Rod Dreher

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The Banality Of The Bishops’ Evil

The banality of episcopal evil: retired Bishop James C. Timlin of Scranton (Marywood University screen grab)

I know y’all are worn out by all my takes on the Catholic abuse scandal, but if you can stand it, Megan McArdle’s column on it is worth reading. This graf jumped out at me:

There are plenty of tales to tell about how church reality came to resemble a dime novel, yet most are essentially stories of individual malfeasance, of depraved molesters seeking the camouflage of priestly celibacy. That doesn’t explain the bureaucratization of evil. For what is striking about the grand jury’s findings is that this was not simply a matter of a few bad individuals, or even many of them; what impresses and appalls is how routine it all was — that the church had, as the report says, “a playbook for concealing the truth.”

“The bureaucratization of evil” is a way of saying “the banality of evil,” which was Hannah Arendt’s term in Eichmann In Jerusalem, her famous account of the trial of the Nazi functionary. Arendt discussed how the evil that Eichmann did had become disguised by embedding it in bureaucratic procedures. Eichmann’s evil became banal through bureaucratization, which rendered it abstract. She wrote:

The essence of totalitarian government, and perhaps the nature of every bureaucracy, is to make functionaries and mere cogs in the administrative machinery out of men, and thus to dehumanize them.

A good example of this in the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report (pp. 285-90) is the way Bishop James Timlin of Scranton handled the case of Father Thomas Skotek, who impregnated a 16-year-old girl, then procured for her an abortion. Look at the anesthetizing language the bishop uses in writing to Skotek, who had done something truly monstrous. Notice the tender solicitude the bishop uses in addressing this moral reprobate (“This is a very difficult time in your life, and I realize how upset you are. I too share your grief. I wish it were not necessary to take this step.”). Any normal human being would have raged at this criminal, and jumped through hoops to defrock him. Not the Bishop of Scranton:

Here are screen shots of the letter Timlin wrote to Rome three years later, seeking to get the Vatican’s stamp of approval on returning this sex criminal and abortion-procurer to active ministry:

The priest, Skotek, raped a minor and helped her kill the unborn child resulting from that rape. This letter documents Skotek’s processing through the system — first the psychological evaluation, then the monastery, and voilà, he’s ready to help those “who need the gifts he shares in priestly ministry.”

The language here abstracts into nothingness the girl he statutorily raped, and the unborn child whose life he helped end. Justice for them does not figure into the bishop’s deliberations, for they are not real; only the priest is real. The bureaucratic language and concepts dehumanizes all but the priest. The only other apparent concern for Bishop Timlin is that somebody might find out what Father Skotek did.

In these two letters, you can see how true evil becomes bureaucratized and banalized. The Pennsylvania grand jury report is full of this. When you read the responses of those like Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was Bishop of Pittsburgh for 18 years, and whose name is all over the grand jury report, you see the same language and mentality at work. My guess is that being embedded in the Catholic episcopal bureaucracy forms one’s mind such that it is next to impossible to think and speak otherwise.

The poet Joseph Brodsky wrote:

No matter how daring or cautious you may choose to be, in the course of your life you are bound to come into direct physical contact with what’s known as Evil. I mean here not a property of the gothic novel but, to say the least, a palpable social reality that you in no way can control. No amount of good nature or cunning calculations will prevent this encounter. In fact, the more calculating, the more cautious you are, the greater is the likelihood of this rendezvous, the harder its impact. Such is the structure of life that what we regard as Evil is capable of a fairly ubiquitous presence if only because it tends to appear in the guise of good. You never see it crossing your threshold announcing itself: “Hi, I’m Evil!” That, of course, indicates its secondary nature, but the comfort one may derive from this observation gets dulled by its frequency.

