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Original Essays | September 4, 2014 0 comments
My new book, The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, is the story of two bodies. The first body was the new... Continue »
Truth and Reconciliationby David France
A federal judge was to lead my panel at the VBA's annual meeting. He called me late one afternoon to discuss various themes and theories he would like me to address. He believed the church crisis has lead to significant instances where the state has crossed the line of First Amendment religious freedoms, interfering in what might otherwise be considered autonomous church territory. "Like the criminal consent decree in Phoenix," he offered as an example.
The judge was well versed in the issue. In Phoenix last summer, the County Attorney announced he was prepared to indict the local diocese and Bishop Thomas J. O'Brien on charges of obstruction and endangering minors. To avoid such an awful specter, O'Brien entered into a highly unusual and awkward plea arrangement. He agreed to publicly atone and apologize; he agreed to step down as day-to-day manager of diocesan affairs and appoint a new COO; he agreed to seek the County Attorney's approval for his own sexual abuse policies; and, most significantly, he consented to allow the County Attorney to appoint representatives to an internal church panel charged with reviewing future allegations of sexual abuse by church leaders. In effect, an autonomous office within the Phoenix diocese is now run by the state. This arrangement is unprecedented.
(O'Brien, however, failed to avoid criminal charges: just a week later, driving home after a day of church business, he struck and killed a pedestrian, then fled the scene and hurriedly attempted to repair his vehicle. His trial is set for late January, and he has resigned as Phoenix's bishop. The consent decree, however, survives him.)
This, my federal judge feared, was the beginning of a stampede over the skirmish line of church-state affairs. He cited the case of the Alabama justice whose enormous stone monument of the Ten Commandments was declared unconstitutional, "when there are some 4,000 other such representations in courts across the country," and the case of Virginia Military Institute's tradition of daily dinner prayers, which a state judge found impermissible in a public school, and ordered halted.
It does seem undeniable that the church scandal has challenged the status quo. But it was the status quo, not the new reality, that violated the First Amendment. For years, it turns out, the church had enjoyed a privileged place out of law's reach. We have seen this in case after case over the past two years, litigants stepping forward now who tried to step forward before. They made reports to police officers who, we have now learned, often bowed to the wishes of church leaders, police chaplains, or their own pastors, and did not investigate further. Judges who, out of respect for their church or fearing the power of the awful disclosures, helped church lawyers battle case after case in silence. They discouraged claimants from formally filing suit, and turned them instead toward settlements; if legal paperwork was filed anyway, they quickly conceded to requests from diocesan authorities to seal the proceedings from public view.
Robert McWeeny, an appellate court judge in Connecticut, recently ridiculed this arrangement as "a judicial model of cooperation...in endlessly delaying litigation, sealing files, and coercing victims into non-disclosure settlements." McWeeny and a handful of judges around the country brought this practice to a halt once the crisis exploded. What followed was a festival of revelations, recriminations, lawsuits, arrests, and convictions, that plunged the Roman Catholic Church of America into a severe crisis, from which it has yet to emerge.
In Our Fathers, I felt my task was not to pass judgment on this dark past, but to try to understand it. Why did such a large number of holy men dedicated, above all, to serving others go on to harm them instead? Why did their superiors allow this? Why didn't the police intervene, or communities rise up, or faith itself crumble in the decades this was going on? I chose to believe that everybody involved had started out from a position of innocence original innocence, if you will. So in my reporting, I traced all of the players in the national and international crisis back to a place in their lives where their ideals were pure and uncompromised.
This brought me to the 1950s. From there, I let these individuals narrate their own process of change, accommodation, and downfall. In this, I borrowed from the lessons of the Truth and Reconciliation movement, based on a theory that the demons of an awful history (South Africa's apartheid, Chile's political disappearances) could be exorcised by allowing victims, their relatives, perpetrators, and enablers the opportunity to describe their own realities. Something important happened when these stories overlapped in my outlines. An excruciatingly human tale emerged, especially from the perpetrators.
"I committed an abomination," one priest, Father Neil Conway, told me. He had sexually molested eight youths in his parish life, and as a result was barred from wearing the Roman collar or performing mass. "I'm sitting on the dunghill of my own shame and guilt."
It wasn't his apology that proved powerful, but his bold attempt to understand, and explain not excuse his actions. He agreed to speak to me, hoping it would help his own victims, and the estimated 100,000 others who were molested by priests.
"I don't want to be seen as a freak," he said. "I don't want to be an angry old man cursing at life. I don't want people to be morbidly curious about me. So what do I want? What do I want? There's a famous Tosca aria where she's trapped and she goes, 'God, you know my life is art, my trade is art and love.' I want to say: I was ordained a priest as a young man who was still a young boy fourteen years old emotionally and sexually. And I learned how to get what I thought I needed in the priesthood, doing what a priest does. Tosca says, 'Look what has happened to me!' I was so in love with my life, and at the same time I was in trouble right away, as soon as I stepped off the box.
"I didn't know how to get the right thing the right way. These were romance and intimacy for me, as I saw it. These were relationships! In that perverse state when I became a perpetrator, I was sure I was giving a great deal of pleasure. I thought I was giving them the gift of love a priest who really loved them. There's an old saying in Catholic theology: Agere sequitur esse, your actions come out of your being. I thought the way a fourteen-year-old does, so I reverted to the age of fourteen in my behavior. I don't want to overdramatize this, but in therapy they always ask: 'Did you feel part of you was hovering over the event?' Yes! Yes! That was it! I was able most of the time to block it out. I lived in two worlds."
Until the crisis broke, the Church lived in two worlds too, one governed by laws and the other by shame, arrogance, and a legal privilege not extended to any other institution. Luckily, that second world has collapsed, and the rule of law has returned to church matters.