Dealing with the “Poor Father” Syndrome

The latest abuse scandal in the Twin Cities points up the importance of Pope Francis' attack on clericalism.

A decade ago, I heard a Catholic lawyer who’d made a career of representing religious institutions in sex abuse cases describe the difference between reporting a wayward clergyman to a Methodist or Episcopal bishop versus “one of ours.” In the former case, he’d sit down in the Protestant leader’s living room, with the photos of children and grandchildren on the mantle, and the man’s sympathy would at once go to the abused. In the latter, the meeting would take place in a chancery conference room and the first words out of His Excellency’s mouth would be, “Poor Father.”

This memory comes to mind after reading Grant Gallicho’s fine account over at dotCommonweal of the current mess in the archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis. Thanks to brave whistleblowing by its former canon lawyer, it has become clear that over the past decade Archbishop John Nienstedt and his predecessor Harry Flynn both failed in their responsibility to report suspected abusers to the civil authorities.

In the usual episcopal two-step, Nienstedt has appointed a task force to review archdiocesan procedures. But as Gallicho points out, it is not procedures that are the problem.

No amount of “safe environment” training can fix this problem. It doesn’t matter how independent a diocesan review board is on paper. Or how many laypeople have been tasked to overhaul a diocese’s abuse policies. Or how sincerely a bishop promises to make room for a review board to do its work. We have seen it time and again… If a bishop decides to keep allegations to himself, he can. If he wants to sabotage strong sexual-abuse policies, he’s free to do so…And the only person who can act decisively to change this culture of denial lives in Rome.

The only emendation I’d propose is to the idea that the heart of the problem is a culture of denial. Rather, it’s the “poor father” syndrome — a condition in which a bishop’s allegiance to the members of his clerical family robs him of his better judgment.

Pope Francis has declared war on clericalism, and nowhere has it done his church such harm in recent years as in the persistent, worldwide abuse crisis. No doubt, a celibate priesthood has helped create the Catholic version of this culture, as has the remarkable sacramental power the church confers on its priests. All the more reason for the Vatican to make clear, through the exemplary disciplining of bishops, that “poor father” will no longer wash. It’s the Vatican version of clericalism, after all, that has kept it from doing so thus far.

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