Presentation to the Board of Overseers - October 5

Monday, October 8, 2018

As all of you "old hands" know, this is usually the time I take each year to go over the numbers. This is the part where I smile and tell you how wonderful things are, how the new seminarians and graduate students are adjusting to the life of the community, how many new deacon programs we are starting and all of that.

I am not going to do that sort of thing this year. You have your folders and you have the reports of each division. In my estimation, for an institution such as ours, it is vitally important for us to address head-on the elephant in the room; that is the current abuse crisis that is threatening the Church. I was shocked a few weeks ago when a story came out about an archbishop speaking to a group of seminarians who stated that "we have a bigger agenda than to be distracted by all of this."

I don't know if the quote is accurate. I don't know if it is taken out of context. I do know that it seems to be somewhat "tone deaf" in a Church where people are hurting and leaving, in a Church where people are confused and doubtful. If would also seem to be a very irresponsible thing to say to a group of seminarians, men who are struggling to support and remain faithful to a Church where some leaders, certainly not all, seem to care very little for that Church's reputation.

What is the current situation we are facing? How is it different from what we have already seen? The "spotlight" was first turned significantly on the Church in 2002. At that time, dioceses and religious communities were struggling as various stories came forth about abuse situations, most involving priests and many, if not most, involving minors, both male and female. This was a difficult time for the Church.

In terms of study, the bishops commissioned what is today referred to as the John Jay Report.  Produced by the John Jay School of Criminal Studies, the report found that during a period of 52 years, from 1950 to 2002, over 10,000 persons had made allegations ofchild sexual abuse.(Remember that this was the focus in 2002.) These accusations affected about 2 percent of the clergy in the United States. Of the accused, however, very few (about 6 percent) were convicted.

Looking at a timeline, it was discovered that the number of allegations increased in the 1960s, peaked in the 1970s, declined in the '80s and settled in the 1990s. As it was designed, the report offers many statistics, some of which may be accurate today, some of which may be called into question today. The study goes on to offer some profile of the abuse scenarios. It found that, "Like in the general population, child sex abuse in the Catholic Church appears to be committed by men close to the children they allegedly abuse." And, "many (abusers) appear to use grooming tactics to entice children into complying with the abuse, and the abuse occurs in the home of the alleged abuser or victim."

The study characterized these enticements as actions such as buying the minor gifts, letting the victim drive a car and taking youths to sporting events. The most frequent context for abuse was a social event, and many priests socialized with the families of victims. Abuses occurred in a variety of places, with the most common being the residence of the priest. When looking at victims, 81% were male, 22% were younger than age 10. The kinds of abuse ranged from inappropriate touching to much more serious incidents.

Concomitant to the Jay Report, the USCCB bishops produced the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.This document is often referred to as the "Dallas Charter." The focus of the Charter was the provision of a safe environment for young people in the life of the Church. The bishops adopted, at this time, a series of uniform procedures relating to accusations of misconduct among priests. This policy has been known as the "zero tolerance" policy, and it necessitates the removal of a priest from active ministry if he is accused of misconduct until an investigation can be undertaken. At the time, a handful of bishops objected that the rules were too strict, saying that in some cases of a single violation long ago, a priest should have an opportunity to serve in ministry.  The results of this scenario were played out again in the Evansville papers a few weeks ago.

The outcome of the Dallas Charter for seminaries was the necessity of detaining a dismissed seminarian from entering another seminary for a period of time. I have spent a great deal of energy through the years fighting seminaries that chose purposefully not to follow these rules. Others have criticized the Charter because it does not deal specifically with the consequences for bishops who are accused. Bishops are the overseers of the process and thereby do not fall under the particular outcomes envisioned for the priests. Some have claimed, and indeed are now claiming more vocally, that this is unfair. If a bishop is accused, they say, he must step down until his name is cleared. Another area not dealt with adequately in previous policies is the consequence of covering up allegations. This is an area where the bishops are under particular scrutiny today.

How have these issues been addressed and what is the condition of the Church, now, 16 years after the 2002 scandal? First of all, dioceses, as far as they have been able, have followed the Charter in letter, if not always in spirit. Most dioceses have put programs in place, have dealt with the crisis in a forthright manner and are currently participating in significant ways. For the most part.

