Eight years ago in our urban Catholic parish in Connecticut, a teenager I’ll call Elizabeth started a club for girls. Small but fortunate in its members, the club survived Elizabeth’s departure for the Naval Academy. Another well-formed, homeschooled teenager took her place, and when she in turn left for Franciscan University in Steubenville, my daughter, who will be entering college in the fall, became president.
In the beginning, the club met in the Parish Hall. Anywhere from six to twelve girls, aged ten to eighteen, would sit around a small table, reading the Bible together or making cards for the residents of a nursing home they visited monthly. They would share snacks and devise skits, pray the rosary, and celebrate one another’s birthdays. The older girls mentored the younger girls, modeling for them the endangered truth that a girl can be both sophisticated and innocent, devout and fun. On Holy Days, they attended Mass together. They studied the saints, went on field trips, dedicated themselves to Mary.
Eventually, there was a conflict. The Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a religious education program for three- to six-year-olds, needed the hall on the same afternoon, and our girls asked for and received from our pastor permission to meet on an enclosed stage in the same hall, far enough from the younger children that noise wasn’t a problem. This stage area turned out to be a kind of teenage heaven, with comfortable sofas, a kitchen in the rear, and its own bathroom. In the wake of the sexual-abuse scandals in the Church, one or more mothers, our backgrounds checked and cleared by the relevant authorities, would sit outside an open door, keeping an eye on the club but also trying to preserve its charism, which was about peer formation, taking responsibility, and making the life of the Church their own.
Summer came, and the club didn’t meet. In August, referred by our pastor to a lay brother I’ll call Giles, I asked if the same arrangement would obtain in the fall. Not meeting my eyes, he said briefly that the girls could continue to meet but not on the stage. They could meet in the library next door, a dark masculine room whose dimensions are almost entirely taken up by a table.
A day later, gathering my courage, I telephoned Brother Giles, explained my concerns, and asked why the girls couldn’t meet on the stage. An abstract, evasive explanation followed, tinged with bitterness, in which the word “bifurcation” figured prominently. No two groups could meet in the same space at the same time, he said. An adult male organization, for example, couldn’t meet in the hall at the same time as the catechesis.
I was still confused, so finally he said what he meant: Our girls couldn’t meet on the stage on Wednesday afternoons because of the possibility that they might molest the younger children.
I was too stunned to make the obvious objections—the physical distance between the two groups; their entirely separate facilities; the intermediary presence of watchful adults. I simply blurted, “But Brother, some of those children are our girls’ younger brothers and sisters!”
“Oh,” he said grimly, “that’s no objection unfortunately.”
Five years after the news of the sexual-abuse crisis in the Church broke, it’s worth looking at what has happened in its aftermath. How did it happen, I wonder, that a crisis involving the priesthood turned into a stick with which to discipline the laity? Was this incident involving our girls an anomaly? Was it in line with official guidelines, or was there a question of interpretation? Is there a new, more widespread resentment of the laity by the clergy, occasioned by the clergy’s perceived vulnerability to accusations from the pews?
Has the Church, in the aftermath of the crisis, veered from denial and disbelief to the dangerous countermeasure of habitually imagining the worst and constraining community in order to avoid it?
That fall, when the girls began to meet in the library, I attended a workshop called, ambiguously, Protecting God’s Children for Adults, a “ Virtus program ” created by the National Catholic Risk Retention Group (a self-insurance company owned by more than fifty dioceses in the United States). The group created such programs in the late 1990s to “better control risk” and “promote rightdoing within religious organizations.” In 2002, when the bishops in Dallas mandated “safe-environment programs” in every diocese, these Virtus programs began to be adopted by dioceses and archdioceses across the country.
Picking from a wide menu—workshops were offered nearly every weekend in our diocese, as they had to be, given the requirement that every adult working with children attend one—I chose a three-hour Saturday morning session at a nearby suburban parish. When I arrived, forty or fifty adults were already seated on folding chairs in a tiled hall, wearing name tags, drinking coffee, and chatting.
The religious-education teachers, youth leaders, and seminarians were given handouts about the Virtus programs, as well as a thick pamphlet called Code of Ministerial Behavior: For Personnel of the Archdiocese.
Waiting for the program to begin, I read through the code and was encouraged. Its primary standard seemed to be the presence of multiple adults at church-related activities for minors, but the standard wasn’t taken to destructive extremes. It didn’t apply when someone needed immediate pastoral care, for example, and, even for scheduled counseling sessions and activities, so long as a door was left open a second adult could simply be present in the general vicinity. When more than one group was meeting at the same time in the same building (I especially noted this), the second adult could simply be present to the second group.
