Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

The Cost Of Clericalism

'We bishops won't let this happen again,' said Cardinal Dolan. But they did

You might have missed this update to a blog I put up last night. Phil Lawler, who is, as ever, a must-read on the scandal, unearthed it and posted it yesterday. It’s a 2003 exchange PBS religion reporter Kim Lawton had with Cardinal Timothy Dolan (then just an archbishop) of New York, in which he offered her assurances that the scandal was in the past:

Lawton: Some groups fear the bishops’ energy and commitment may fade.

Archbishop Dolan: Can’t happen. Can’t happen. We never, never, Kim, want to go through what we’ve had to do. We just can’t do it. We can’t do it personally. I think we bishops will collapse if we ever have to go through this again. And we can’t, we just can’t, in justice, put our people through that again. So, I don’t think there’s danger of us forgetting.

They won’t collapse, however. They just spent the past decade and a half covering up for themselves, and refusing to hold themselves accountable. At the time Dolan made that statement, Cardinal McCarrick, that dirty old man, was holding himself out as a leading voice of compassion and reform. Around that time, a bishop friend said to me, with what I took (and still take) as genuine puzzlement: “If you don’t trust the bishops to fix this, why are you still Catholic?”

Three years from first hearing that question, I wasn’t anymore. No need to go through that again here in detail, but I bring it up to say to you Catholics who are undergoing a crisis of faith right now: I get it. I have been there. 

The only advice I can offer you, as someone whose faith did not survive the crisis, is this: get help, and get help now. For me, I absolutely hated hearing from well-meaning fellow Catholics back then some version of, “Well, the sins of the clergy do not deny the teachings of the Church.” As a matter of theology and logic, that is true. I believed that then, and I believe that now.

What the sins of the clergy can do, however, is to make it difficult, even impossible, to consider the truth claims of the Church. As a journalist back then, I was learning more every day about the depth and breadth of the scandal. McCarrick — who had a prominent closeted gay conservative work behind the scenes in an attempt to get my reporting on him quashed — became for me the foremost symbol of the Catholic bishops’ hypocrisy. You cannot go deeply into this story without recognizing how systemic the problem is, and how much it is perpetuated by clericalism — the idea that the clergy alone is the real church. The bishops cannot fix the problem because the bishops, and the system that produces them, are at the heart of the problem.

When you look closely, and see the lies upon lies so many bishops tell — including lying by omission — to protect themselves and the system, you either become even stronger in your faith, or you drop it. For me, at the end, holding on to my Catholic faith would have meant having to live with these searing lies, and having to train myself and my children to trust and honor men who were entirely untrustworthy. I can see now that what was happening to me back then at a spiritual and emotional level was like trying to keep my hands on a boiling pot without dropping it. At some point, the pain became so great that I dropped it out of reflex. It made absolutely no sense to me, emotionally and spiritually, that my salvation depended on being united to Theodore McCarrick and their ilk.

I had, and have, friends who can manage that. I couldn’t. As a matter of survival, I became as personally indifferent to the Catholic Church’s truth claims as I am to those of, say, Islam. It’s not that I don’t believe Catholicism (or Islam, for that matter) is nonsense; it’s that their claims could never (again) be real for me. I have friends who suffered abuse by family members in childhood, and who have cut themselves off from their families by necessity. I’ve had arguments with my own parents over this kind of thing — not because there was abuse in our family, I hasten to say, but talking in general about abusive relationships within family systems, including churches. My folks were old-fashioned, and hewed to the line that goes something like, “No matter what happens, family is still family, and you’re still part of it.”

I was able to see how that mentality enabled some destructive situations to continue in my own family system — though nothing to do with physical or sexual abuse! — because it allowed some within the family system to ignore realities they didn’t want to deal with. It was a faith in the sacredness of the family bond that assumed nobody would leave, no matter what was done to them. I bring that up in this context not to compare the ordinary family tensions that we had to deal with to actual cases of sexual abuse in the Church, but only to say that this dynamic is something that even people who have never experienced sexual or physical abuse have experience with. As I’ve written about in my past books, those within the system refused to face hard realities and take responsibility for dealing with them, in large part because of an unspoken belief that Family Would Endure.

Except that it doesn’t, not necessarily. But by the time that becomes clear, it may be too late.

