Institutions Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Dealing with the “Poor Father” Syndrome

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.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service


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  • I don’t mean to quibble here Mark, I submit that that the word “failure” is inappropriate here. Nienstedt and Flynn are very smart, well educated guys, surrounded by smart, well educated lawyers and public relations professionals. They didn’t “err” or “misstep” here. They didn’t try to act responsibly but somehow “fail” in the process.

    These two – and a number of their top aides – repeatedly and deliberately deceived parishioners, stonewalled police, shuffled predators, and hid evidence.

    If we all continue to assume that intentional self-serving acts are blunders, we do a disservice to kids and we mischaracterize this crisis.

    David Clohessy, Director, SNAP, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, (7234 Arsenal Street, St. Louis MO 63143), 314 566 9790 cell ([email protected])

  • While Silk accurately isolates a comraderie dynamic of cover-up based on fraternal support, preference and their corporate belief of ontological superiority that puts them above the laws covering sex crimes, I believe there is more at play. The secret sex lives of priests create an atmosphere of sexual politics that includes patronage of young priests by older priests, long term parterships jealousies, blackmailing and other ugliness unbefitting their public promises of chastity and sexual purity. Their promotion of religious-based sex guilt among Catholics makes their sexual intrigues a clear strategic usage of double messages and double standards to provide both cover and control.

  • You are absolutely right Mr. Clohessy . . the actions of the Bishops are deliberate, calculated, pre-meditated and self-serving. Real and vital reform has not taken place and the so-called “princes of the church” will make sure it never does. Zero tolerance is just a catch phrase to deceive the laity into thinking their children are now safe! Once again, the lowly laity have been sucker punched by the exalted hierarchy of the RC “church”! Don’t forget . . the Bishops exempted themselves from the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children. They are answerable to no one, save the pope. Canon Law is still in place and the vows which they take to avoid scandal at all costs originate from the top! ! This is what passes for transparency in the Roman Catholic “church”. Time for Catholics to give their Bishops a vote of NO CONFIDENCE and opt out of the unholy Roman Catholic “church”!
    As the saying goes . . “the more things change, the more they stay the same”, and nowhere is this so plainly evidenced than in the ongoing Roman Catholic Clergy Abuse SCANDAL!
    Once fooled, shame on you; twice fooled, shame on me!

  • There is not one “vocation” involved in any male cleric that is still hanging on in this institution! All the abuses, whether sexual. with children or orchestrating ways to steal money from their parishes to be able to groom their victims.They are aiding and abetting in these CRIMES AGAINST GOD . All creation calls them out because they are being called to a higher standard by the vows they took to GOD ALMIGHTY.

  • To say that someone failed does not absolve them of moral responsibility for their behavior. All I was trying to do was suggest the source of Nienstedt et al.’s moral failure.

  • As a Catholic seminarian, I know well that the “poor father” (and “poor bishop”) syndrome is alive and well within the next generation of priests. It’s sad — VERY disturbing. Some seminarians feel that their pursuit of ordained ministry in the Catholic Church is some sort of culture war, a sort of resistance against all that is wrong with the world. With such a worldview, any press coverage of sexual abuse allegations and cover-ups becomes a “mainstream media attack on the Church.” At that point, even a bishop who has failed to abide by civil and canon law becomes a victim. In that they may sympathize with a given bishop’s effort in the so-called “culture war,” they automatically attribute reports of cover-up and negligence to an effort to undermine the credibility of said leader or the Church at large. Not a few seminarians have difficulty accepting the fact that their church leaders exhibit gross moral failure.

    I lament that such problematic thinking goes unchecked.

    I try to keep the topic of the ongoing sexual abuse scandals in the discussions I have on campus. Some seminarians simply cannot handle even talking about it because it exposes a shadow side of our Catholic clerical systems and structures.

    I hate to say it, but if a Catholic seminarian is perceived as docile and pious, nobody checks what’s going on in his head in response to these and other critical issues. In my experience, it’s the pious/devotional guys who are completely unable to grapple with this reality and accept the facts as they are.

  • “….as has the remarkable sacramental power the church confers on its priests” (Silk).

    When I was in seminary we were taught that within the Sacrament of Confession lies the clerics’ power over the laity, scary!

  • You’re being too sweet.

    Child rape is an evil crime, and it is much more evil if the child rapist calls himself “Christ on earth”, as Catholic priests do. Adults are smart enough to realize that description is foolish, but children unfortunately buy into it. The child believes he is being stabbed to death, and that God was in the room. Priests usually convince the poor child that they are at fault. This is the catholic way.

