Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Tyrants as Superiors


I had an interesting email from a friend, the Catholic wife of Anglican clergyman, they have been having trouble with the Archdeacon, and her husband has joined a trade union, to protect his “rights”, which I suppose if you are married with three children is quite important. However it seems a very strange way to go about things among Christians, to involve a secular institution, like a trade union.

Within the Catholic Church, the relationship between bishop and priest, is essentially feudal, it some religious communities or dioceses, it can be oppressively so. For some reason lately I have come across situations of grave injustice within the Catholic Church. Summorum Pontificum has highlighted how some bishops trample on priests rights to celebrate the TLM, I am not going to go over the widely reported abuses by a few bishops in the UK.

One of the areas where priests suffer is the whole area of unsubstantiated sexual abuse, a single allegation and you are in the desert, possibly, forever. It is obviously important to protect children and the vulnerable but priests too have rights, and still there must, even in 21st century draconian England, and most especially within the Church, that just society, a presumption of innocence.

But it is not this that the concerns me here, it is the absence of any forum to ensure justice, to save an inferior from the arbitrary decision of a superior. The eccentric action of two Italian Carmelites who chained themselves outside St Peter’s Square raised lots of questions. I remember one elderly French religious, who previous superiors had allowed to live a solitary life, being told he could no longer eat apart from the community, saying “The Nazis could not break me, nor will Father Superior”. He had been tortured by the Nazis, his refusal to eat with the community led to him starve, after four or five days the superior gave in. It took that long.

One hears of elderly religious being forced out of communities, sometimes into other communities, sometimes literally onto the streets, simply because they are a bit difficult, or don’t fit in.

Bishops can send priests who they simply don’t like, to distant, sometimes difficult parishes. A friend of mind in rather vulnerable spiritual and emotional state was sent to a difficult chaplaincy, to replace a priest who had just been arrested for abusing children. He wondered why people were avoiding him; it took him a couple of months to find out why, the bishop hadn't bothered. His next appointment was to a parish his diocese wanted to close, again as a punishment, he tripled the congregation, eventually he left the diocese and ended up by joining a religious community.

The point I am making is that clergy and religious live on the whim of their superior. A priest, a religious, can appeal to Rome on a particular issue and although one might win a case, one has to live with the bishop or superior. Summorum Pontificum is interesting from a canonical point of view; I would like to read someone else’s opinion, in that it restricts the power of bishops in favour of the priest, and encourages the laity to have direct access to Rome, the only post VII document to do so.

The Church’s presumption is that all superiors are the epitome of charity and justice, but what if he or she is a tyrant or mad or simply bad? There is no recourse; one simply has to live with the consequences. Some religious congregations have a mechanism for deposing superiors, but these are cumbersome. I have only heard of one bishop being deposed, and he really was mad.

9 comments:

Philip said...

The situation involving sexual abuse has troubled me greatly, having known someone, against whom a false allegation was made. However, it took nearly twelve months to come to court and the evidence and testimony of the plaintiff so flimsy, that the case fell apart during the first day. The alleged incident was over twenty years old. The judge was scathing of both the accuser and the Police. That said, from the moment the allegation was made, the Church authorities went into the most appalling draconian mode. The diocesan child protection officer was nothing short of a Nazi. I’m sorry to be intemperate, but that’s how it was. While the Church treated this individual as guilty, parishioners and friends rushed to his defence. They wrote numerous letters to the bishop, none of which were even acknowledged. Over fifty people from the parish travelled over a hundred miles to support this person in court. After the trial’s collapse, the person was a broken man, and even then, received no apology from the bishop.

The number of “bad” priests is minimal and yet the ecclesiastical authorities lend credence, by their over zealous action, to the belief that priests are sexually deviant. I can think of no more terrible thing for a priest (or anyone else, for that matter) to endure. God bless our clergy!

big benny said...

It is a terrible experience to be accused of sexual abuse (or anything for that matter), particuarly if you are innocent. However the point of due process is that it must be followed and all allegations must be seriously investigated. In the past, the biggest problem was that disclosures of abuse were not taken seriously or even documented allowing abusers to continue unstopped and unchallenged. If the bishop follows the proper process then he has nothing to apologise for; innocence or guilt is declared at the end of the due process - it is not the personal decision of anyone person or bishop. There have been recent changes to the safeguarding policies in E&W to give greater safeguards to those wrongly accused of allegations. I work in the public sector and it is normal practice to be suspended pending investigation (or seconded to another post where possible). Unfortunately this is the world we live in, however it is better than past times when the abused were effectively powerless to bring allegations to light. As professionals, we must accept that we are in virtue of our positions, in a position of power. These are part of the risks we face in doing our jobs; priests are no different. We must accept that these legal safeguards are there to protect us as much as vulnerable individuals.

Philip said...

