The Application of Empathy to the Abuse Crisis

My colleague, classmate, and friend, Aaron Pidel, balances the New York Times’s point of view with some very helpful facts and some wise insights regarding how one might work through a trying time such as this. Aaron helpfully points to articles by John Allen and others. I would add to his list, this morning’s piece by Ross Douthat in the New York Times. Aaron also wonders if perhaps the more could have been done on the part of the Church and, in particular, the Holy Father. I would like to follow Aaron’s good points with some additional thoughts as I’ve reflected on the Church’s experience over the past few days and weeks. However, I would like to propose a different line of thought.

First, it is very tempting to get sucked into the New York Time’s powerful orbit. By that, I mean it is too easy to let the New York Times define the terms of this most recent revelation of crimes of Church members and the failures of the Church. The journal of record has its own  motives. It should come as no surprise that the Times is no fan of the Catholic Church, and, likewise, do not think for a second that selling papers is not first and foremost in mind’s of the publishers.  Moreover, these two details–anti-Catholic and pro-profit–are intimately, perhaps causally, linked. Anti-Catholicism has a long and healthy history in America. Although a variety of motivations have fueled anti-Catholicism in America, fear of the temporal power of the pope has been one of the chief and long-enduring reasons. In the nineteenth century, many argued that Catholics’ loyalty to the Roman Pontiff would weaken or undermine their civic duties. Because of the temporal claims of the pope, so the argument goes, Catholics in America could not freely exercise their liberty since their loyalties were split between Rome and home. To the typical nineteenth-century thinking person, Rome represented a serious and legitimate threat to the democratic project that is the USA. Examine the following political cartoon from Harper’s in 1871.

Click to enlarge the cartoon, and you will notice Lady Liberty, on the top of the cliff, being led to the gallows. On the river bank, crocodiles with mitres for heads threaten the school children. On the edifice of St. Peter’s notice the phrase “Political Catholic Church.” Thomas Nash drew this cartoon for Harper’s in the midst of a national debate on religion and public schools. The image of crocodiles, combined with the name Ganges, suggests the degree to which many Americans viewed Catholics as exotic and foreign. I would argue that the current strain of anti-Catholicism on display in the Times has its roots deeply buried in this history which I’ve outlined. The Times stokes this latent anti-Catholicism by using some of the same tactics as Nash–pointing out the strangeness of Catholicism vis a vis clerical celibacy. Furthermore, papers are guaranteed to sell if the Times can goad a response from the Vatican’s byzantine hierarchy then accompany its next article with a picture like the one below, which shows Benedict wearing what looks to be a Persian rug and hiding behind a talismanic plant sprung from the mind of James Cameron. To the average non-Catholic American all this looks very suspicious.

We should understand the true nature of the anti-Catholicism on display in the Times. It’s playing much more to America’s deep-seeded, historically-rooted anti-Catholicism–one based on a fear of some perceived power to undermine liberty. The Time’s beef with Rome is not doctrinal. In other words, the Times is not making an theological argument regarding the very nature of the Church. Perhaps, the Times isn’t even making a coherent argument at all. Whatever case they may or may not be making, it’s certainly not a new argument (cf. Nash’s cartoon). Therefore, let’s not get bogged down in these categories. In doing so we run a terrible risk in doing further damage to those members of the church who are most important: the victims.

Secondly, to approach this ‘crisis’ using the categories set out by the Times, is to risk making the crisis about the Pope, his prestige, his reputation, his theology, his performance, etc. To get into an argument with the Times (fueled as it is by a particularly American brand of anti-Catholicism) about the papacy is a fool’s errand. It leads people to defend the pope and the papacy, and, while that is important, it’s not the most important part of this whole sexual abuse equation. By taking a defensive crouch, by circling the papal public relations wagons (such as they are), the Church risks further harm to the victims of the abuse. We cannot forget that even one victim of sexual abuse is one too many and that, so long as there are victims of these crimes, they should be the primary focus of our empathy, our concern, and our Christ-like love. The Pope is a tough bird, and the papacy has been around, in one form or another, for a very long time.

In fact, the Pope himself, sent a moving and deeply felt apology to the Catholics of Ireland. The Pope focuses on the victims and their families: “I now turn to you with words that come from my heart, and I wish to speak to each of you individually and to all of you as brothers and sisters in the Lord.”  He goes on to note many of the factors that contributed to the poor efforts of the Church regarding its treatment of these little ones, the victims. Among them are:

…insufficient human, moral, intellectual and spiritual formation in seminaries and novitiates; a tendency in society to favor the clergy and other authority figures; and a misplaced concern for the reputation of the Church and the avoidance of scandal resulting in failure to apply existing canonical penalties and to safeguard the dignity of every person. (Letter to the Catholics of Ireland, 19 Mar 2010)

Then the Pope orders “urgent action” to address these factors which have played a role in obscuring “the light of the Gospel to a degree that not even centuries of persecution succeeded in doing.” In this statement regarding persecution, the Pope seems to suggest that when it comes to the mission of the Church, i.e., spreading the Good News, it will always encounter persecution–not much you can do about it (cf. Jesus). However, the “egregious crimes” at the center of the scandal are many times more harmful to the mission of the Church, and something must be done. Towards this end, the Pope makes some powerful recommendations. To the abusers he says, “openly acknowledge our guilt, submit yourselves to the demands of justice.”  To the bishops he advises “self-examination, inner purification and spiritual renewal” and recommends that they “deepen [their] pastoral concern for all members of [their] flock”.

