clergy abuse crisis

Clergy abuse, diocesan response, and moral duplicity

Many Catholics are committed to a sort of bourgeois church life, where conflicts which could upend communities and challenge the status quo are avoided and, thus, the problems are perpetuated.

As I have continued to make my way through Alasdair MacIntyre’s Ethics in the Conflicts of Modernity, it has struck me that his concerns about moral reasoning can be helpful in identifying key problems in the Catholic Church’s clergy abuse crisis. Take, for example, the options MacIntyre presents for those who realize they have been living their lives with duplicity, something they have only realized when the two parts of themselves come into conflict. We might consider, for example, a Catholic bishop who has found roles in conflict when faced with abuse victims, having to choose whether to select and operate under the norms and expectations of the role of CEO, or those of the role of pastor, to inform the decision-making. When the conflict between roles arises, he has three options:

“They may simply choose that alternative, if there is one, that will allow them to continue as comfortably as possible in their duplicity, although no longer able to disguise their incoherence from themselves. From now on they are cynical hypocrites. Or they may instead choose between the alternatives in such a way as to render their lives coherent, although only in this particular area in which choice has become inescapable. Or they may, perhaps with difficulty in pondering this particular choice, recognize the overall duplicity of their lives and by the choice that they make put an end to their duplicity.”


What MacIntyre means here by “duplicity” is not really malicious deception. It is, rather, a lack of unity when it comes to the roles played by a moral agent, and the fact that those roles will have differing norms and expectations which may at times be in conflict. This is evident when one considers the role of Catholic bishop in the midst of clergy abuse scandals. When someone brings forward to a Catholic bishop that they have been abused by a priest, the bishop is faced with roles that seem to dictate conflicting responses. On the one hand, the bishop is a chief executive officer and administrator of an institution and the face of a public brand. In this role, he is responsible for the stability of an institution and its offices and representatives (including its priests). On the other hand, the bishop is a shepherd of a flock, and in this role, he is responsible for the care, affirmation, and spiritual development of the lay faithful.

In my framing of these options, I don’t mean to indicate that one of these roles is good, while the other is bad. Good administration and branding is valuable and helpful for achieving good ends. And it is possible to be a bad pastor by, for example, creating such deep relationships that issues of codependency arise. The point of the matter is, however, that most priests and other Church leaders occupy both roles today, switching between them as is needed from situation to situation, and often being able to construct a world such that the two roles do not appear to conflict.

For a long time in the Church, these roles did not appear to conflict when it came to the question of clergy abuse. Priests and bishops worked among their flocks, helping and supporting them. While the norms and expectations of the pastor role were prioritized in liturgical life and service with the poor, Catholic leaders acted such that, when it came to instances of clerical abuse, the person-focused role of pastor would be set aside for the prioritization of the norms and expectations of the CEO, often with the proviso that utilizing these norms and expectations were pastoral, in that they supported the “good of the flock.” The switching between roles was often quite smooth, and one could act in one role while pretending to be the other. But media coverage and legal battles over the last few decades have made the maintenance of both roles much more difficult, pushing the public to see the “good of the flock” (understood as in opposition with the good of the individual abused) as a false good, arguing that administrator and brand ambassador roles are destructive to the Church at times, and creating public conflicts requiring a reorientation of perspective and practice. In any event, the roles of CEO and pastor came into public conflict, and Catholic institutions had to make a choice.

The three options provided by MacIntyre represent three ways in which Catholic dioceses have responded to such situations. An indeterminate number of dioceses have adopted the first option, simply choosing the alternative “that will allow them to continue as comfortably as possible in their duplicity, although no longer able to disguise their incoherence from themselves.” Choosing this first option, they may recognize the danger that the CEO’s norms and expectations regarding clergy abuse allegations present for vulnerable persons, but they choose to continue with these norms and expectations when responding to incidents of abuse. They might do this by alleging that their diocese does not have a problem, and by hiding instances of abuse (sometimes on the part of the leaders). Downplaying the significance of the problem or the seriousness of the harm is essential here.

An indeterminate number of dioceses may have adopted the third option (I’ll return to the second), that of recognizing “the overall duplicity of their lives and by the choice that they make put an end to their duplicity.” They may recognize the ways in which the prioritization of the norms and expectations of CEO were toxic and dangerous to the Church, and have chosen to reject or totally rework these norms and expectations, adopting a framework that can be integrated with pastoral norms and expectations.

The Second Option

The vast majority of dioceses, I believe, have adopted the second option. They have chosen “between the alternatives in such a way as to render their lives coherent, although only in this particular area in which choice has become inescapable.” That is, they have not approached the issues of the clergy abuse crisis as issues related to the adoption of toxic norms and expectations associated with the framing of particular roles, but have chosen instead to adopt measures required only to prevent or minimize instances of the discrete problem before them: clergy abuse of minors. Indeed, the role of CEO, of administrator and brand ambassador, continues to be the primary role in many related and ancillary contexts, in large part because the dangers of this role in those contexts have not become abundantly clear. What is needed to address the harms caused by this is likely what was needed for Catholic leaders to recognizes the harms of the specific crisis of clerical abuse of minors: mass media coverage, bankruptcies, public outcry, the ostracization and then vindication of whistleblowers, and mass exoduses of the lay faithful.