Big Benny, I shall tell that to the "No smoke without fire brigade".

Dominic said...

A similar situation arises frequently in regard to teachers. It must be acknowledged that serious accusations towards professionals must be taken seriously and investigated thoroughly, but perhaps the worst aspect is that there is no right of anonymity while the investigation or trial takes place. Because of the serious nature of these sorts of allegations there is a presumption of guilt in some situations even where the case is dismissed. For someone's reputation to be destroyed in this way by rumour or in local newspapers is in its self a terrible injustice. Yes, professionals should accept and expect that accusations against them may be taken seriously, but under the present arrangements, a malicious accusation can easily occur and terrible damage done to someone's livelihood and physical and mental health and to their families.

A nagging assumption is also developed that professionals such as priests and teachers are inherently potential abusers, while forgetting that among these groups it is rare and sadly, that by far the vast majority of abusers are members of a child's own family. If society feels that it is necessary to have priests, teachers and other professionals that work with children, then adequate safeguards must be in place for them to be protected when untrue or malicious allegations occur.

gemoftheocean said...

I've started since May of offering the rosary every Sunday for priests.
My own diocese was very hard hit with allegations of sexual abuse, and the diocese handled it very badly. And in no few instances I believe caved and let some good reputations be consumed in the conflagration. I'm not saying there wasn't real notorious damage done, but on a few cases I personally know of, though nothing was remotely enough evidence to convict in court (*a single allegation made years later, for instance, no gravy train the Catholic church, right?
oh, no one would ever claim falsely to grab money when handed out left and right rather than fight it.)

I can remember some twenty years ago having a discussion with a former pastor. "It's not the relative poverty or practice of chastity is it? I bet it's the obedience to a man who may be a tyrant or petty power tripper that's the worst of it, isn't it.?" I asked. "Oh, yes" came the affirmative.

It's not like other walks of life where you can tell the bishop to just shove it. There's a thousand and one subtle ways a bishop could make a priest's life living hell. I say s few extra for priest's living in those circumstances. I'm sure it's even harder now, with many parishes down to one priest, so in practice it's harder to get support from your fellows.

Even when a priest is doing something totally right"The powers that be" can backstab him.

Really, on the pope's visit to the US he could have REALLY made some headway if he'd pointed to a bishop or two or more and said "You, you, you and you -- you're fired."

Borromeo said...

I can speak with some experience as a priest who was forced to walk away from his vocation and diocese. I was accused of abuse with a fellow adult seminarian which was alleged to have taken place over 15 years ago. My intitial reaction was shock and I promptly denied this vindictive allegation. I was told I had to go to the St Luke's Centre in the US to undergo an evaluation within 7 days.
I was placed on adminstrative leave and forbidden to return to my ministry or celebrate the sacraments.
On arrival at the St Luke's Centre I was made to share a room with two priests whom I later discovered to be child abusers. I find it difficult to talk about the week long assesment as the memory is still painful. Needless, to say it was psychological and spiritual abuse. As soon as I arrived I was photographed, had to give blood for an HIV test, and my belt was removed. A warden came into the bedroom every two hours during the night with a torch to check on us. There wasn't even a lock on the bathroom door.
After the evaluation, which was sent to the bishop and the child protection officer. I was invited to meet with my bishop. It was clear at the meeting that he didn't want me, and I felt as though I had become a burden for him. Their was no evidence for my crime, only hearsay, and nothing had be proven. My bishop didn't know what to do with me. I said I needed some time to think things over, as the experience had been traumatic. He promised to keep in touch with me, but didn't.
Eventually, I had to seek secular employment. Not one single letter from my diocese since I left, no offer of financial help. No e-mails or contact from my colleagues. So much for the presbyterium!
I had entered seminary straight from school and had never worked or lived by myself. The shock to the system was huge. I suppose I could have enlisted canonical help and pursued my rights; but the sense of betrayal and shame prevented me from doing so.
Now I lead a very private life, but I am content with my lot. The fact that I still read blogs like yours shows that I miss my vocation. Next time you pick up your diocesan directory and see c/o bishop's house, think of us who have been cast aside. My daily prayer is John 14:18. I pray that one day my bishop or his successor will come looking for me and invite me home.

miss book said...

I have heard that in these investigations, the interests of the child are paramount.This seems to be linked to the Laming report following the tragic death of Victoria Climbie.I think Lord Laming would have served us all better if he had concluded that the interests of truth and justice were paramount.

Victoria said...

Borromeo, I will keep you in my prayers. Perhaps when the bishop retires you may apply to have your case looked at again.

I do hope that you have the opportunity to celebrate Holy Mass sometimes.

WhiteStoneNameSeeker said...

Believe me the needs of children are not paramount!! I don't know who exactly the COPCA system is serving but it is not the child or the child's parents!