The Arrogance of Power
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, September 29, 2002
We never know where we’re going to find inspiration—or (if you’re a minister) ideas for a sermon.
One Saturday afternoon this summer, Noah and I and one of his friends went to see an utterly forgettable movie called Reign of Fire. The plot had something to do with dragons taking over the world, and anyway, eventually the good guys (that would be we human ones) win. The dragons are defeated.
But for a while there, the humans faced some pretty tough times. All of the major cities of the world had been destroyed; what people remained were living in isolated, little colonies—off in wilderness areas somewhere, or up in the mountains, completely isolated, completely cut off from one another. The movie focused on the exploits of one of these isolated groups—off in the hills of Scotland somewhere, I think (or maybe in was Wales, or England, whatever.)
This group had managed to survive. Life went on. But their existence was still very precarious; they faced many dangers; there were harrowing moments whenever their lookouts spotted evidence of dragons somewhere off on the horizon. And whenever they saw a big scary dragon approaching, they would, of course, sound an alarm bell. The group back in the cave would then spring into action—sealing the entrances; turning off all the lights; putting out fires; herding everyone deeper and deeper, down the stairs, into the caves below. The first thing they did, every time, was gather up the children and lead them to safety. “Did you get the children?” one of the leaders would ask the others. A special cave—more secure than all the others, farther from harm than all the others—had been reserved for the youngest among them. The group’s first priority was to save its children.
And it occurred to me, then and there, in the midst of this most mediocre movie: Yes, the first priority of any group worth its salt—any organization, any institution, any nation, any church which deserves to survive—is to protect its children from harm; is to nurture and shelter the weakest and most vulnerable members of its society.
Needless to say, not all organizations have been as caring and protective of their children.
In the United States alone, somewhere between 2,000 and 5,000 Catholic priests have been implicated for allegedly abusing children, and almost 100 priests have been defrocked. The Catholic Church has reportedly paid significantly more than $1 billion to the victims.
In January of this year, a particularly scandalous case involving a Boston priest who was accused of abusing children over a 30-year span triggered a national outcry. The priest, who had allegedly molested more than 140 children, had been transferred by superiors from parish to parish, where he continued to prey upon young boys.
Then there was the case of John Geoghan—perhaps the nation’s most conspicuous example of a sexually abusive member of the clergy. The number of Geoghan’s victims along is numbing—nearly 200 have come forward so far. Even more stunning (and just as unfathomable perhaps) is the way two successive cardinals (Medeiros and Law) and the Boston Catholic hierarchy handled Geoghan’s case. For more than two decades—even as they learned all the sordid details of Geoghan’s crimes, and how Geoghan could not control his compulsion to attack sexually young boys—some as young as four years old—the hierarchy continued to protect and promote Geoghan, moving him to one parish after another. According to one Boston Globe reporter “Geoghan found extraordinary solace in the Church’s culture of secrecy.” When Geoghan finally was forced into “retirement” (for “health reasons”) in 1996—long after his assaults against dozens of children had been detected—Cardinal Law wrote to him:
These words were addressed to a pervert of the most heinous despicable crime—a man who should have been put behind bars, not sent from parish to parish. They spit in the face of good and loyal men and women members of the clergy everywhere.
When news of the hierarchy’s “protection” of Geoghan—and the widescale coverup of his crimes—was exposed in the press—all hell broke loose within the Catholic Church—and not just in the Boston archdiocese. “This is our September 11th,” wrote Thomas Groome, a former priest, now a professor of theology at Boston College. “It’s a nightmare, and it breaks our hearts.”
Now, I am not here just this morning to point the finger at the Catholic Church or to criticize the arrogance and ineptitude of Cardinal Law. (In a way, criticizing Cardinal Law has become like shooting fish in a barrel; it’s just too darn easy.) The Catholic Church is a faith with a long and noble tradition, which has done much good the world over, especially in the fields of charitable work and social justice. Our Western spiritual history is filled with the names of noble, self-sacrificing Catholic women and men, lay and ordained alike, who have contributed to our human progress upon this Earth: women like Dorothy Day and Mother Theresa; men like Thomas Merton and Pope John XXIII. There are thousand, and tens of thousands, of good, honest, hard-working, truly Christ-like Catholic priests across our land (and around our world) who have been unfairly tarred by the taint of the perverted minority in their midst. My heart goes out to them at what must still be a very difficult time.