There are, however, dioceses that continue to operate on the "internal" business model, holding onto records, knowing things that they hope do not come out, etc. Bishops, whose personal failures in this regard are not dealt with in the Charter, have used the "out" given them to "fight" allegations made against them, which were not available to similarly accused priests. Likewise, civil authorities' responses to abuse allegations have been uneven, sometimes, even winking at the Charter. Catholics in the pews, for the most part following the 2002 crisis, have remained faithful to the Church. Today, however, I believe many young people, some of whom are already holding on to Church observance by a thread, may be propelled over the edge to leave the Church. I fear it may be the case.

What about our priests? Going back to the statistics, only a handful of the clergy are directly involved in these allegations and many of them from times in the distant past. That does not change, however, how people are thinking about priests today. We know that in years past, being a priest, becoming a priest, was the greatest vocation a young man could aspire to. Today, I would say it is largely a battle. I can also say this, however, judging by the seminarians at Saint Meinrad. These men are courageous, intelligent, faithful and devout men. It is my concern that they understand, unflinchingly, the situation in the Church today and move forward, healing and caring for a wounded people.

How should this be accomplished? I return now to the situation the Church faced in 2002. The problem existed, or so we were told at the time, with priests. This was both true and not true. Certainly, the spotlight was on priests in this scenario, but bishops were also responsible. In fact, in the aftermath of the scenario, several bishops were removed at that time. I think of the dioceses of Lexington and Knoxville.  It is true that priests were basically involved and so, in its wisdom, the Vatican decided to embark upon a visitation of seminaries.

It seemed like a logical move. It asked important questions such as: Were there deficiencies in seminary formation? Were there problems with the screening process? There was a great deal of energy expended at that time on examining seminaries. We here at Saint Meinrad, likewise, underwent an investigation. Nothing was found. Some adjustments were made here, including the necessity of teaching Latin, some staffing changes, but overall very little. In recent weeks, there has been some call on the part of some "commentators" in the Church to visit seminaries again.

Let me say this outright. Saint Meinrad and other seminaries that follow the guidelines and are attempting to do things according to plan, and furthermore to do them creatively, are not the problem. I would add, however, that there are some seminaries that are not following the plan and are not submitting themselves to the guidelines of the USCCB and the Vatican. Some of these seminaries do not believe, for example, that psychological testing is important. Some do not believe that they are required to follow the guidelines by consulting other seminaries a student has attended when matriculating into a new seminary. These lax seminaries are problematic, but they do not indicate that the Church's current challenges are seminary based.

In the aftermath of seminary visitations, what were we told? We were told that we needed to clamp down on "outside" influences in seminary life. The seminary should be a refined, cocoon-like environment, a hothouse of formation. We should not allow women to be overly influential in seminary formation.  We should not allow lay people to be too prominent in formation. We should have only priests doing this or that. I think that is humorous, since the very bishops who have called for an "all priest" environment seem quite unwilling to offer priests either for graduate studies or for work in the seminary. We tried to balance our structures to accommodate these requirements and these perceived values.

Now we are told that we need more lay people around. Cardinal Ouliette says we need more women around. The Congregation for the Clergy encourages bishops to provide more priests for seminary work. What are we to do? Are we to respond to this new request, knowing that in a few years the ideological tide may turn again and we will go back to a highly clerical environment? It is difficult to navigate the Scylla and Charybdis of this issue. Seminaries are told: Provide us with the very best, but, of course, we don't want to pay for it.

There are other problems as well. There are problems in our dioceses. Dioceses are struggling today with many issues that we have rehearsed in this group before. Dioceses are almost universally dealing with parish restructuring, with a perceived clergy shortage, with growing cultural diversity, with an, at times, antiquated school system, with generational problems, to name just a few. Dioceses, however, are also dealing with a clericalized culture that is highly problematic in the current climate. I would say that many priests in many places know many things that they have never spoken about, and not just those things they have heard in the privileged context of confession. Priests know things, but they don't talk.

Likewise, religious communities, many of which are struggling to stay afloat with dwindling numbers and resources. Many communities of men and women are in shutdown mode. This is the reality. One thing we do know is that the Church can no longer rely upon the authentic witness of religious sisters, brothers and priests to provide good role models at the level they once did.The ethos of the various religious charisms is being lost in the Church today, at least as a regular contributor. I would add to this that the ethos of the diocesan priest is one still being debated and ironed out.

