What the Diocese Should Do to Regain Trust

By Paul Ginnetty
February 19, 2003

The Suffolk County grand jury report has delivered a staggering one-two punch to the Diocese of Rockville Centre, detailing the sordid behavior of predator priests and the very troubling portrayal of organizational complicity.

How can the diocese use this embarrassing crisis as a necessary wake-up call? What kinds of changes in its attitudes and policies would allow it to reclaim credibility and moral currency and thus continue to provide much-needed service and leadership? One hopes that diocesan authorities would consider the following friendly advice.

Dare to believe that the truth - however painful or even humiliating - will indeed set you free. Shed the natural, but decidedly unhelpful, bureaucratic tendency to do aggressive damage control, to attempt to defend the indefensible by spinning horrific events into more benign contexts. Rather, take fearless ownership of the behavior of the abusers and the at times cynical and arguably criminal posture of those who sheltered them. Apologize for the fact that your chief investigator of priest offenders was, it now appears, all along also one of the predators - a grotesque irony that not even the Boston saga can match.

Do not let your efforts on behalf of the City of God blind you to your responsibilities to be vigilant citizens of the city of man. Support the proposal that priests join the ranks of all other human services providers as mandated reporters of suspected child abuse (except where the actual seal of confession applies).

Get over, once and for all, your patronizing and oft self-serving tendency to withhold information so as not to "give scandal" to the faithful. Trust us to be adults, to understand and not be unduly shocked by the complexity of the human situation, including revelations about the foibles of clergy. Also trust that our decidedly positive experience of priests can more than offset the impact of such occasional disillusionment. Develop a culture of openness in diocesan governance, especially in the transparent accounting of your financial stewardship. Humbly recall that our sacrificial offerings are the primary source of all of your accounts, including the covert ones used to deal with the fallout from abuse cases. It is no longer acceptable to withhold data about what is, after all, our own money.

Immediately reconsider your policy of outlawing meetings of the Voice of the Faithful organization on church property. The diocese ought to rejoice that Catholics care enough about the future of their church to devote time to the study and discussion of ecclesiastical matters. Instead, it bars hundreds of loyal parishioners from using buildings that their own donations built and sustain. Some of these sites have been venues for sexual abuse; the diocese has ruled they cannot, however, be used to discuss this tragedy. Talk about scandal!

Acknowledge the profound unseemliness of your having too often embraced a managerial style (with associated bullying legal tactics) that is more corporate-slick than gospel minded. You've more than established that you can play hard ball like no-nonsense CEOs. Please re-establish for us that you can still respond with the hearts of pastors.

Remind your priests that they are, before all else, our brothers in baptism who have been commissioned to also be our servant-leaders. Let the elements of arrogance and entitlement that contributed to this whole sorry affair inspire you to root out all residual elements of the sin of clericalism, the elitist pursuit of priestly perks, privilege and immunity. Realize that such an exaggerated view of the cleric as special and set apart helped create the unreasonably trusting environment in which priest sexual predators flourished and fueled the protect-one's-own mentality that inspired institutional deceit and cover-up.

Finally, listen more attentively to the insights and experiences of the Catholic faithful. Consider the distinct possibility that this crisis is a manifestation of some real limitations in the prevailing, overly hierarchical model of church life. Wonder whether the Spirit may well be speaking in the growing conviction of the faithful that more inclusive and even democratic vehicles for discernment and decision-making must somehow be forged. Make sure that the upcoming diocesan synod entails radical listening. Let it not devolve into a mere pro forma event, too rigidly refereed and scripted, insulated from sensitive topics that could be either upsetting or surprising. Above all, trust the Spirit, that faithful presence which predates and will surely out last all of your liaisons with defense attorneys, accounting firms and PR consultants.

Paul Ginnetty is director of the Institute for the Study of Religion and Community Life at St. Joseph's College,Patchogue.  

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