    The child rapist then goes to a ceremony catholics invented called “confession”, and another priest absolves him, despite What Jesus Said specifically in John 20:23 and Luke 17:2.

    Catholics, of course, don’t practice Christianity. May God be merciless with them for their support of this organized child rape program.

  • Absolutely right, and catholics have been distorting this truth forever.

    These bishops & priests made clear, conscious, DECISIONS, and they did What Satan Would Do instead of What Jesus Would Do. Then like the devil, they follow with lies, distortions, cover ups, and they DECIDE to teach a billion catholics that this is all ok until you get caught.

    All of that is easy when you aren’t God’s church.

  • 80% of the reported abuse cases in the catholic church were homosexual in nature. If you are actually interested in protecting kids, rather than scoring political points, this should be your first area of focus. Everything else is secondary.

  • Rev. Reginald Whitt, Director of the newly formed task force by Archbishop of Minneapolis/St. Paul:

    “Canon law is very eloquent on what a bishop is supposed to do, but there is no list of Thou Shalt Nots,” says Father Reginald Whitt (2002). “These (sex abusers) are criminals, but they are our criminals and we can’t lose them. Indeed, the bishops have a duty to try to save them,” says the Rev. Reginald Whitt, professor of canon law at University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. (2002)

    “……BISHOPS HAVE A DUTY TO TRY TO SAVE THEM (sex abuser priests)…..” Well, Fr. Whitt, where is it written (no, not in text or canon law…….it is written in one’s heart and soul) that the bishops have a duty to try to save the CHILDREN ABUSED and INNOCENT CHILDREN from the risk of abuse?

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept.

  • Your sentiments are mine, but including fully trained clergy and maybe a pope or two.
    Once you recognise the signs……Ever notice the facial expressions?

  • Ever considered in moving to Australia?
    Oh, that’s right, your retired.
    We’ve had a number of law enforcement officers that traveled hard doing just that, one paying for it, losing his career.
    Unholy Trinity written by former Mildura [Victoria] police officer Denis Ryan is one and Hunter Valley [NSW] Detective Chief Inspector Peter Fox is another who fought the good fight.

  • Tony, The public sector has done its part, legalizing gay marriage. There’s less need to hide in the priesthood. The RCC needs to do its part, allow strait priests to marry

  • tony . . this is in truth the very root of the problem!
    Catholics must not lose sight of the findings of the National Review Board, which identified the root cause of the Clergy Abuse SCANDAL as “homosexual predation of Catholic youth” by Roman Catholic clerics! The board’s chief, attorney Robert S. Bennett, said: “any evaluation of the causes and context of the current crisis must be cognizant of the fact that more than 80 percent of the abuse at issue was of a homosexual nature.” Another member, Dr. Paul McHugh, former psychiatrist-in-chief at Johns Hopkins, has said that “This behavior was homosexual predation on American Catholic youth, yet it’s not being discussed.” Despite all that, in recent days, the pope sent a clear message that he sees no problem with “homosexual priests and/or bishops”, which Roman Catholic experts conclude represents anywhere from 40-60% of the priesthood. Clearly those in the clergy and in the pews who identify themselves as “homosexuals” have found in the pope an advocate for their cause. Notwithstanding . . the pope’s remarks should be cause for great alarm among Roman Catholics who do not subscribe to the “new morality” that condones sexual deviancy and depravity! This is what REFORM looks like under the watch of “Pope Francis”, a politically correct tolerance which the world subscribes to and which he is openly embracing. Their ongoing presence along with the pope’s non-judgmental remarks regarding homosexuality will serve to embolden those who are of the same proclivity to more actively participate in church ministries leaving Catholic children even more vulnerable to those who would steal their innocence & corrupt their morals. It goes without saying that altar boys are especially vulnerable. Can you really afford to wait until your child is sacrificed on the altar of priestly abuse! Time to send the Bishops a vote of NO CONFIDENCE and OPT OUT of the unholy Roman Catholic “church”!

    JuneAnnette, a former Roman Catholic . . now a Christian by God’s grace

  • JuneAnnette,

    It’s not “homosexuality”. It’s child rape.

    It’s not “heterosexuality” when Fr Nicholas Cudemo raped a 12 year old girl, got her pregnant, and took her for an abortion, according to the Philadelphia Grand Jury report. It’s child rape.

    According to the church’s own John Jay report of 2004, over 1,000 of the priests raped little girls. It isn’t homosexuality or heterosexuality, even if one of them promotes one of your causes. Its child rape.