This is very much the risk that the Catholic bishops face now. They are failed fathers presiding over a dysfunctional family system. What happens when members of that family find it too painful to endure the relationship, and are no longer moved by stern appeals to loyalty or logic? “Pop might be an abusive drunk, but you are still part of this family;” “The Pope might be turning a blind eye to sex abuse throughout the Church, but Peter still gave him the keys to the kingdom.” Et cetera. When you realize that you can, in fact, live pretty well outside of those claims, they lose their power over you.

This is how families dissolve. This is how churches break apart. No question that there is a real danger, at least in the case of churches (which, unlike families, involve truth claims), that a person can come to believe something that is false because the truth is too difficult to live with. A faithful Catholic is logically bound to say that that happened to me when I left Rome to become Orthodox. I am firmly Orthodox, though I wish my conversion had been “clean” — that is, accomplished in total intellectual serenity, sealed by foolproof logic. This is why, though, as an Orthodox Christian I have tried to live out my faith in such a way that I never take for granted that the syllogisms are a sufficient protection against loss of faith. I tell this to all my audiences: Orthodox, Catholic, and Evangelical.

A reader sends this e-mail this morning:


This Church mess has taken a toll on me. I am married with grown children and all my life I have tried to live centered on Christ. I go to mass every Sunday and usually a few times during the week. I have always loved confession and tried to remind family members to go monthly. I have always respected priests and grew up in a family with many priests. In 2002, I refused to believe some of the stuff I read, so I didn’t read it. I bought into the whole “an attack on a priest is an attack on the Church who is the Bride of Christ.”

But this. This. Man, I am really feeling it.

I try to tell myself I am strong and my faith can take it, but I am seeing cracks. I have not been to daily mass since the McCarrick news broke. I have not been to confession yet either. I find myself in Church on Sunday wondering if the priest is celibate or not, gay or not, and if he knew anything about McCarrick and did nothing. I know that is wrong and I fight it. We go to mass to worship God, not judge the priest. I don’t want to look at the priest on the altar, so I bow my head and pray. I feel like before I go to confession again, I would like to interview the priest first.

In the interview with Dolan that you posted, he says that we could never put the people through this again. Well, Cardinal, you are. We feel betrayed by our leaders.

I want to go talk to someone about my spiritual life, but where can I go? A priest? No way. All that I have left is prayer. I turn to Jesus throughout the day and ask for strength to get through this. At night, when I wake up thinking about this, I turn to his mother.

I would love for a bishop to stand up and say that he interviewed all the priests in his diocese and asked them three questions: are you celibate, are you gay and did you know about McCarrick’s deeds? For the last one, if it is a yes, ask what they did about it. Based on the responses, the bishop would say, he has removed priests from ministry. Then he could tell people that when they go to mass or confession or just want to talk to a priest, they can have confidence that the priests are good, holy men, not warped, dysfunctional, phony, spiritual gnats pushing a homosexualist agenda and guarding their secret lives.

I used to live in Newark and just took a look at the websites for the archdiocese, seminary and Seton Hall. McCarrick and Myers’s boys are all there, running the show, being groomed for higher office. The Vicar General, the Auxiliary Bishop, Rector of the seminary, Monsignors on key committees, the list goes on. These were McCarrick’s secretaries and house mates and key people and they knew him very well. The idea that Uncle Ted would do what he did and they didn’t know what was happening is inconceivable. Now they are in leadership positions. Other dioceses must be the same. In Newark, I know the faces so it is more personal and it makes me want to vomit. There is no way Cardinal Tobin will fix this mess.

But maybe I am wrong, so ask them what they knew and what they did about it. Maybe some heroic stories will emerge. Please bishops, ask your priests and let us know what they say. Do this soon so that I can worship God in peace again. Do this soon before the churches empty out. Don’t wait for the Pope to do something, because that is not going to happen. “Fix the McCarrick mess” is on Francis’ to-do list right after “Respond to the Dubia.”

It’s my intuition that there are millions of Catholics in the same crucible as this reader. Now is the time for real leaders, especially within the laity, to stand up, speak out, and act to save their Church, and to keep men like this reader from being lost to the faith.

Here are relevant excerpts from one-time Catholic blogger and chancery employee Bill Cork’s 2007 review of Leon Podles’s book Sacrilege:

The bishops are clearly the focal point of his anger:

The bishops made excuses, but the excuses did not excuse. Bishops claimed they were only following the advice of psychologists, but they put abusive priests in parishes even when the psychologists warned against it. Why hadn’t bishops ever gotten angry at abusers? Why were abusers treated so gently, when men who left the priesthood to marry were treated so harshly? Why had bishops lied to parents? Why hadn’t they disciplined their clergy, when they seemed so eager to micromanage everything else in America, from what married couples did in bed to what the government did about immigration? 