The workshop began and we broke into groups, introduced ourselves, and were beginning to talk when, solemn and unsmiling, the husband and wife who were facilitating the session called us to attention, turned down the lights, and started a video.
This video, it turned out, is the core of the Virtus workshops. It was shown to us in two parts, and after each part the facilitators elicited from us rephrasings of what we had learned, wrote key phrases in marking pen on large sheets of paper, tore off the sheets, and taped them on the walls around us.
The video itself opens with portentous music and an ominous voice-over. It is both real and contrived, true and acted. It features both actors and real people playing parts: victims and monsters. The victims describe their humiliation. The predators elaborate their evil stratagems. There is a boy abused at church camp by a counselor; a young woman abused as a child by a woman teacher; a girl, flanked by her parents, who describes being abused by a priest; and a young man abused as a boy by a family friend.
As for the abusers—actual child molesters whose rehabilitation was made contingent upon their cooperation—one is a family man who abused his sons’ friends, and the other is a roller-skating instructor who preyed on little girls. The particular problem of sexual abuse in the Church, in other words, with its special feature of clerical homosexuality, is generalized in the video into an overwhelming, generic problem, and the message communicated is: anyone, anywhere.
Indeed, these are the opening words of the film, that zoom toward us against a black background. The video is a melodrama, in short, straining for an effect. And the effect is fear and loathing.
If the guidelines from Hartford encouraged me by their balance, this video depressed me. After the first segment, when the husband facilitator was disabusing us of the myth that child abusers are primarily homosexual, I raised my hand and said that that might be true generally, but, in fact, in the crisis in the Church, the acts of abuse were primarily homosexual acts, which was why Rome was taking a fresh look at the seminaries.
The man stared at me. He seemed confused and uncomfortable, so I mentioned the John Jay report and Fr. Richard John Neuhaus’ columns in First Things , at which point he brushed me aside, saying quickly, “Well, this isn’t about the Church. The Church is taking care of itself.” Not about the Church? Perhaps he meant to say, “This isn’t about the priesthood” but was embarrassed by the presence of the seminarians.
The video continued with more of the same. Afterward there were horrified exclamations, curled lips, and expressed scorn for the featured predators who, seemingly without remorse, but where, I wondered, was there any place for remorse in that script?—shared with us their darkest inclinations. The mood in the room hardened and increasingly strenuous measures began to be proposed, including a suggestion that older children always be kept segregated from younger children.
Driving home, I was more discouraged than I have ever been since becoming a Catholic, even more discouraged than by the abuse crisis itself. How did it happen, I wondered again, that a specific problem demanded such a global solution? If catechists abusing children were a significant problem in the Church, surely the media would have alerted us? It might be commendable for the Church to try to educate everyone about the problem of sexual abuse, but is it prudent? Is it the best use of resources?
In his little book A Brief Reader on the Virtues of the Human Heart, Joseph Pieper distinguishes between true and false prudence: between the clean, impartial, and upright faculty of the spirit that transforms the knowledge of reality into the accomplishment of the good, and false prudence, or excessive cleverness, that is always in some sense “tactical,” always anxiously concerned with its own survival.
Into which category did the workshop I had just attended fall? Was it an appropriate, constructive response to a problem, or was it an evasion, a defensive strategy, or a public-relations maneuver? Put another way, what was the main motive behind the making of the video? Was it to protect children, or was it to provide the National Catholic Risk Retention Group’s shareholders with the “finest, most cost-efficient and effective risk-control measures available”?
When a woman raised her hand and asked what she should do if she was alone in a room and a child came to her in tears— “Should I run out of the room?”—the answer was yes. She should leave the room and look for another adult. We have to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, the facilitator said, because “the Church has to protect itself.”
The Virtus literature tells us that the National Catholic Risk Retention Group invited “prominent national experts” to Washington to discuss the problem of child sex abuse. A committee was created to oversee the development of programs, which committee, again, was assisted by a “steering committee of nationally known experts and program and service advisors.” Am I wrong to infer that some of these advising individuals were not Catholic, or at least that their Catholicism was not what especially recommended them?
How long, I wonder, before the Church learns her lessons? After Vatican II, ecumenical commissions interpreted the documents of the council to the world. Did that end well? For years, abusive priests were farmed out to therapeutic experts for rehabilitation. Did that end well? If the Church aspires to be open to the world, so far so good, but should she be subject to it? If, for example, she desires input from the social sciences, should she not take what she receives under advisement and scrutinize it in the light of faith? Shouldn’t there be more to a Catholic teaching than alarming interviews and “The Five Warning Signs of Potential Abuse”?