And there you have the Catholic bishops. Under the guise of good, they incarnated evil — protected it, made excuses for it, attacked those outside the church (especially its victims) seeking to combat it. As shocking as the evil deeds of corrupt Catholic priests are, they aren’t the most shocking thing here. The most shocking thing is that bishops — men who were not, presumably, driven by sexual demons, or caught up in psychological compulsions — had the power to deal firmly with these manifestations of evil, but in many cases did not.

Megan McArdle writes:

If Jesus were here today, would He not be running through American cathedrals, knocking over tables as He did with the money changers in the Temple? “According to scripture,” He said in the Gospel of Matthew, “my house will be called a house of prayer; but you are turning it into a bandits’ den.” The words are a fitting indictment of the men who are accused of committing a moral theft of unimaginable wickedness — in their thoughts and in their words, in what they did and in what they failed to do.

The innocence of children was stolen, as was the church’s sanctity and the faith of congregants, many of whom are today asking how they can possibly continue to believe that this is the one true church that Christ founded through Peter. They do not expect the church to be perfect; even St. Peter, after all, denied Christ three times. But they do expect to find the reflection of Christ there.

Yes. Christ, not Eichmann. Watch some of this video tribute Marywood University made to Bishop Timlin in 2012, and listen to him talk. He sounds about as evil as a cup of milky tea, and just as banal. But real wickedness hid behind that dull, folksy façade, as the grand jury report reveals. Thing is, it no doubt hid itself from Bishop Timlin too.

UPDATE: Reader CatherineNY comments:

I went and googled to find out more about Bishop Timlin, and found various stories about him objecting to being at events with Tip O’Neill, Chris Matthews and others because of their views on abortion. Because, presumably, the Bishop believes that life begins at conception and abortion is the taking of human life. How he could then justify his handling of the case of Father Thomas Skotek, the priest who had impregnated a 16 year old girl and procured an abortion for her, is beyond me. According to the PA grand jury report, “Diocesan records obtained by the Grand Jury showed that Bishop James C.Timlin
was fully aware of the conduct by October,
1986.” That includes the procuring of the abortion. It was in 1985 that the Bishop objected to the awarding of an honorary degree to Tip O’Neill ( and in 2003 that he refused to attend the University of Scranton graduation at which Chris Matthews was to be honored. As far as we know, Tip O’Neill and Chris Matthews never actually arranged an abortion, unlike Father Skotec, for whom Bishop Timlin had so much sympathy, and whom he tried so hard to return to ministry (successfully, according to the bio of Father Skotek, who was not removed from ministry until 2002). How is any lay Catholic supposed to listen to these guys on any matters of sexual morality after this? Or on anything?

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165 Responses to The Banality Of The Bishops’ Evil

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  1. kevin on the left says:

    “If you read the minutes of the Wannsee Conference (or even watch the movie), the detached consultant-speak used around the table is quite shocking. ”

    But that bureaucracy was staffed with ardent, zealous, Nazis. The “detached bureaucrat” Arendt describes didn’t really exist inside the mechanisms that planned the Holocaust.

    “It’s as if they’re discussing how to price consumer goods, not exterminate people on a mass scale.”

    Yes, and if you read their job descriptions and life histories, you will find that with one or two exceptions, these guys were “men of action” and ardent ideologues.

  2. Elijah says:

    “But that bureaucracy was staffed with ardent, zealous, Nazis. The “detached bureaucrat” Arendt describes didn’t really exist inside the mechanisms that planned the Holocaust.”

    That’s just not so. Many of those men were professional civil service who no doubt went along to get along. And my point is: listen to the language.

  3. Lllurker says:

    “The laity can vote with their feet. I know people who have joined Protestant congregations. Others simply stop attending and contributing”

    Or they can organize and vote collectively with their pocketbook. Leaving is certainly understandable but it does nothing to fix the thing. An organized laity, or at least a significant portion of the laity, can begin to force controls into place. The first should be insisting that *everything* that the church has in their secret little boxes is made public.

