On June 19, 2011 Peter Stanford wrote a nuanced and compelling Guardian article
on Father Kit Cunningham of the Rosminian order, described by a man named John Poppleton in the article as having “perpetrated physical and sexual abuse that made St Michael's, Soni, [in what was then Tanganyika, now Tanzania,] "a loveless, violent and sad hellhole".
“Fr Kit,” the article goes on to point out, “kept his "dark side" so well hidden, [and] the church authorities allowed him to keep it so well hidden that even the Queen awarded him an MBE, [for his] work with the poor and marginalised?”
Stanford's article seems to be orchestrated somehow into the weird world of “infotisement” in anticipation of the airing of the highly controversial Abused: Breaking the Silence
, a documentary shown on BBC1 last night.
These horrors of abuse continue to haunt us with no signs of abating. But is the world of legal settlements sufficient to rescue us from our collective suffering?
All creatures are sexual, humans meant to be most exquisitely so. Sadly, sexual activity among humans can take on some of the most horrific forms and expression.
Celibacy or some form of abstinence for spiritual purposes exists in virtually all religions and spiritual traditions, but very few imagine that lifelong celibacy is good. The best known of those that do are Roman Catholicism
and parts of Buddhism
. It is widely known that efforts to realize this enormously difficult commitment (lifelong celibacy) is rife with failures and violations of every sort, and continues to be so. Lifelong celibacy is unnatural. It can be done, and for some small few, it probably can be done well. But the path is so extreme and so contrary to human life and all life, that it should never be attempted without huge levels of commitment and support from any institution that would allow its leaders to try it. Failing the presence of an uncommon degree of care, attention, and support, the chances of things going horribly wrong is high. Any institution that insists on having that as a requirement for its leaders should either invest unreservedly in getting it right, or should stop it altogether. The damage done by attempting this carelessly is simply not acceptable. Furthermore, tyrannical legalisms like “zero-tolerance” policies will not suffice to mentor and pastor celibates through this grueling option.
In addition to attempting to violate one's own nature in the choice of a spiritual path, several other important dangers attend the effort toward lifelong celibacy, one very important one is the fact that clerics have power. Power makes it easier to fulfill personal desires, of which the drive for sexual fulfillment is one of the most forceful of all.
Is lifelong celibacy possible by the mere assumption of exercising self-discipline? We all try, with varying degrees of success, to discipline ourselves. This too is natural throughout creation, and again most elegant in humans. Don't sleep too late. Don't eat too much. Don't watch too much TV. Don't lash out at idiots. On the positive side, do my push ups and sit ups. Practice my scales. Study for my test. Share the family chores with my wife, and so forth. The thing about self-discipline is that it is a tricky road in which excess is dangerous. Above all suppression is clearly a road to disorder. Our innate impulse to realize high aspirations must be pursued with grace, not with force, and abnegation. Furthermore, most everyone who aspires to staying on difficult paths of self improvement know that help is needed, a gym buddy, a study group, a mentor and confidant. So what exists to help lifelong celibates tread this minefield, and meet the ever shifting challenges of this grinding course in wholesome ways?
Already the program of lifelong celibacy is one that violates all of nature, add to that the highly explosive and often corrupting element of personal power, and then top it all off by threading this incendiary mix with the ever compromising force of livelihood and occupation. We work to live, for shelter, food, healthcare, dignity in our old age, and other vital needs over the long course of life. How does this issue of “livelihood” relate to the massive challenge of managing lifelong celibacy, what happens when you err, when you slip up, when you find yourself in the grip of unmanageable demons? Who do you tell? What happens when you discover some terrible perversion or fetish in your makeup? What happens when the power of your position opens a way for you to unleash dark and vile impulses? Who do you tell? The crucible of lifelong celibacy is tied to your very livelihood. Suppression makes matters ever worse, darkness can gain an upper hand, perhaps faith in the theology or cosmology that called me to commit to the unnatural path of lifelong celibacy falters or grows cold or cynical. But now my livelihood, the very basics of my whole life are bound to demands forged by my early life choices.
Additionally, there are the evils and shortcomings inherent in institutions, the unvarying addiction to self-preservation, be they corporate, governmental, or religious. From British Petroleum
, to Fukushima
, to any religious body facing scandal. Self protection of the very worst sort surges inevitably when the survival of an institution is at stake. Even when death and destruction are at its doorstep and blood is on its hands.
The last element in the dynamic of this breakdown also is not unique to the church or to religious institutions. That is the haunting, mocking cycle of debilitating, destructive, and self-destructive addictions, and the web of ensnarement it weaves around all who would care or try to help. The dozens or hundreds of times those possessed by a hated evil, awaken horrified, ashamed, and “quitting,” and the same number of times husbands, battered wives, friends of the addicted, and the abusers themselves want to believe. Really? Have you quit? Are you sure? You've really quit? Yes! Never again. Oh God, never again... Of course until next time. The horrible slide from loving, caring, hoping to enabling. And the horrible slide from pastoral, from “support,” “help,” and prayers, to enabling, and to “covering up.” The light of care and forgiveness becomes the spread of horror, abuse, broken lives, broken faith, even death and destruction. Do the billions of dollars compensate? Of course not, as the Observer writer Peter Stanford writes in his fair and compelling June 19th Guardian piece
“Yes, I know that compensation money doesn't wipe the slate clean, but it is the most common way our society has of shouldering the blame.”
We cannot hope to wipe this slate clean easily or soon. We have no idea how much longer this emerging of the abused and the broken will continue. We do know though that “blame,” cannot be our goal.
It is pressing and imperative that next steps be pondered, engaged, and where promising implemented with utmost, deadly seriousness. The crack in the dam, the flood and the lawsuits
have brought us only some important steps along the way. But at their core, the criminal dimensions of religious authority abused, the tragedy of vile and destructive addictions, the complexity of remorse, bound possession, efforts to help, and the darkness of failing are neither economic nor legal. Lawsuits and settlements, while perhaps necessary, are only the most primitive start to addressing the problem. The crisis is spiritual, religious, human, and institutional, not legal and economic.
Until the clearly unworkable experiment of institutional-level lifelong celibacy is reconsidered, it is pressing that unreserved devotion be given to to put in place interim structures and the next steps needed to rebuild. Our world needs a good, healthy, Roman Catholic Church. It is one of the most important (perhaps the most important) organizations on earth, including even nation states. The debilitating weight needs be systematically lifted from the 100's of millions of fine Catholic believers world-wide. The lives of the 1000's, tens or hundreds of 1000's of broken and abused must receive our repentance, our listening, our tears, and our unbound solidarity. No amount of financial settlements solves or addresses this crucial need throughout our world today.
Let the blood-letting continue. Let the lawsuits proceed. Many grow rich who don't give a damn either for the church, nor for the victims, but alas, this must run its course. For the rest of us, let us not think that our work is done as each settlement makes its headline. Our work is not done until victims, our brothers and sisters are whole, and the promise and beauty of the good of the Roman Catholic Church can freely be the pride of its community of believers.