According to the John Jay report, sexual abuse in the Church peaked in the 1970s and declined dramatically afterward, giving these programs the look of an expensive inoculation campaign both directed at the wrong population and undertaken after the disease has run its course. The only sure effect of the remedy, and of the climate of fear and defensiveness that produced it, is a widespread diminishment of parish life.
Everyone has a story. A priest friend of mine was assigned to a parish in New York City only to discover that his predecessor, in a panic, had eliminated every program involving children. There were no altar servers; there was no religious education. Everything was gone. A woman in another Connecticut parish was forbidden by her pastor to drive her students to a soup kitchen. Another woman, in another parish, couldn’t take a group of teenagers to see The Passion.
In parish after parish, programs have been curtailed or eliminated. When the bishops in Dallas went too far, essentially stripping priests of due process with their policy of zero tolerance, Rome eventually stepped in, restoring balance and justice. Who will step in on behalf of the laity, whose innocence in so many cases is being impugned? Who, in effect, will speak for our girls? “You can’t have community without trust,” I murmured at the workshop, but by that point the momentum was all the other way.
You can’t have community without trust; you can’t have life without risk. When did the Church begin to forget this? The problem didn’t originate with the current crisis. When I became a Catholic twelve years ago, what disappointed me most was Jesus locked in the churches. Having found him in the Eucharist, I wanted to visit him in the tabernacle. I would be traveling; I would see a Catholic church and stop; the church would be locked. This was truer in the suburbs than in the cities. In rural communities, it seemed an absolute law. It’s the problem of vandalism, everyone said. We can’t risk it. But where did the Church get the idea that she can avoid sin and suffering in this world? Is this the assumption embedded in the words zero tolerance? If so, we have a serious theological problem.
Another year has passed, and the girls are still meeting in the library. In the parish hall, there is a lock on the stage door. There will be a new pastor in the fall. Perhaps he will see things differently. In the meantime, catechesis goes forward, by one means or another. “Why do they want to discourage us?” my daughter asked me recently. “Why don’t they want to encourage us?” So I read to her from Romano Guardini:
The individual bears the Church in his faith, both her power and her weight . . . . She bears him and weighs him down. Her life nourishes him. Her immensity humbles him. Her breadth enlarges him. Her wisdom gives him a rule of life . . . . Her formalism blocks him; her coldness hardens him; and whatever is violent, selfish, hard, or vulgar about the Church has an influence on the faith of the individual, so that he sometimes seems obliged to sustain the cause of God, not only in the darkness of the world, but also in that of the Church.
Still, the Church must remember to be the Church and speak her God-given language of sin and forgiveness, justice and mercy. If she leaves anything out—if she stresses justice at the expense of mercy, or vice versa—she is no longer the Church; she is simply reflecting a mood.
When I remember the video, what haunts me as much as the suffering of the victims is the portrait of the abusers, reduced to their sin, as if they were nothing more. The actor who plays the father of the girl abused by a priest calls the priest a monster. Nothing else in the video disputes or softens this word. At the end of the workshop, when the facilitator asked if anyone believed that the abusers could change—if they could be “rehabilitated”—the silence was complete. “Well, maybe,” someone said finally, “if it’s a chemical imbalance. Maybe there will be a drug.” That was all. There wasn’t even lip service paid to grace, conversion, or penance. Spiritually, the abusers were consigned to the dustbin.
All over America Catholics are dutifully digesting this overgeneralized, profoundly risk-averse, theologically corrupt video. It is screened in parish halls, required by archdioceses. Is it any wonder if people confuse it with church teaching?
The Church failed to protect children from sexual abuse. Bad as that was, there is worse, since protecting children is not an end in itself for the Church. From a Catholic point of view, when people are abused in the Church, they may be torn from the life of the Church, whose teaching and sacraments they need. Disillusioned and alienated, they may take scandal according to Guardini’s definition, and reject for secondary reasons what should be affirmed for primary reasons. And what if the Church, as she tries to mend her mistakes, is in danger of doing the same thing?
In every age the Church’s mission, like John the Baptist’s, is to go before the Lord, giving his people knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of their sins. If the Church fails in this, her ultimate task, even those clamoring for justice now will go elsewhere in the end, looking for mercy.
Patricia Snow is a writer in New Haven, Connecticut.