell Colgate Distinguished University Professor of History at Colgate, and executive director of the Foundation for the Study of Male Rape and Sexual Assault. His most recent book, "On Being Raped," published by Beacon Press in 2016, deals with his own experience of sexual violence as a young man at the hands of a Catholic priest. In addition to his academic work, Dr Douglas has served as a consultant to colleges and universities seeking to reduce the level of sexual offending on campus. He will be speaking on the theme of “An Examination of Conscience.”
I'm speaking here today first and foremost as a member of this parish, and as a Catholic who is committed to the Church and to the spread of the gospel. Secondly, I speak, as the Reverend Hage said, as someone who, as a young man, experienced sexual violence at the hands of a Catholic priest, a serial offender who was eventually convicted for some of his crimes. I don't intend to say much about that at this moment, though I'll be happy to address it in the panel discussion if anyone wishes. Thirdly, I speak as a scholar who researches and publishes on these matters in the course of my professional career, and again I can elaborate on that if required.
I'd like to take a second to summarise where we stand at this point in the clerical sexual assault crisis. We are now in the fourth decade since it became a matter of public concern in the mid-1980s. Long before the Boston Globe published its first article on the subject, it had already caused the government of my home country, Ireland, to collapse. Revelations in Canada, especially in the provinces of Newfoundland and Ontario, have done immense damage to the Church there from the late 1980s onward. In Australia, a Royal Commission found that 7% of priests in that country between 1950 and 2010 had accusations of child sexual assault against them, a figure that's likely considerably to understate the true scale of sexual offending because, among other things, it doesn't include perpetrators who targeted adult victims. Things have become so out of control in Chile that earlier this year all 33 of the country's bishops offered their resignation. The story is in no significant respect different in Germany, the Netherlands, the Philippines, Poland, and many other places around the world.
The same uniform pattern is seen in the Catholic response to these crimes. Worldwide, there are around 5,300 Catholic bishops, each of whom has the same level of authority within his own diocese as the Pope exercises over the Church as a whole. In not a single one of those dioceses, to my knowledge, did the bishop take the initiative to address sexual offending until forced to do so by the civil authorities. In fact, even down to the level of parish priest and curate, we struggle mightily to find those who did anything to protect their flocks before the police officers and the lawsuits started showing up. In most countries, one can almost count on one's fingers and toes those who spontaneously did the right thing, and still have plenty of digits left over.
This tells us something worth knowing. What has gone so catastrophically wrong in our Church is not confined to just a few countries. It is not confined to the pre- or post-Vatican II cohort. It's not confined to theological conservatives or liberals. It is not confined to religious orders or the secular priesthood. It's not confined to one papacy or another. In short, it is not a failure of individual bishops or priests who fouled up because of their own personal shortcomings. It is a structural failure.
It has also become, with a good degree of justification, what our Church today is chiefly known for. It has done our reputation so much damage because it has exposed not something false about the Catholic Church, but something true. Our deeds have not lived up to our words, in a matter that secular society, rightly, considers of great importance. In this matter non-Christians and non-believers have been a considerable distance ahead of us, both ethically and intellectually. Our collective response to these revelations has been by turns defensive, antagonistic, obtuse, tone-deaf and, far too often, deliberately and calculatedly untruthful. We find ourselves as a result in the paradoxical and completely unsustainable position of claiming
moral leadership while having forfeited our moral authority in the eyes of society as a whole. To put the matter in a nutshell, nobody who is not a Catholic is prepared to believe, while we insist on being wrong on this matter, that we are right about anything else.
I suggest to you that this is not a short-term difficulty that we can afford to forget about as memories of the Pennsylvania report fade into the background. That won't work for two reasons. The first is practical. There will be many more reports like Pennsylvania's, and worse ones, coming out for many years to come. The second reason, from a Catholic perspective, is far more important. What this crisis has flagged up is a disastrous failure on our part, both individually and institutionally, to live out the message of the Gospel. We are not entitled to treat it as a mere public-relations problem. Nor are we entitled to avoid asking ourselves the most serious and searching of questions as to how we placed ourselves in this situation, and what the God we serve now requires of us by way of addressing it.
Catholics especially should be familiar with this process, and how to go about doing it. We call it an examination of conscience. To this point, nearly forty years into the public phase of this crisis, it is something that as a community we have not yet done, or even recognised the necessity of doing. But whenever we are confronted with our own sinfulness—and I'm sorry to say that the evidence of those sins, both of commission and of omission, is all around us—we are called upon to reflect, as the Confiteor we all recited just a couple of hours ago puts it, on "what we have done and what we have failed to do," and, having done that, to make a firm purpose of amendment.
This is not a responsibility that we can, or are entitled to, hand off to those in Holy Orders. In Catholicism, the call to act in justice and charity is made to each one of us personally. The failure of Church leaders to discharge their duty as Christians toward victims of sexual violence does not dispense lay Catholics from the performance of their own duty as Christians. The global clerical sexual assault scandal is the most serious and damaging crisis to affect the Church in the lifetime of the current generation. Initiatives to address it, to trace its causes and to bind up the wounds of those hurt by it constitute a vital and indispensable component of Christian renewal. If the hierarchy or the clergy fail to act, it is the duty of the laity to see to it that the task is carried out just the same.
It is, in fact, our duty as a community of believers here in Hamilton, NY. We don't have the ability to fix the Church as a whole; that will be the work of a generation at least, if not several. But we're not called upon to fix the Church as a whole. We're called upon to respond as Jesus Christ would, and as He wants us to do on His behalf, to the victims of sexual violence who are all around us. Most of them do not, as I did, have clerical perpetrators. That doesn't matter. Their suffering, their isolation and their grief are every bit as great.
For too long—in fact for our entire ecclesiastical history—we've behaved as though they didn't exist, and as though we had no obligations as Christians toward them: not even to pray for them out loud. That has to end. So too must our reluctance both to listen—especially to women, who are disproportionately affected by this problem—and to speak. Above all we are bound to educate ourselves, so that we can effectively bear one another's burdens as we are instructed to do. In light not just of what has happened, but of what we profess to be and Who we claim to serve, we are morally bound to become the best-informed, not the most ignorant; the most- supportive, not the most insensitive; and the most-active, not the most indifferent, institution
engaged in addressing sexual violence. Finding ways of doing that in our own individual spheres is a responsibility of every one of us.
Copyright © 2018 R.M. Douglas. All rights reserved. Posted to https://stmarysandstjoans.orgwith permission.