Nor are any churches—or any institutions – perfect; least of all ours. We have our own issues to face—like why our denomination has failed to attract people of color in any significant number; like why in many our Unitarian Universalist churches (not here in Stoughton, thankfully), there are no significant number of working class people in our pews; like why this denomination of ours, which places at the top of the list in average years of education and average family income, places near the bottom of the list in average charitable giving. We have issues, too; we have no right just to “point fingers” at others.
But the abuse scandal within the Catholic Church—as distasteful as it is to deal with, and as difficult as it is to deal with, and as vigilant as we always need to be in criticizing the faiths of others—nevertheless is a profoundly important religious and spiritual issue of our day—and so, I believe, deserves some kind of analysis and response in the context of our worship together.
I think that it says something very disturbing not just about the Catholic Church, but about our entire society’s view of children. If those dragons were to attack our homeland, who would be given the choicest place of protection, who would we save first? Would it be our children?
I don’t think so.
We say we care about children in this culture. Yet we pay preschool teachers about $8 an hour on average. We tell elementary school teachers just to “make do” with budget cuts, and classrooms that are more and more crowded, and books that are older and older, and supplies that are less and less adequate. We put our kids on school buses that are unsupervised, and drive them off to school buildings, some of which resemble factories more than havens of learning.
We say we care about children in our country, and we love it when our politicians mouth slogans like “Leave No Child Behind” and talk about how much they care about the family. But we have poorly staffed and under-trained child welfare agencies, like the one in Florida that can’t keep track of its children and fails to keep watch on them.
We say we care about children in our country, but programs like Headstart and infant nutrition and childhood immunization remain woefully under-funded—and the average real income for children in most American homes has dropped steadily since 1980.
Perhaps the anti-child attitude with the Catholic Church is just the tip of the iceberg as far as the anti-child attitudes of our culture are concerned. Perhaps the Catholic Church’s marginalization and minimalization of its molested children’s pain and suffering—its willingness to shunt them aside in order to protect its own—merely mirrors a society which would readily marginalize and shunt aside those redundant, inconvenient to the functioning of our society’s all-pervasive economic machine.
In 1989—13 years ago now—a young man from Boston, Thomas Blanchette, went up to Cardinal Law and personally told him that his priest, Father Joseph Birmingham, had molested him and his four brothers hundreds of times. According to the Boston Globe, Balnchette said: “[Cardinal Law] laid his hands on my head for two or three minutes. And then he said this: ‘I bind you by the power of the confessional never to speak about this to anyone else.’” Blanchette added: “And that just burned me big time… I didn’t ask him to hear my confession. I was there to inform him.” Cardinal Law’s spokeswoman acknowleged that Law had “a vague recollection” of such an encounter with Blanchette.
The question that truly nags at me is why the Catholic Church’s hierarchy has felt this compulsive need for silence, secrecy, and darkness over its proceedings in this area. Why should people who are, supposedly, doing God’s work fear the truth? Why this mania for cover-up on the part of the Boston archdiocese? Why all this energy expended to defend and protect a bunch of perverts which just about any other institution would have summarily cast out of its ranks in a flash?
It’s about power and control, and the inability of the old models of “leadership” to change in the face of changing times.
Under the old model, when one’s power group (in this case, the priesthood) is threatened, the first reaction is to “circle the wagons”—cover up—deny—distract attention—and hope that the crisis blows over.
In April, as this scandal grew, the Pope called eleven U.S. cardinals and two leading bishops to Rome for a conference. Many Catholics—lay and ordained alike—and the families and victims hoped that the “Holy Father” would set things right; their hopes were quickly dashed. The Pope issued a statement vaguely condemning child molestation and calling it a “crime” (that it took the Catholic Church 2000 years to call the molesting of children a “crime” is a question in and of itself). He talked about the sins of individual priests—but said nothing about the way Church leaders acted (or didn’t) in responding to these crimes.
The cardinals came back to the U.S. with orders to carry out damage control, and to launch a fierce, unapologetic defense of conservative Catholic traditions—including a wholescale campaign against gay clergy and the “homosexualization” of certain Catholic seminaries. Gay priests were now to be the scapegoats for the hierarchy’s failings.