  • Sir . . as my comment plainly states, the National Review Board found the root cause of Roman Catholic Clergy Abuse to be “homosexual predation of Catholic youth”. Their words, not mine.
    – f.y.i. . . In the context of the Roman Catholic Clergy Abuse SCANDAL, Fr. Donald Cozzens, university professor, seminary rector, and experienced counselor of priests and religious wrote:
    1) “When vicars of priests met to learn from one another how we might better minister to the victims of clergy sexual misconduct, we discovered a factor that put priest offenders at variance with the general population of child abusers. As a group, abusers tend to be married men who prey on girls, although many pedophiles abuse both girls and boys.
    Most priest abusers, we concluded, were not pedophiles in the strict sense of the term. They tend to be ephebophiles, adults whose sexual interest focused on post-pubescent teenagers. …. Relatively little attention has been paid to this phenomenon by Church authorities. Perhaps it is feared that it will call attention to the disproportionate number of gay priests.”
    Citation: 1) D. Cozzens, The Changing Face of the Priesthood, pp. 123-124

    – f.y.i. . . Statistics from PAGE 14 of the John Jay Report:
    • The largest group of alleged victims (50.9%) was between the ages of 11 and 14, 27.3% were 15-17, 16% were 8-10 and nearly 6% were under age 7. Overall, 81% of victims were male.

    – f.y.i. . . The findings of Roderick MacLeish Jr., who examined the full archives of the Archdiocese of Boston during his lawsuit against the Church. MacLeish represented nearly 400 victims of abuse in court, 90 percent of whom were male, and three-quarters post-pubescent.

  • And who is the “National Review Board”? A bunch of Catholics? If so, they will hide the truth about their child rape just like their leaders do.

    And of course their leaders were looking for an excuse that they could sell to a gullible following. Blend child rape with homosexuality and blame the homosexuality? Awesome. Fools will accept that.

    They would also buy this – Fr Cudemo rapes a 12 year old girl, gets her pregnant and she has an abortion. Blame abortion! Fools will accept that.

    Homosexual predation is the cause of 1,000 priests raping young girls? Fools will accept that.

  • Bernard Law, you remind me of some Republicans in the last presidential election.

    Statistics clearly showed that they lost. But, some of them refused to believe there own pollsters. Remember Karl Rove’s behavior on Fox News election night?

    Some people can’t handle the truth.

  • I have been involved in several hundred cases of sex abuse by Catholic clerics. Looking back on my review of more files than I can count I can readily affirm that the “poor father” syndrome is exactly on target. The one thing I have never seen in 25 years of exposure to this nightmare is a Catholic bishop whose first concern was the welfare of the victim. I have never known a case where a bishop actively reached out to a victim upon learning of sexual abuse but have seen countless cases where the overriding effort was to shield the abuse and shield the priest.

  • CATHOLIC PRIESTS have been SEXUALLY ABUSING little BOYS for the past 100-years!

    The last 5-POPES have done nothing to curb the PREDATION of our CHILDREN and the SEXUAL ABUSE?

    The CATHOLIC CHURCH has some very SICK and IN HUMANE RULES, such as PRIESTS, BROTHERS and NUNS are not allowed to get MARRIED, have CHILDREN and LIVE NORMAL SEXUAL LIVES!

    The PRIESTHOOD, BROTHERHOOD and the NUNHOOD have always been gathering places for HOMOSEXUALS, PEDIFILES and PERVERTS!

    In the GOOD OLE DAYS CATHOLIC PREISTS, BROTHERS and NUNS were allowed to ABUSE and MISUSE our CHILDREN, but that is no longer possible with the SOCIAL MEDIA, the INTERNET and BLOGGERS like me!

    FACT: RADICAL CHANGES need to be made if the CATHOLIC CHURCH is to survive the 21st CENTURY!



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    mark a. traina/certified school psychologist/economist/civil rights activist/504-231-3056





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  • These were clear DECISIONS made by bishops and priests to do the exact opposite of What Jesus Would Do, as Jesus said in Matt 18:6-14.

    If other priests and parishioners support them, they are supporting a church that certainly isn’t God’s church.

  • Then you are no smarter than they are, and are falling for their foolishness. Catholics leaders sat in a room and said, “If we call it ‘homosexuality’, we can say that was the problem, and we can get every fool to blame it on homosexuality instead of us, and we can say we were right to dislike homosexuality all along, even though Jesus never said anything about it!”

    Someone in the room must have said, “No one is stupid enough to fall for that” Works out that a billion remaining Catholics are exactly that stupid.

    “Homosexuality is also the cause of 1,000+ US priests raping little girls” – Catholic doctrine

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