But he goes further, seeing the crisis as about more than the bishops and the priests they coddled: Catholic culture is implicated; specifically a narcissistic clericalism in which the laity, including police and judges and prosecutors colluded.

“The abuse is far more widespread, goes back farther, and is far worse” than has been recognized to date.

A canonized saint tolerated abuse. Rings of abusers go back at least to the 1940s in America, and abuse involved sacrilege, orgies, and probably murder (and perhaps even worse). Bishops knew about the abuse and sometimes took part in it. Those who complained were ignored or threatened, and the police refused to investigate crimes committed by clergy. 

Podles reveals some of the reasons for his personal connection to the subject, and these revelations give us some insight into how he came to target clericalism. He recounts an experience of physical abuse at the hands of a Christian Brother in high school—”He walked to my desk and slugged me so hard on the face that he broke my glasses.” The teacher went to the principal, and Podles was expelled for having objected to an injustice. This served as a lesson for the boys who remained. But it is also for Podles an example of how the Christian Brothers ruled their schools by intimidation, and he sees what happened to him as one instance of a pattern of physical abuse at Christian Brothers schools extending from Ireland to the US and Canada. Many of these same schools had problems of sexual abuse as well, and Podles sees a clear connection: “An atmosphere of physical abuse had prepared the way for sexual abuse.” The Brothers got the point across that you were to do what they asked without question or complaint.

(Here it’s worth pointing out that Cardinal Kevin Farrell, the Vatican official in charge of the office of laity and family, was raised in a Christian Brothers school in Ireland; joined as a young man the Legion of Christ and rose to be one of its top leaders under its founder, who, long after Farrell left the Legion, was revealed to have been a serial abuser; and went on to serve as an auxiliary bishop under, and roommate of, DC Cardinal McCarrick. Nobody has ever, to my knowledge, accused Cardinal Farrell of abuse — but it’s more than fair to ask if his entire priestly formation taught him to turn a blind eye to it. That is certainly a skill that helps one rise in the Catholic hierarchy.)

More Cork, on Podles:

Podles sees clericalism as just an institutional variety of narcissism, which is a psychological disorder defined by DSM-IV as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” The narcissist “has a grandiose sense of self-importance,” “believes that he or she is ‘special’ and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions),” “has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations,” “is interpersonally exploitative,” and “lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others.”

That last point, the lack of empathy, is especially important for considering the reaction of the hierarchy to abuse.

The victims were invisible to everyone. The abusers were narcissists who had no empathy for the sufferings of their victims. The priests, officials, and bishops of the Davenport diocese were all caught up in a clerical narcissism, in which only repercussions that affected them had any meaning. The laity too were afflicted by a Catholic narcissism that idolized the clergy. 

Narcissism pervades Catholic clerical culture, as Podles portrays it. It creates a vision of priesthood characterized by a sense of performance. It leads to a preoccupation with reputation and appearances at all levels . It requires an audience who adore the performer, lay accomplices who grant clerics deference and privilege. They, in turn, have reacted in anger when bishops have disclosed the faults of their favorite priests and suspended them. The laity also joined the bishops in seeing court cases and newspaper articles as attacks on the church—which is why newspapers didn’t stay with the story after the Gauthé case.

Clericalism also affects the society as a whole, as was seen in the past willingness of cops and judges to overlook the crimes of priests in the belief that bishops were better able to deal with the problem. Even in the wake of the scandals, some defend this system of privilege; Podles points to an article by Michael Orsi, “Bishops Sacrifice Accommodations, Privileges and Rights: Everybody Loses,” Homiletic and Pastoral Review, 2002. (418)

Two more quotes from Podles:

Those who dealt with the bishops have consistently remarked that bishops have never expressed outrage or righteous anger, even at the most horrendous cases of abuse and sacrilege such as abusing boys after getting them drunk on consecrated wine. Bishops seem to think that anger at sin is un-Christian. … Mark Serrano confronted Bishop Frank Rodimer, asking why he had let his priest-friend Peter Osinski sleep with boys at Rodimer’s beach house while Rodimer was in the next bedroom: “Where is your moral indignation?” Rodimer’s answer was, “Then I don’t get it. What do you want?” What Serrano wanted Rodimer to do is to behave like a man with a heart, a heart that is outraged by evil. But Rodimer couldn’t; his inability to feel outrage was a quality that helped make him a bishop. He would never get into fights, never rock the boat, never “divide” but only “unify.” Rodimer could not understand why he should feel deep anger at evil, at the violation of the innocent, at oppression of the weak.