What about the bishops themselves? Here is what I know from personal experience. Our bishops, for the most part, like our priests, are good men. They are holy men. They are learned men. They are good pastors. They come from hardy priestly stock. I would say that they are also suffering men. They are men who find themselves in dioceses, having been cut off from familial and presbyteral support systems that they relied on in their lives as pastors, lonely and sometimes faltering. We seldom think about how we can support our bishops as people, as struggling men with real needs. Our bishops, who wanted nothing more when they were ordained than to serve God's people at the altar, in the hospital, in the confessional, now find themselves inundated with spreadsheets, lawsuits, and anger from almost every corner. They have no peers in dioceses (for the most part) and their peers in other dioceses are also completely inundated with crisis and hardship. I can tell you this: I love our bishops and I pray for them, each of them by name every day. Is that to say I don't recognize it if they make mistakes? Not at all, because of their place in the Church, they must be held even more accountable. They are bishops, but they are also men.

Let me now turn in this long manifesto to some additional topics of concern in this crisis of abuse and cover-up. I would like to begin by offering a few reflections on what I see as mistaken ideas in the current situation.         The first mistaken idea is that all of this is about celibacy. This is not about celibacy. A discussion of the theological importance, the relevance, of celibacy is a necessary one in the life of the Church. The reality of sexual abuse is not an argument against celibacy. I recently received a letter from a Saint Meinrad alumnus. In the letter, he said this:

Earlier this year, I had my first experiences attending an Anthiochean Orthodox Church - I just fell in love with it; the liturgy had such spiritual depth. Then I came across a site for victims of abuse by Orthodox clergy - and was absolutely horrified - and this by a church which allows its priests to be married. Under the "convicted" names, there were sixty-nine alone listed whose names began with "a"[ … ] (when questioned about this a priest responded) There are going to be sinners.

            I mention this man's letter because it demonstrates a point. I receive many letters and many responses to, for example, our appeal letters, that are critical of the Church. Some of these promote the idea that celibacy is a cause of the crisis. It is simply not true. I do believe that some priests are not able to live the celibate life. I do believe, along with the late Cardinal Francis George, that a vocation to celibacy needs to be foremost in the discernment of a vocation to the priesthood. I do not believe that celibacy can be seen as an "undesirable" condition for priestly service. I also know that celibacy is difficult. It is difficult but not impossible. In our formation program, we must promote two things: First is the importance of priestly celibacy, its significance in Church life, and second, the practical ways by which celibacy can be lived.

I am sick to death of language about celibacy that is so spiritually sugar-coated that it means nothing. Our failure to talk about sex, sexual realities, sexual struggles in the Church among we priests, is part of our current problem. As priests, we not only remain thoroughly sexual beings, but sexuality, inter-personality is our way of exercising our priesthood. Genital relationships in marriage are only a part of our sexual identity. I am exercising my authentic sexuality in every interpersonal relationship I have. I am expressing my sexuality in worlds as mundane as table conversation and as profound as sacramental encounter. What does this look like in daily life? St. Paul says:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, self-control.

Healthy sexuality for the priest looks like the joy of getting up in the morning, or perhaps more in keeping with our context here, the joy of staying up late, not to revel in our own solitude, and whatever activities that solitude begets, but to be with others, to interchange with others, to be there for others, to serve others. Is that to say that we introverts are at a distinct disadvantage here? Not at all. What we introverts lack in energy, I would say, we make up for in depth. We want to be there deeply for others, to suffer with others, to be an offering for others, not too many at a time, but then, it doesn't take too many; it only takes one. Extroverts live out their sexuality in the crowds. They love the crowds. That, too, is good ministry. That, too, is the work of God. Our sexuality, our relationality, is comprised of offering what we have as a gift and giving it generously no matter what form it takes.

Sexual energy in diocesan life gets lived out in the thousand events of the day. Here is something to bear in mind for the priest and future priest. My encounters during the day are predicated on two things. The first is my own mood, my own interest, my own energy, my own investment of time. How willing am I to compromise mood? How willing am I to chasten my interests? How willing am I to expend energy, perhaps at the end of the day, when I think I have nothing left to give? What investment of time am I willing to make? That is the first part, but the second part is more tricky. What does the other need? How often I have found myself on a standard end-of-day walkabout and popping my head into someone's open door, I have discovered need.There is a phone call just received. There is a temptation just overcome. There is pain or there is sorrow. There is just confusion.

