You may have seen the stories in the state and national news this week of several states’ attorneys general in the U.S.—including ours in New Mexico—subpoenaing Catholic dioceses’ for all material pertaining to child abuse by clergy and staff. I’ve often wondered why such hasn’t been done long before now, and can’t deny that I’m glad to see it come about if it effects more assurance in the public. Not that I expect much, if any, new revelations in the Santa Fe Archdiocese; hopefully not in others, either.
But such scrutiny shines an even brighter light into any obscure nook and cranny failures of the past to assist in such atrocities never recurring. Our hope is that such secular and independent investigations will verify that the Church has truly been working effectively to correct the situation, pursue healing for victims, and to assure the public of the same.
It’s not only the general public that such investigations will assure, but also we priests slogging away out here “in the trenches” away from “headquarters”. We, unfortunately, labor under the general suspicion that the pall of this tragedy has created, and yet remain largely in the dark as to the inner workings of diocesan bureaucracy—as is true, really, for members of ANY large organization. After all, how many of you working at LANL really know what’s going on in high administration? For instance, assuming it was accurate, many are talking about the recent CBS Whistleblower episode concerning past lackadaisical LANL security—hopefully rectified. But … how can you really know?
Yet we do know by common (and frequent) experience that people in general—including administrators and those in authority—often look to advance (or at least protect) their own interests rather than to advance the general or greater good … such efforts often being damage control after some failure. Thus, whatever an organization’s declarations of reform, only independent investigation brings assurance to the public, else one cannot help but wonder: “What might they be hiding?”
We know all too well also how “internal investigations” can be incomplete or—worse—cover ups. As St. Paul wisely discerned: “…what person knows a man’s thoughts except the spirit of the man which is in him?” (1 Corinthians 2:11) Yes, such investigations will be a pain in the neck for both investigators and investigated, but it wouldn’t be needed if the job had been done right in the first place. After all, in the Church’s case, it doesn’t take a genius to realize that sexually abusing a child is simply evil incarnate. Thus St. Paul’s advice is most applicable: “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear.” (1 Timothy 5:20)
But, to be fair, the vast majority of these horrid things happened several decades in the past, and current Church bishops/administrators have only inherited the tragedy to try to deal with, weighing justice for victims against rights of accused. After all, ask yourself: what constitutes a “credible” accusation? Should a priest or volunteer be removed at ANY accusation of malfeasance, knowing that to do so in the current climate could easily destroy his career/vocation, reputation and life, even if he’s actually innocent? Might unscrupulous persons be motivated by extortion, blackmail or even simply by spite or anti-religious agenda? Or, in releasing personal information, are leaders violating legal rights of accused? These are some of the many difficult moral and legal issues and judgments that Church leaders must weigh.
One of the best things about independent investigations is to have fresh eyes looking at a problem so as to assist in the improvement of procedures aimed at eliminating criminal behavior and/or ineffective practices. No matter how minutely thought out are procedures, there’s always that “Swiss cheese” effect, where individually minor holes in security or practice line up to result in disaster. A very public example was the Mars Climate Orbiter, which met its disastrous fate simply because of a measurement unit conversion programming omission. And, just like that … a $328 million hunk of scrap metal is on Mars. Perhaps more relevantly to our subject, no matter how secure a prison, some prisoner finds a way to escape. Or no matter how effective a shield, someone will find a way to defeat or circumvent it.
Despite such negative experiences, perhaps these investigations WILL provide ways to build a virtually impenetrable shield for the protection of our little ones especially. Responsibility for justice and protection of persons is the gravest of duties and obligations and must never again be so heinously neglected. This tragic episode highlights how lightly lay the gossamer veil of civilization upon the internal brute animal, which resides within … illustrating—sadly but inescapably—the need for constant vigilance in every walk of life. As Merlin replied in the movie “Excalibur” when asked where evil remained in Arthur’s kingdom: “Always where you least expect it.” That may sound cynical … but better that than even one more abused child. May God bless them and ever keep them safe.