Sorrow at evil without anger at evil is a fault, a fault which the Catholic bishops have repeatedly fallen into in their handling of sexual abuse and which the late pope fell into when he tolerated the bishops’ faults. Until just anger is directed at the bishops, until bishops (including the pope) feel just anger at their fellow bishops who have disgraced and failed their office, the state of sin in the Church continues.

Truth! Read the entire review.

Now would be a good time to reprint Sacrilege, which is hard to find today. There are some copies available on Amazon; read more about it at Lee Podles’s website). Fair warning: Lee is a friend, and he asked me to read a pre-publication copy. It was so savage in its details, and I was such an emotional mess over the scandal, that I had to put it down after a couple of chapters, and apologize to him for not having the strength to read it at the time. But it ought to be read. Journalists who want to go deeper into the crisis should sit down with Podles, who remains a faithful Catholic, but an undeceived one. Here’s his contact information. 

I’ll end by repeating this 2003 exchange:

Lawton: Some groups fear the bishops’ energy and commitment may fade.

Archbishop Dolan: Can’t happen. Can’t happen. We never, never, Kim, want to go through what we’ve had to do. We just can’t do it. We can’t do it personally. I think we bishops will collapse if we ever have to go through this again. And we can’t, we just can’t, in justice, put our people through that again. So, I don’t think there’s danger of us forgetting.

If I’m honest, I would say that Dolan really did believe that about the bishops, including himself. Whether it’s self-deception or intentional deception, it has been a most destructive lie. The future of the Catholic Church — and therefore the eternal destiny of countless souls within it — depend on real repentance and real reform, including within the laity, who can no longer afford clericalism.

UPDATE: The Wall Street Journal‘s Bill McGurn, who is Catholic, makes a neuralgic point:

Still, it’s hard not to feel the suspicion among the American Catholic laity that this isn’t over, that Archbishop McCarrick is our Harvey Weinstein —abetted by fellow bishops who now live in fear they might be the next person outed in the church’s own #MeToo moment.

The classic rejoinder is that we are all sinners and the Catholic Church will survive the McCarrick scandal as it has survived so many scandals over its 2,000 years.

But the Reformation left a cleavage that persists to this day. And it is foolish to think the exposure of one of America’s highest-profile prelates nearly two decades after we were told the abuse problem had been dealt with can be treated as just another case of sexual misbehavior. As Rome deals with Theodore McCarrick, it would do well to remember Johann Tetzel.

Tetzel was the clerical indulgences-seller who became a flashpoint for the Reformation.

McGurn’s column makes another hugely important point:

In our day the battle is no longer between competing versions of Christianity. It’s not even so much about God, though it’s often characterized that way. The real fight has to do with who’s right about the reality of the human person—those who posit him as but a physical combination of matter and energy or those who believe him, as the Eighth Psalm puts it, only “a little lower than the angels.”

For centuries the Judeo-Christian view has been the defining assumption of Western civilization, enshrined, for example, in the metaphysical truth in the Declaration of Independence about our being endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights. From this assumption all sorts of understandings flow: about human rights, about human sexuality, about human flourishing and so on.

Today, alas, traditional understandings once taken for granted are yielding to the prevailing notion that science has rendered all moral judgments subjective—and that so long as sex is consensual and no one gets pregnant, it has no higher meaning. Throughout history Christian teachings about the limits and purposes of human sexuality have often proved a hard sell. But in our day, these teachings are literally incomprehensible to increasing numbers of people, who now regard them as a monstrous effort by frustrated old men in robes to keep others from enjoying life.

Here in the West, the Roman Catholic Church’s teachings are a bulwark protecting human dignity. Though I ceased to believe as a Catholic in 2006, I fervently believe, and advocate in my writing, that as goes the Roman church, so goes Western civilization. For all its flaws, Rome has strengths that neither Protestantism nor Orthodoxy have. I’m not making a theological claim here, but a sociological and cultural one. It is vital to all of us traditional Christians that the Roman church reform and recover. Whatever we think of Catholicism, none of us traditional Christians should take satisfaction in what’s happening within the Roman church. The bell tolling for it now is also tolling for us — and for our civilization.