Tuesday, August 13, 2002

Peevish Thoughts

I readily confess that I am writing this in a spirit of peevishness. That peevishness is not directed at any particular individual: it is a sort of "free floating" peevishness, which has been brought up by the latest round of discussion, below and on Amy Welborn's blog, about Zero Tolerance and removal of priests guilty of abuse.

I suppose one source of the peevishness is the imprecision and offhandedness with which terms have been used. Phrases or words like "zero tolerance", and "accountability", and "clericalism" are being thrown around in equivocal ways, and I get the impression that many of us are talking at cross-purposes. Some may accuse me of being nit-picky, but these are issues of grave importance, and using language in a sloppy way will only lead to greater murkiness, confusion, and hurt feelings.

So to help get past the imprecision, let me propose a couple of explanations:

Firstly, it seems that many people are using the term "Zero Tolerance" itself to mean many things. Some people, in using that term, seem to mean only the policy that priest-abusers be removed from ministry after a single proved or admitted incident of abuse. When I and people like Mark Shea use the term Zero Tolerance, we are referring more specifically to the Norms enacted in Dallas and the procedures accompanying them. Thus, when I say that I am opposed to Zero Tolerance, I am not saying I am opposed to removing priest-abusers from ministry (as my blog below should make clear). I am saying that I oppose the current mechanism that is in place for achieving the end of removing priest-abusers from ministry. I think it would be very helpful, and avoid needless rancor, if we adopted this narrower understanding of the term "Zero Tolerance", on the grounds that, in general, terms should be defined as precisely as possible.

For the record, I am opposed to the Zero Tolerance policy because it ignores existing Church law, and it ignores the rights of the accused to due process. Furthermore, it is fraught with potential for abuse by bishops, disgruntled parishioners (Got a priest you don't like? Just denounce him to the abuse board and he's gone within 2 hours), or opportunistic attorneys. I think it matters a great deal what sort of process we adopt to remove priests guilty of abuse (whether in one instance or a dozen). If we're going to remove priest-abusers, let's do it the right way. As I have written before, seeing to it that the accused are treated with justice does not in some way deprive victims of the justice due them. Justice is unitary, because it is an attribute of God.

Several people have expressed their demand for "accountability" from bishops and priests on this mattter. Accountability is a good and necessary thing, but I fear it is being used as a buzzword, rather than with much actual content. The Dallas norms, as ill-conceived as they are, are an attempt to introduce accountability into the process of handling accusations of abuse. Removal of priests from ministry is another attempt at holding priest-abusers accountable. What does the accountability that is being demanded look like?

The other source of my peevishness is the charge of clericalism raised against those who are urging moderation and deliberation in dealing with priest-abusers and those accused of abuse. I fear that some people are confusing clericalism with something else. Clericalism is the attitude that priests should be accorded special benefits and privileges not due to them. Clericalism is odious and destructive. But asserting the rights that do belong to a priest is not clericalism. For example, if I demand that I be permitted to celebrate Mass in accordance with the norms and rubrics of the Church, I am asserting a right that is properly mine. That's not clericalism. Now, if a bishop protects priest-abusers from prosecution by "hushing-up" their misconduct, that is clericalism.

Insisting that priests guilty of abuse receive no less and NO MORE than justice is not clericalism. Justice is not a privilege, it is a right. And both the victim and the perpetrator have a right to justice. Furthermore, we (the church) have duty to show mercy to all wrongdoers. To call upon us to show mercy to priest abusers is not clericalism, because mercy is a duty we owe to all. If some priests or bishops have been selective about who they seek mercy for, that is contemptible, but it in no way reduces our duty to show mercy.

Finally, to demand that priests accused of abuse be treated with justice, to demand that their rights to due process be respected, is not about "protecting clerical culture" (as one commentor on Amy's blog wrote). Under the Dallas policy, all it takes is an accusation against a priest, and he has 2 hours to vacate the rectory. He is completely on his own in terms of mounting a defense. Furthermore, we know that in the current climate any accused priest will be considered guilty until proven innocent. How many of you would welcome back, with open arms, a priest who had been removed under "Zero Tolerance" and then returned some months later after being cleared by an investigation? Especially, as would be likely, with the accuser still publicly asserting the guilt of the accused priest! How many of you would let your kids hang out with him? The mere fact of a public accusation against a priest could severely damage, or even destroy, his priestly ministry. And that doesn't just hurt the priest, it hurts the whole Church.

The more grave the accusation, the more concerned we must be with rendering justice with scrupulous fairness.