    It’s time to start thinking in terms of cleaning this mess up for future generations. Which requires big and permanent structural changes. And it has to start somewhere. Somewhere, in some country, the worshippers have to decide that this is where it all ends.

    Keep in mind that according to Rod Pennsylvania is every state. And someone here said that in Boston it was eventually established that 10% of the priests were involved. This is a criminal institution.

  4. Fran Macadam says:

    “That’s no defense of his inexcusable evil actions, but it wasn’t a crime.”

    Worse than a crime, a mistake. They can get away with crimes in this life, but not mistakes.

  5. Fran Macadam says:

    Eichmann may have been a stickler for bureaucratic process, but he wasn’t a fanatic, as if the monstrosity of evil is just safely in some faraway other.

    I think the people claiming that haven’t read Arendt’s reportage of the testimony. At certain points, Eichmann was involved in negotiations and agreements with Zionists to enable emigration to Palestine. From those historical reports, it was clear he had nothing personal against Jewish people himself.

    It’s like the judicial excuse for execution, even when later evidence emerges regarding innocence of the convicted. Many judges have ruled in the past that such executions are just because they followed every required process. It is the legal process that is important to the bureaucrat, not the actual morality of policy. How many times, if you’ve lived long enough, have you heard soem bureaucrat avoid responsibility for their actions by claiming, “I just work here”?

  6. Fran Macadam says:

    “And yet the Church endures as it has, in all its corruption, for millenia.”

    So have a lot of things, that aren’t remotely Christian at all. Something has endured, but is it really Christian in practice or faith?

    I feel sorry for Roman Catholics, as I had no idea of the depths at which the hierarchical owners operated, perhaps for millenia, that are now being revealed.

    I’m even sadder that this organization is discrediting Christianity, not just its own bailiwick.

  7. BillWAF says:

    @ Elijah Re Banality of Evil.

    Back when I was a student at Columbia, I had classes on German history with Fritz Stern; Istvan Deak (though that class did not get into the 20th century); Jane Caplan (who was visiting from Cambridge); and Bela Kiraly (who taught a grad class re Nazi Germany while visiting during the summer of 1980).

    I also wrote a 20 to 26 page paper about Arendt’s view of Nazi Germany for Jim Shenton’s World War Two seminar. (Shenton had known Arendt.)

    My view, after reading a great deal of the relevant scholarship is that Arendt substantially overstated the number of ordinary men and women pushed into committing awful crimes. For example, Eichman was a vicious thug, as were many of the Nazis.

    I agree with Kevin on the Left: the detached bureaucrat does not seem to be a large component of the population of perpetrators.

    That is not to deny that many of the actual killers were otherwise rather ordinary. However, they were not detached bureaucrats.

  8. It’s like the judicial excuse for execution, even when later evidence emerges regarding innocence of the convicted. Many judges have ruled in the past that such executions are just because they followed every required process.

    Antonin Scalia notably among them.

    Committed ideologues are quite capable of using detached consultant-speak to achieve their purposes. It provides camouflage, and it draws a much larger of ideologically indifferent people into complicity.

    This is another occasion to mention that when an overwhelming majority of the Hungarian Communist Party voted to dissolve the party, it turned out there were 200,000 committed communists who wanted to reorganize the party, 100,000 who took seriously the goal of creating a new Social Democratic Party, and 800,000 civil servants who joined the party because it was a prerequisite to being hired.

  9. TR says:

    Arendt’s point about the banality of evil seems to me to be psychological valid. However, she was no historian, and many records of Eichmann’s behavior have been uncovered since she wrote her book. Hence, the revisionism.

  10. Fran Macadam says:

    Arendt became a non-person among her fellow Jews, for daring to reveal the complicity in Nazi crimes of Jewish collaborators.

    It came out at the Eichmann trial, but only she dared report those proceedings.

    That’s the reason for the Arendt revisionism, not that she was wrong about anything – particularly, not her in-person reporting of the trial as it happened.