Many thoughtful people will say the Pope has not gone far enough, and perhaps he has not.  Nonetheless, in this pastoral letter he focuses on the victims with an eye towards healing. He establishes some priorities, at the top of which is Jesus, “the light of the Gospel”and the Church’s mission to the victims. The safeguarding of the prestige of the papacy and the good name of the Church pales in significance when compared the the reconciling and healing that is needed. More of Benedict’s brother bishops might want to follow his lead in putting the Gospel ahead of any fears of being misrepresented, slandered, or mistreated in the New York Times. God knows the victims suffered more than that.

7 Responses to The Application of Empathy to the Abuse Crisis

  1. bill bannon says:

    Was it not the NY Times and the Boston Globe that in effect pushed the Church and the Bishops in the US into dealing with these matters in the South West meeting 5 years ago? And thus they helped our children greatly in the future. Has not the NY Times this week printed John Allen and Bill Donahue as to our take on this matter which is odd for an alleged anti Catholic paper? We seem very thin skinned. The world must go to Confession but we must not…we must defend, defend. Benedict should not be the main concern in any event. There were no magisterium heroes in these past 50 years whether him or John Paul; there was punctilious procedure following by the good amongst them….rabidly by the best of them. That is not exactly knocking over the tables of the money changers in the temple as Christ did against all correct temple procedures. No one who had access to the world’s microphones cried out.
    The main concern should be how did we let in the priesthood a man who molested 200 deaf children in the first place? Are we so desperate for clergy?

    You had a revelation this month… March 4 in all the papers about a married layman within the Vatican (a Papal gentleman and advisor to the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples)who was being connected to active gays by a member of the Giulia Choir at the Vatican and one prospective “fully active” gay (noted on police tape) was in the seminary there in Rome. This was discovered by the police as part of a corruption in government investigation but it means that active gays are not yesterday’s problem as is being represented by one of our spokesman last night on TV…the vociferous Bill Donahue. They are continuing to be attracted to our priesthood. Last year another Vatican official was caught soliciting by the police. We need the press and the police.

  2. Father Joseph LeBlanc says:

    Well said and written. I have passed it on throughout the diocese and area to our religious priests.

    It all sounds so horrific and it is and as a collective body we call the Body of Christ, I pray we will work diligently in this matter. As the papal retreat master, we need a purification within the clergy, but as you have written so well, let us not take our eyes off the people we should truly feel empathy for and that is the victims of these horrendous and criminal acts which per se are sinful. Good work.

  3. […] with the victims is what is needed most, and the pope, after all, is a “tough bird” (as this very good analysis shows). We do need more people like Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin, a […]

  4. crystal says:

    I saw today a post at dotCommonweal about the NYT and their coverage which takes a different view –

    • Jeff Johnson SJ says:

      Thanks Crystal. I’m not arguing that the Times is wrong to be covering the Church’s mishandling of these cases. My critique is directed more towards those among the Catholic voices that want to get into a fight with the Times over its coverage. I bring up the history of anti-Catholicism in America–not to suggest that Catholics are a poor little group who are being singled out unfairly–but to offer a way of reading the Time’s presentation of the material. The danger in responding to the Time’s bias can be seen in the response from the Catholic League in an ad on the Op-Ed page of the NY Times. Bill Donahue, president of the Catholic League, blames for victims for not coming forward sooner.

      Again I refer to the section of the pope’s letter to Ireland where he essentially shelves the idea of being worried about “persecution” and instead focuses on helping the victims of these crimes. Only time will tell whether or not the Church will take every action aimed at healing, which includes bringing to justice all who are complicit in the crimes. The alternative to this sort of loving response is to sit around and whine about the meanies at the NYT, or blame the victims.

  5. Henry says:


    A newspaper in Italy published the letter that Fr. Julian Carron, the President of Communion and Liberation, wrote about the scandal; and, if it’s OK with you, I’d like to share it with the Whosoever Desires community because parts of it remind me of what you wrote in your post.



    Let Us Return, Wounded, to Christ
    by Julián Carrón

    None of us has ever been as dismayed as we are in front of the heart-wrenching story of child abuse. Our dismay arises from our inability to respond to the demand for justice which springs from the bottom of our hearts.

