March 30, 2023.
Our culture of abuse is not just a problem for our clergy. It is a problem of the laity, too. The laity participate in and perpetuate this culture. Loyalty is valued more than goodness and integrity, leading to a culture of silence. Violations of chastity are readily accepted. The laity struggle with chastity as much as if not more than clergy. However in a clerical setting, violations of chastity even with consenting adults can lead to blackmail. Loyalty, silence, lack of chastity, and blackmail are key ingredients of a culture of abuse. (And to be clear, I am referring not only to child abuse but the abuse of adults as well. I am talking not just about abuse experienced by lay people but also that experienced by men and women religious.)
Indeed these cultural elements, these ingredients, could not exist without the willing and active support of the laity. After all, our priests and men and women religious all start off as lay people. Their first formation took place in families, not clerical settings. I may be wrong, but from what I can tell, in virtually every situation of abuse by our clergy, lay individuals looked the other way. They did not question, they did not follow up on their suspicions, they did not ask questions. This is true even when the victims were their own children. They were loyal. They were silent.
In the biographical movie “Spotlight” produced in 2015, one of the lawyers helping victims, Mitchell Garabedian, says, “If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a village to abuse them”. We have an abuse crisis because the “village” accepts it and enables it.
To be sure, many institutions, groups, clubs, and families suffer with similar problems. Loyalty, devotion, and overlooking the bad deeds of the people we care about is part of human nature. At its most extreme, we tolerate abuse due to trauma bonds. We all need others to survive, so there is an intense drive to remain in favor of those taking care of us. Our church takes care of us in deep and intimate ways. Many people cannot jeopardize this aspect of their lives. Rightly or wrongly, they think speaking up after witnessing some kind of bad, sinful, or abusive activity will lead to them being ostracized.
But most people would admit our church is in crisis. Something needs to be fixed, and this fixing is not mostly or even primarily the duty of the clergy. The duty rests on all of us.
There is one simple method that anyone can implement, one battle each individual Catholic can fight. We can help remove one of the key ingredients sustaining the abuse and its coverup, which is its own kind of abuse. Each and everyone of us can commit to fighting the culture of silence. We can commit to talking and listening to each other.
As individuals, we can openly praise the good, true, and beautiful wherever they may be found. We must be careful to praise these things about our adversaries. We can and must condemn evil as well. We must be careful to do this even when it is our own leaders, friends, or allies that are involved. Finally, we must strive to live with integrity. When we fail to live up to our own standards, we need to call ourselves out, too.