    She was dissed for the same reason any truth-tellers are – to protect a particular group from having to face consequences. She too, was told to keep quite about the truth, because it was very inconvenient to a larger cause.

  11. BillWAF says:

    Fran Macadam re Eichman and Arendt:

    Sorry, but the claims that Eichman was not an anti-Semite are ridiculous. At times, Eichman seemed to claim that he was a Zionist. That was also insane. I remind you that there is now significant scholarship arguing that prior to the outbreak of World War II, the Nazis would have happily taken a world in which all the Jews had left Europe.

    Simply put, they wanted a Europe that was “Judenrein,” that is, free of Jews. That makes them anti-semitic. Once they had conquered Eastern Europe, they began killing all the Jews.

    There are many ways to view this, but the respectable extremes are as follows. Some argue that the Nazis had always intended to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, some argue that the Holocaust was what happened when the Nazis realized they were stuck with the Jewish population of Europe unless they eliminated it.

    Remember the way the Nazis treated Jews in Germany before the outbreak of WWII.

    Regarding Arendt, it is true that she was unfairly attacked. For example, the prosecutor at Eichman’s trial argued that European Jews were passive victims. When Arendt reported that, he and others accused her of slandering the victims of the Nazis for being passive. Arendt makes that point herself in a posthumous collection of essays “The Jew As Pariah.”

    Finally, regarding Jewish collaboration, Arendt brought that point out. However, let us recall that the Nazis were a different threat than what the various European Jewish communities had faced.

    In the pre-Nazi past, collaboration with persecutors often allowed some of the Jewish community to survive. Clearly, that would not work with the Nazis.

    Certainly, some collaborators were vile. However, some truly believed that they were saving their community.

  12. Fran Macadam says:


    In that former age we can scarcely conceive of, totalitarianism was seen as the future. Even Menachim Begin’s Zionists were nationalistic brownshirts. They weren’t concerned with the fate of millions in Europe, but making deals to get the best, brightest and strongest to build and transform Palestine into modern Israel, by any means necessary. So they negotiated and even collaborated with Nazis, including Eichmann who even flew to Palestine to meet with them. But not to save the Jews of the Diaspora.

  13. Fran Macadam says:

    As well, prominent Jewish leaders here helped cover up the magnitude of the calamity that the diaspora was experiencing. The reason? It was feared that the response to such a disclosure would be a demand that millions of refugees be accepted, which they feared could cause a backlash against American Jewry.

  14. kevin on the left says:

    “So they negotiated and even collaborated with Nazis, including Eichmann who even flew to Palestine to meet with them.:”

    At best, you are misinformed, and feeding on the the lies that Eichman himself liked to tell. At worst, you are a liar and a slanderer.

  15. It would be helpful if kevin who thinks he’s kinda left would provide some data, chronologies, sources, instead of unleashing vituperative name-calling posing as denial.

    Fran may have exaggerated some, but I can well believe that Menachem Begin and the currents of Jewish thought and action that fed into the Irgun and the Stern Gang were brownshirts, interested in Jewish totalitarian rule. We know that there were various degrees of collaboration between some Jewish leaders and Nazis, and also people who played for time — literally in the case of the orchestra featured in a movie of precisely that name. Playing for time is not criminal collusion.

    To characterize “the Jews” or “the Jewish leadership” as somehow monolithic is as questionable as talking about what “all white people” believe or “black people are all alike” etc. etc. etc.

    Sorry, but the claims that Eichman was not an anti-Semite are ridiculous. At times, Eichman seemed to claim that he was a Zionist. That was also insane.

    His actions ultimately belied his words, but he said it. There is plausible evidence in the record that the Nazis could have been happy with shipping all the Jews far, far away. Madagascar was considered. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem was an ally of Hitler, so Palestine wouldn’t have been an option. There really isn’t anyplace left in the world to send so many million people.

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