    The request to assume responsibility, the acknowledgement of the evil committed, the reprimand for the mistakes made in the handling of the affair – all of this seems to us to be totally inadequate as we face this sea of evil. Nothing seems to be enough. And so we can understand the frustrated reactions that have been coming forth at this time.

    This has all served the purpose of making us stand face to face with our demand for justice, acknowledging that it is limitless, bottomless – as deep as the wound itself. Since it is infinite, it can never be satisfied. So the dissatisfaction, impatience and even the disillusionment of the victims are understandable, even after all the injuries and mistakes have been admitted: nothing can satisfy their thirst for justice. It’s like entering into an endless struggle. From this point of view, the ones who committed the abuse are paradoxically facing a challenge similar to that of the victims: nothing can repair the damage that has been done. This in no way means that their responsibility can be lifted, and much less the verdict that justice may impose upon them; it would not be enough even if they were to serve the maximum sentence.

    If this is the case, then the most burning question, which no one can escape, is as simple as it is unavoidable: “Quid animo satis?” What can satisfy our thirst for justice? This is where we begin to feel all our powerlessness, so powerfully expressed in Ibsen’s Brand: “Answer me, God, in the jaws of death: Is there no salvation for the Will of Man? No small measure of salvation?” In other words, can the whole force of human will succeed in bringing about the justice that we so long for?

    This is why even those who demand it most, those who are most insistent in calling for justice, will not be loyal to the depth of their nature with its demand for justice if they do not face this incapacity that they share with all men. Were we not to face it, we would fall prey to an even crueler injustice, to a veritable assassination of our humanity, because in order to keep on crying out for the justice that we formulate according to our own measurement, we have to silence the voice of our hearts, thus forgetting the victims and abandoning them in their struggle.

    It is the Pope who, paradoxically, in his disarming boldness, has not fallen prey to reducing justice to any sort of human measure. To begin with, he admitted without hesitation the gravity of the evil committed by priests and religious, urged them to accept their responsibility for it, and condemned the way certain bishops in their fear of scandal have handled the affair, expressing his deep dismay over what had happened and taking steps to ensure that it not happen again. But then, he expressed his full awareness that this is not enough to respond to the demand that there be justice for the harm inflicted: “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.” Likewise, even if the perpetrators serve their sentences, repent, and do penance, it will never be enough to repair the damage they did to the victims and to themselves.

    Benedict XVI’s recognition of the true nature of our need, of our struggle, is the only way to save our full demand for justice; it is the only way to take it seriously, to take it fully into consideration. “The demand for justice is a need that is proper to man, proper to a person. Without the possibility of something beyond, of an answer that lies beyond the existential modalities that we can experience, justice is impossible… If the hypothesis of a ‘beyond’ were eliminated, that demand would be unnaturally suffocated” (Father Giussani). So how did the Pope save this demand? By calling on the only one who can save it, someone who makes the beyond present in the here and now, namely, Christ, the Mystery made flesh. “Jesus Christ … was Himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, He still bears the wounds of His own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church.” Calling on Christ is not a way to seek a hiding place to run off to in the face of the demand for justice: it is the only way to bring justice about. The Pope calls upon Christ, and steers clear of a truly dangerous shoal, that of distancing Christ from the Church, as if the Church were too full of filth to be able to bear Him. The Protestant temptation is always lurking. It would have been very easy to give in to, but at too high a price – that of losing Christ. Because, as the Pope recalls, “it is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ.” And so, aware of the difficulty both the victims and the guilty have “to forgive or be reconciled with the Church,” he dares to pray that, by drawing near to Christ and sharing in the life of the Church, they “will come to rediscover Christ’s infinite love for each one of you,” since He is the only one able to heal their wounds and rebuild their lives.

    This is the challenge facing all of us who are incapable of finding an answer for our sins and for the sins of others: agreeing to take part in Easter, which we celebrate during these days, as the only way to see the re-blossoming of hope.

  6. Kevin says:

    This abuse crisis is a horrible – in a scary way- and for the general public, a largely misunderstood, however wrong, problem. I completely agree with you when you say that it is hard to seek a personal view on the issue – the “temptation to get sucked into the New York Times orbit” is extremely dynamic. It has become more and more difficult to think for yourself in a time where the media seemingly controls the social aspects of society. I believe that the actions in question are overtly wrong, however, the public and media have taken the moral aspects of the crime and turned it into a severe problem for the Church.
    The Church teaches us to be respectful and hospitable to others. Obviously, there are times when, regrettably, human desires take hold of our conscience, propelling us to do bad, and sometimes truly disgusting things. What we Christians should take from this is, in a brighter light, how do we accept, without ignoring, the sins of some clergy members and learn from them? How do you think we should react to both the atrocities and the media’s response? We are taught to forgive our brothers for their sins; should we not practice what we preach? I genuinely hope that the media will realize one day that forgiveness, not blame, is the answer to these kinds of struggles.

    Great article; it really touched me.

    Peace and God bless.

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