Monday, July 8, 2013

Frank Bruni is correct: The Church's shepherds were errant during the priest child-abuse scandal. But Bruni was wrong to criticize Cardinal Dolan.

In 1989, Judith Herman wrote a profound book entitled Trauma and Recovery, in which she linked the research on combat trauma with the physical and psychological trauma inflicted on civilians--victims of incest, child molestation, spousal abuse, etc. Herman made a major contribution to psychiatric literature when she pointed out that symptoms of combat stress and the symptoms exhibited by psychological and sexual abuse victims were similar and that both groups suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder--PTSD.

In her book, Herman asserted that everything we know today about PTSD was known after the First World War, when young men came home with "combat fatigue" and "shell shock." In the years following the Great War, medical professionals identified the causes and symptoms of PTSD
Bruni was wrong to criticize
Cardinal Dolan.
Photo credit: NY Times
and came to realize that the damage for some young men was permanent.

Unfortunately, the medical profession and society in general forgot what we learned about PTSD after World War I. After all, it is inconvenient to contemplate the damage inflicted on the powerless by violence, sexual exploitation of the young, and psychological abuse.  So--we pushed what we knew about PTSD out of our minds.

Obviously, the Catholic Church leadership--bishops, church administrators and even some cardinals--suffered from an unaccountable lapse in human compassion when they failed
to report sexually abusive priests to the police and covered up what they knew about the abuse.  In case after case,  church leaders assigned priests who were known child rapists to positions where they would continue to prey on children.

As a scholar, I have written a great deal about sexual abuse in the public schools and have served as an expert witness in a case brought by parents of a child who committed suicide after being abused by a school employee in a Catholic school.  Nevertheless, I still can't fathom why our Catholic Church leaders failed to stop the sexual abuse of children and even hid it from the police.

Even a person of the meanest understanding knows that the sexual abuse of a child demands swift and sometimes even ruthless action by responsible adults.  I know because I once was a practicing lawyer who represented school districts and confronted sexual abuse in the public schools very early in my career.

Even though I had no special training or expertise in the sexual abuse of children at the time I handled my first case of school-based child molestation, I knew my clients had legal and moral obligations that were not negotiable.

Even as a unseasoned country lawyer (I practiced law in Alaska and represented rural school districts), these rules were immediately apparent to me:

1. First, my clients were obligated by state law to report suspected child abuse to the police or the state children's services agency. This was an urgent legal obligation. They could not delay reporting for a week or even a day.  They were obligated to report immediately.
2. My clients were obligated to get suspected child abusers away from children and to promptly begin dismissal proceedings if the evidence warranted.
3. My clients were obligated to cooperate with the police in child-abuse investigations and criminal prosecutions.
4. Finally, under no circumstances would my clients cooperate with sexually abusive employees to help them find new jobs that would allow them to get access to more children.

Obviously, if Catholic bishops had followed these four rules, the Church would not be in the trouble it is in today. And Frank Bruni was right to call attention to the Church's "errant shepherds" in his recent op ed essay on the sexual abuse of children by priests.

Indeed, every priest who raped or molested a child and every Church administrator who helped cover it up has imperiled his soul.  What was it Jesus said? "It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were thrown into the sea, than that he would cause of one of these little ones to stumble."

Nevertheless, I disagree with Bruni's characterization of Cardinal Timothy Dolan's response to the sexual abuse scandal in the Milwaukee Archdiocese when Dolan was archbishop there.  As Archbishop, Dolan had a responsibility to rid his archdiocese of abusers, but he also had a responsibility to protect Church assets in a prudent way. After all, the Milwaukee Archdiocese is responsible for church buildings, schools, and various Catholic charitable institutions where great good takes place.

As far as I know, Cardinal Dolan did nothing inappropriate regarding the priest abuse scandal in the Milwaukee Archdiocese when he was archbishop there; and nothing Bruni said in his recent op ed essay convinced me otherwise. As Bruni himself wrote, Dolan "has often demonstrated a necessary vigor in ridding the priesthood of abusers."

Certainly all priests who raped or molested children should be in jail. Indeed, if it were not for Pope John Paul's rejection of capital punishment in civil societies, I would be tempted to say some of these priest should have been executed.

And certainly, any member of the Church hierarchy who hid evidence of priestly child abuse from the police should be in jail as well. In fact, if even one Catholic bishop had served jail time for covering up sexual abuse, that abuse would probably have stopped all over the world.

But lets not besmirch our honorable and upright Church leaders--men like Cardinal Dolan--for the sake of making a point about the Church's tragic errors.  Our Church needs spiritual leaders like Cardinal Dolan, now more than ever.

References

Frank Bruni, The Church's Errant Shepherds. New York Times, July 7, 2013, Review Section, p. 3.

Judith Herman. Trauma and Recovery.New York, NY: Basic Books, 1992.


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