The church hierarchy has launched a campaign against any attempts by the Catholic laity to sieze control of their church—to change the leadership within the American Catholic Church. Cardinal Law has steadfastly resisted all calls that he resign. He has forbidden parish councils in his diocese from organizing among themselves. He has launched an attack against “Voice of the Faithful”—a powerful, energized organization of lay Catholics which now claims more than 15,000 members—and he has even refused to accept the donations of “Voice of the Faithful” members for carrying out charitable work within the Archdiocese of Boston.
One of Cardinal Law’s successors even went so far as to say that what these “reform Catholics” who were criticizing the Cardinal were really after was to transform the Church into some form of “Catholic Unitarian Universalism”. (Well, that doesn’t sound too bad to me…)
Cardinal Law, obviously, has failed to heed the lessons that this crisis in his church should have taught him. There are important lessons about leadership and power that he should have grasped by now:
First of all, leadership is about listening (as well as seeing—and paying attention). It’s about hearing the news that the people you serve are brining you, and not trying to hush them up—through the power of the confessional as Law did with Blanchette—or through monetary settlements alone—or through “non-disclosure” clauses in these settlements. Real leadership is not about shooting the messenger, or calling the wrath of God down upon the Boston Globe (as law did, quite literally, in 1996). Leadership is about listening.
Second, real leadership is about learning; it’s about changing. It’s about being willing to do things differently—being willing to cast aside tradition’s chains and the old, outworn ways when they become a noose around our necks instead-- and knowing that “new occasions teach new duties”. When one truly serves a God who always changes (just look around at the changing seasons and the ever-changing Earth; God’s name is change)—when one serves a living Gospel of a living Christ—then such change—relentless, inevitable, ineffable—is not just possible, but mandatory. But when one is only serving instead the dead weight of a moribund institution, and clinging for dear life to one’s own perks and privileges and prestige, any real change is a threat that must be resisted at all cost.
Third, a real leader knows that he or she is a servant-leader. In the gospel of Mark, we read: “Whoever would be a leader among you must first be a servant, and whoever would be slave among you must be slave of all.” Instead of trying to maximize the power of the leadership position—my Church, my vision, my role, my position—the servant leader affirms that the position of leadership is not a position of power per se, but primarily one of service. These kinds of leaders see themselves as primarily servants of something greater than themselves. As Jesus said: “The first shall be last and the last shall be first.” And “whoever becomes like a little child shall be the first to enter the kingdom of God.” Or, as Thomas Groome has mused on the priestly pedophilia scandal: “If a couple of grandmothers had been members of Law’s cabinet, they would surely have asked, ‘What about the children?’” That’s because grandmothers (more than anyone else in the world, perhaps) have a lot to teach all of us about serving—and about truly leading.
And finally, real spiritual leaders come as wounded healers. They put down the façade of infallibility, or perfectionism, of guru-dum, of being “better than”, “smarter than”, more “perfect than”, “higher than”, “more holier than” those they lead. We best minister to one another—we best lead with one another—only when we acknowledge our own imperfections, failings and follies, addictions and afflictions—the ways in which we have been wounded, hurt by the world, and the ways we have worked through the pain that life gives all of us, the ways in which we have worked through the things this world can do to us.
At the heart of ministry, at the heart of leadership, lies a spirit of compassion: compassion for perpetrators, yes—but only after justice has been done and crimes have been punished. Overriding all concerns must be compassion for the victims of these terrible crimes—and a prayer for healing for them, for without healing, there can be no real justice.
Perhaps some good can come of all of this, though at a cost so unspeakably great.
One cannot be faulted for hoping
that those who cling to the rigid, severe
precipice of the past--
and all those dead weights of
sexism, misogyny, racism, homophobia,
brutality against children, the slaughter and plunder
of people of other nations and other religions—
will be swept away in the rising waters of ordinary people
empowered at last to open their eyes;
empowered at last to speak their truth.
One cannot be faulted for hoping
that from the anguished cries and shattered lives
new hymns of praise and joy might yet arise,
and that these beautiful children,
too soon broken and bruised
may be new paschal lambs,
a new confession and a new atonement,
to call the Spirit home again,
not to any grand cathedral,
but to the simple temple of love,
whose choicest seats and safest havens
are always guaranteed
to its youngest sons and daughters.
May our hearts grieve for the victims of these heinous crimes of commission and crimes of omission. And may they be, perhaps, the tender, innocent harbingers of the new church—and a new world—that may yet be.