Here is where my interests and my energy meet their need. And of course, as in any exchange, we may like a bit of reciprocation but we do not count on it. We are called to serve, not to be served. We are called to give and not receive. We are called to pour out our lives, even late at night and for what, the building up of ourselves, our egos? Certainly not, unless we have learned the key to a healthy sexuality, unless myself and my ego are dependent upon service and that alone. I become my own congratulations, by living my life in integrity and not for gain. Gain is in the service, not in the reward for service.

A second aspect of our sexuality is our need to encounter in a meaningful way. Self-understanding and knowledge of the world is essential to a fruitful priesthood. In other words, good priesthood, built upon a solid foundation of celibacy, is the fruit of wisdom. Wisdom is merely the understanding of the various types of encounter that we meet. What are these encounters?

First, there is an encounter with yourself. Of all the people in the world, please do not lie to yourself. Do not tell lies to yourself about yourself. Will this lead to suffering, a shivering, self-awareness? It most certainly will, but our encounters with the souls of others, that intimate encounter, must proceed from an honest place in ourselves.

The worst kind of co-dependence and enmeshment is the one who uses a privileged spiritual relationship to fulfill one's own need, a need about which they are not honest with themselves or with the other. If you are falling in love with a parishioner, for God's sake do not compound the problem by trying to be a priest to her. Do not confuse in her mind your infatuation and the service of Christ in the Gospel. 

Celibacy, chastity, prepares me to look into the mirror and not only understand what I see, but like what I see, warts and all. The authentic and truthful encounter with myself allows me to encounter the other in all honesty. In all honesty, I know who I am; in all honesty, I hope to look to you. Chastity prepares us for this encounter by stripping away any false ideals of romanticism, false understandings of what our relationship is about. We encounter the other. I encounter you, also, when I am willing to accept you as you are, in your weakness, in your doubt and in your pain. I want to accept you as you are. I want to lead you someplace else, to a place of peace, a place of true personal justice.

I can tell you this: The greatest pain I feel in life is to experience your pain and to know that I have no power to take it away. I see your pain probably closer than you realize, and it hurts that you must live there. Every pastor knows this. Every confessor knows this. There is nothing more heartbreaking than to hear confessions week after week and know that, for some internal obstacle, the penitent cannot accept God's love and forgiveness, that the confessional is not a place of peace but a place to rehearse their deepest sense of unworthiness, week after week. Here we must rely on God's grace. Here we must depend upon his mercy.

Encounter with self and encounter with the other leads to a real encounter with the Church, not in its institutional forms, its bureaucracy, its codes of conduct, but to the Church living and breathing in its members. An encounter with the Church is not an encounter with perfection. It is, rather, an encounter with the perfection that comes to be in the realization of brokenness. Encounter with the Church is an encounter with the broken Christ in the Holy Eucharist.

Encounter with the Church is encounter with his blood, poured out in the Mass certainly, but also poured out in the streets of the world, in our streets, in the violence that sometimes overwhelms us. Encounter with the Church is encounter with God in prayer, and that encounter is not always neat and formal. Sometimes our prayer is raw. Sometimes our prayer is a pouring out of sweat and blood, just as Jesus experienced on the cross. Sometimes our prayer is hoarse whispers, realizations from the back of our throats that come from that vacant place that celibacy and chastity have forged.

If that, in my opinion, is what this crisis is not, we must ask ourselves, at the core, what it is. To me: This is a POWER issue; more precisely, it is a false power issue. Speaking in theological terms, we must admit that priests have power. They have the power to confect and the power to provide for the spiritual needs, the real spiritual needs, of people through Eucharist, through confession, through anointing. Power is real in the Church and priests have, in these sacramental ways, unlimited power. Priests have this power and yet, in many ways, they are not given the tools for handling this power. Every crisis we face in the Church today, from priests, bishops, whomever, every crisis is generated around the fact that there is an understanding of the power of the priest, and the priest does not know how to exercise that power in a humble and meaningful way.

And so he lords his opinions over people. He makes his opinions about liturgy, for example, divine law. He refuses to listen to good counsel from the laity. He thinks that he can cover up misconduct, his own or others', because he is invincible. He exists in a clerical world that often supports this kind of behavior and thinking. Many times, in previous formation scenarios, these priests suffered from a kind of intellectual (and sometimes somatic) narcissism. In my years as rector, I have come to understand one thing: narcissism is absolutely incompatible with the priesthood. Thinking of one's self as god almighty is incompatible.

