On April 25, 2002, the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Seattle purchased space in several newspapers to publish an "open letter" from Archbishop Brunett responding to the recent crisis of clergy sexual abuse of children and young people in the American Roman Catholic Church. As a Protestant pastor trained in a wonderful ecumenical ministry program at a Catholic university, I feel compelled to respond to that letter. The letter reveals what I take to be a sincere concern on the part of the Archbishop over the public’s response to the current crisis. There are, however, at least two problems with the response of the Church to this problem. The first is that it is indeed more concerned with the effect of the publicity of abuse on the institution of the Church than with the effect of the abuse itself on its victims. The second is that it does not recognize that the widespread sexual abuse of parishioners by Catholic clergy is a power issue not a sexual one. It is rooted not in celibacy but in the power structure of ministry generally and of the Roman Catholic Church in particular. Sexual abuse in all its forms, including this one, is fundamentally an abuse of power, not an abuse of sexuality.
Archbishop Brunett’s letter is above all an attempt to defend and protect the hierarchy of the Church. We see this intent in the very structure of the letter. The Archbishop, at the very beginning of the letter, identifies the problem as being the fact that the widespread publicity of priestly sexual abuse and the efforts to cover it up by certain bishops have "caused people within the church and the wider community to question the scope of the problem and to ask if the bishops of the nation have addressed the problem adequately in their own dioceses." The letter then goes into a self-congratulatory account of the way the Seattle Archdiocese has tried to address the problem in the past. We have three paragraphs of this self-justification before we get to a statement of "important values" that the Church holds around these issues. These values are good and appropriate. They list "the safety of children, youth, and vulnerable adults" first, as they should. They include pastoral care and outreach to victims, cooperation with secular authorities, due process for all, and treating every individual with respect and dignity. It is unfortunate, however, that they come only after a full page of discussion of institutional issues, which seem to have priority in the Archbishop’s mind.
The letter then goes into more than another full page of discussion of institutional concerns. Only on the third page of this letter to we come to this:
In fact, the priest enjoys a sacred trust unlike any and the violation of that trust has left untold damage in the hearts and lives of far too many individuals.The letter concludes with paragraphs praising the good work of most of the people in the Church, a pledge to do "all in our power to both regain and maintain the trust of our people...," and with a hope that "this crisis will serve as a wake-up call to both church and society to cherish the children of our communities, listen to their voices and hallow their dignity and worth...."
From this brief but I hope fair review of the Archbishop’s letter it is clear what his priorities are. For the Archbishop, the problem here is not that priests have abused children, it is that the community’s knowledge that priests have abused children is having negative consequences for the Church. The publicity around the abuse has caused people to question the integrity and the authority of the Church hierarchy. The Catholic hierarchy has a long and inglorious history of putting concern for its own authority first, as Gary Wills, a Catholic layman, has so powerfully demonstrated in his book Papal Sin. Archbishop Brunett’s letter, for all its good points, falls squarely into this dubious tradition. True pastoral concern for the people of the Church would put care for the victims first, not add it in almost as a footnote as Archbishop Brunett does in his letter.
The second problem with the letter is one of omission. It does not even raise the question of the root causes of the problem. At most there is an implication that the problem is a sexual one (it is referred to as "sexual abuse and misconduct") that represents a moral lapse by individual priests. Abuse certainly is a moral lapse by the person committing it. However, as Rev. Marie Fortune of the Center for the Prevention of Domestic and Sexual Violence in Seattle, a nationally recognized expert in this area, teaches, sexual abuse is not actually about sex. It is about power. It is a boundary violation by one in a power relationship toward another. All of us who are called as pastors, whatever our faith tradition, stand in a relationship of power vis-à-vis our parishioners. My experience tells me, however, that the temptation of power is a much greater issue in the Catholic tradition than it is in my own Congregational tradition in the United Church of Christ. In Catholic teaching, the Church is the depositum fidei, the depository of the faith. The Church holds the truth, indeed, it holds the keys to heaven. The Church offers salvation, which can be found only in the Church. Cardinal Ratzinger and Pope John Paul II have recently restated the doctrine that the fullness of God’s grace can be found only in the Catholic Church. The Church has what the people need. The Church may give it or withhold it. In the local parish, the Church is personified in the priest. Although in Catholic theory the Church is actually the people of the Church rather than merely the hierarchy, in practice and in Catholic culture the Church is the hierarchy, and the hierarchy’s local representative is the priest. These aspects of Catholic doctrine and practice put the priest in a position of tremendous power.
Clergy abuse of parishioners exists in all religious traditions. Although I have seen no study on the issue, it appears to me likely that the extent of the abuse is directly proportional to the extent of the clergy’s power in a particular tradition. It seems to me that the problem is so severe in the Catholic Church because of the enormous power Catholic doctrine and culture give to the priest. I have seen nothing in the Church’s response to the abuse crisis that recognizes this fact. Archbishop Brunett’s letter certainly does not. In other words, the Church’s response does not recognize the institutional dimension of the causes of the problem. It recognizes only the institutional dimension of the consequences of the problem. Unless the Church addresses the causes as well as the effects, a solution will remain elusive.