The evidence that the majority of dioceses have adopted this second option is abundant. Dioceses have not taken this incredible learning opportunity to consider the range of issues involved that lead to the clergy abuse crisis. They have failed to rework and reconsider processes and policies for a host of other problems, such as abuse of power, sexual abuse of adults by clergy, financial corruption, spiritual and emotional abuse, and the cover-up or dismissal of sexual abuse by pastors. When it comes to struggles over power, influence, and vulnerabilities of the lay faithful in the face of Church representatives, the norms and expectations of the CEO prevail, with their overriding concerns about internal stability, external reputation, and “due process.” (I don’t mean to reject the value and importance of due process, but would rather like to raise a question as to the extent to which “due process” is used as a decontextualized excuse for inaction, rather than employed as a robust principle in the best interests of all persons.) Dioceses who had adopted the third option, of recognizing the overall duplicity and putting an end to it, would have dug into these other issues, proactively making holistic changes of perspective and practice, integrating what was alleged to have been learned in the clergy abuse crises with a wide range of issues. They would have seen the problem not only being how they respond to this particular issue, but how they have conceived of their roles more broadly. Unfortunately, the issue of clergy abuse of minors has been treated as far too discrete an issue, suggesting a commitment to ongoing incoherency in moral perspective and practice, the maintenance of dual roles and their conflicting norms and expectations.

In my own archdiocese, this is abundantly clear when different types of issues are brought forward. The Pillar recently covered the story of a priest who pressured a child sexual abuse survivor into silence and then lied about it. After a two year investigation the Archdiocese labeled it a “he said, she said” situation, but also determined the priest in need of a “rehabilitative” process which has allowed him to continue as if nothing has happened. (In the article, the priest seemed to jovially frame this process as a sort of professional development opportunity.) Much of this process has been quite infuriating to me, and suggests that very little has been learned after scandal and bankruptcy rocked my local Church.

But this characterization would in some ways be unfair. I do believe that if you are physically abused by a priest, the Archdiocese has far improved processes and policies to address the problem. But because we have chosen this second option in response to our crisis, the lessons learned which resulted in changes in our approach to one particular problem did not transfer over and result in sufficient change to other problems. The problem may be made clearer by the fact that one response to the survivor abused by a parish volunteer and retraumatized by the dismissal and dishonesty of her parish priest might have been: “I’m sorry. But if only the person who abused you would have been the priest, and the person who dismissed you would have been the bishop, then this process would have been much better for you.”

The great and continued tragedy is that when those harmed by Church leaders try to come forward, they often experience the situation as one of conflict, in which they are understood by many in the process as just one of the competing antagonists. This is a problem in need of wisdom. We might think of King Solomon. When he prayed for wisdom, what he was given was the ability to shed light onto a problem in such a way that the conflict erupted and the evil-doers exposed themselves as those seeking more than that to which they were entitled. The Church needs to pray for this sort of wisdom.

Also the Laity

These problems are not limited to clergy and Church leaders. They are also accepted and perpetuated by everyday Catholics. This acceptance and perpetuation of the underlying issues to our crises can be seen in a number of ways. Catholics who avoid learning about the clergy abuse crisis, or who do not want to hear about instances of clergy or other abuse in their own communities demonstrate that, whatever they may say, they do not really oppose such abuse. They are quite happy to live with its continuation, so long as they do not have to hear about it. They forget that some of the primary reasons that McCarrick was able to continue his damage to the Church include that each of his “accusers” were assumed to be the only one, allegations were not believed, an emphasis was placed on the “good work” he was doing and that he was believed by many to be a “holy man,” and that the allegations against him were (and continue to be) “he said, he said” situations. It’s easy to overlook this last, and extremely important, fact.

The moral perspective of many lay Catholics, allegedly opposing such abuse, does not integrate with moral responsibility when local, practical, and personal conflicts arise which might demand doing or learning something uncomfortable. These problems continue when abuse survivors are not heard, accepted, and explicitly believed by lay persons. Such failures on the part of lay persons similarly evidence a failure to learn what is required to empower the vulnerable to share their experiences, effectively asking the abused to live in their suffering and to do nothing to prevent their abusers from continuing their work on others. What this all demonstrates is that many Catholics are committed to a sort of bourgeois church life, where conflicts which could upend communities and challenge the status quo are avoided and, thus, the problems are perpetuated. This is how a problem moves from being personal to being systemic.

All this is underscored by the fact that there was loud outcry and outrage with the release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and the coverage of McCarrick’s misdeeds, that Catholics everywhere grieved and called for something better, but that after the dust had settled, no perceptible changes could be noted at many American parishes or among many Catholic persons. Most of us did not treat each other differently. Our expectations for our leaders perhaps changed in amorphous ways, but not in ways that resulted in actual concrete changes or action taken to cause them. We sensed that something was deeply wrong in the Catholic world, but most of us were able to evade any difficult changes related to this realization. If we are uncomfortable, it is because someone is making us uncomfortable by making noise about issues in the Church related to abuse, sexuality, and power, and we’d rather that they just go away.

None of this is meant to dismiss the many important changes that have occurred. Things have changed for the better in many ways. But what this all means is that there are more crises to come.

The best we can do is to continue moving forward. Even if our Church leaders are not doing enough to prepare for the eruption of these crises, we ourselves can continue to learn, advocate, and move forward. Moral duplicity is endemic to the modern world. It is unavoidable, and it is something through which we must all work over the course of our lives. The clergy abuse crisis has shed a bright light onto many of the dynamics of this duplicity, and if we can learn from this crisis it will benefit not only the Church generally, but also each of us personally. We must move forward. This movement is what will distinguish us as persons. It will distinguish us as Christians.

Chris Damian

is a writer, speaker, attorney, and business professional living in the Twin Cities. He received his B.A. in Philosophy from the University of Notre Dame and his J.D. and M.A. in Catholic Studies from the University of St. Thomas. His writings focus primarily on Catholicism, homoeros, and law, and have appeared in Logos, Commonweal Magazine, Church Life Journal, and other publications. In his free time, he enjoys hosting seminars, creative writing workshops, and dinner parties.

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