We know that a clinical diagnosis of narcissism as a personality disorder is relatively rare. Residual narcissism, however, is much more prevalent and is often the outcome of the conditioning of a culture bent on radical individualism and selfishness. Clerical circles seem to be awakening to the effects of narcissism in the lives of priests in ways previously unrecognized. Very simply, narcissism is the inability to view the world outside of one's self. It is chronic selfishness, at times, seemingly incurable self-reference. Everything in my worldview proceeds from my particular interests or the ways in which phenomena impact me.

Everything must be created in my image; all activities should center on me. At some level, we find chronic narcissism humorous. The old adage of, "let's stop talking about me, let's talk about you. What do you think of me?" is a bit tired, but certainly also has a ring of truth in it. Narcissism, when it can be overcome, is very difficult to overcome. It lies at the heart of other modern chronic conditions, such as pornography and even overweening social networking. Narcissism, by its nature threatens relationships. Narcissism is problematic for the average person; it is fatal to priesthood. A person with chronic narcissistic tendencies cannot be a priest because priesthood requires a perspective of the other, a regard for the other, a respect for the other.

Priesthood is about compassion, suffering with the other. A personality that allows for neither suffering nor the other cannot effectively be a priest. Narcissists cannot make a meaningful promise of obedience because there is no ability to truly listen and respect someone else. The narcissist may look obedient - he may even look hypervigilant in obedience, but it only works as long as he is satisfied with the outcome. Any challenge to the narcissistic worldview and the priest revolts. Narcissism has many forms, but intellectual narcissism is perhaps the most dangerous for the priest. I know more than anyone else. I know better than anyone, including my bishop, including the Church, including Christ.

I believe that this description goes a long way in diagnosing part of our abuse crisis. In this crisis, we have priests who feel powerless because of illness and given no way of helping them deal with illness. They then assert their lack of power over those who are helpless. I also believe that this kind of personality problem was not dealt with in previous generations of seminary formation. We did not adequately screen candidates. We disdained the usefulness of psychology. We spiritualized problems that were not spiritual, but mental. We turned a blind eye to misbehavior in an era when the power of the priest was not questioned. And everyone did this, brother priests, parishioners, law enforcement, bishops, everyone.

Now, what must we do here? I would see our tasks as multifaceted and difficult. That is all the more reason for us to undertake them. First, I think it is the duty of this seminary and school of theology to train students away from inauthentic clerical culture. I cannot tell you how sick I am of thoughts about priestly life and culture that center on the best scotch and the best cigars. Ideals of clerical privilege are bred of overwrought desires to "soften the blow" of priestly service by creating pockets of self-comfort.

Authentic clerical culture must depend on prayer, on sacrifice, on service, on bleeding oneself dry in caring for others. I have said many times that I hope to drop dead at the altar. I can tell you that is how I focus my comments to these men. We must do that or our credibility will be lost in a haze of cigar smoke. I believe it is essential to prepare these men to tell the truth about everything. We must not rely on the internal forum as a shelter for hiding problems that must be dealt with publically, for the good of the Church. We cannot have seminarians here who try to submarine their way through seminary so they can promote a vision of the Church that is both inauthentic and unhealthy in so many ways. If it was authentic and healthy, they would proclaim it from the housetops. We must have good processes for dealing with problems and questions. We cannot be shy about addressing these questions full on. If an accusation is made, it must be dealt with promptly and thoroughly, but also charitably. There is a great deal more I could say about these questions, and that will undoubtedly come in future talks.

In conclusion, I would like to mention a book I have recently read and close with some suggestions for the way in which this body can assist us as we move forward. One of my favorite authors is Doris Kearns Goodwin. Her various biographies about great leaders have been very inspiriting to me through the years - Lincoln, the Roosevelts. Her latest book is called Leadership in Turbulent Times.Frankly, I am somewhat smitten with it. She is very forward in her discussion of how times of fracture and fear must make true leaders even bolder.

I mention the book only to focus on one of her many conclusions, and that is, a leader, or an institution, is never judged in the long run on how well it functions in ordinary time. We are going to be judged by how well we handle ourselves in times of trouble, and doubt and grave difficulty. In other words, this is the time for us to stand strong as an institution and to help guide and direct the course of our Church through these difficult times. You, Overseers, are our partners in this enterprise, and I look to you for support and good counsel in the months and years ahead. My experience has certainly been that this is something upon which I cannot only rely, but find true personal support in, support in building up the Church, day by day, stone by stone, into that heavenly Jerusalem.