Saturday, April 17, 2010

Reflections on Obligation in the Church and Media

One of the main problems with the media coverage of the recent accusations against the Vatican is the unproven assumption that the Vatican not only knew of, but was indifferent to, the reports of abuse which they must have known of. This is a important error of assumption which needs to be examined.

Preliminary: The Difference Between ‘Ought’ and ‘Is’

So let’s start here as a preliminary. Media accusers seem to be making a profound error. This is the error over “ought” and “is.” Some of you may find discussions over linguistics to be dull. However, I think this needs to be stressed, as many of the attacks against the Church are based on the claim that the Vatican ought to have done X, but these attacks fail to consider what the actual events IS.

Ought can be defined as:

1      used to indicate duty or correctness.

†     used to indicate a desirable or expected state.

So one is correct in saying that Bishops ought to have reported abuse to the Curia and to the civil authorities. This is both the duty of the bishops and the expected state of affairs.

IS (the third person state of to be) can be defined as:

1. exist; be present

2. take place

3. having the specified state, nature, or role

So while ought indicates what is to be expected or required; IS indicates what has in fact happened. In order for OUGHT to equal IS, people must do what is required of them. I OUGHT to obey the laws on the speed limits. However, if I drive 70mph in a 55mph zone, what I ought to do is not what I actually do.

So how does this apply to the attacks on the Church? Quite simply, if the Bishop does what he ought in reporting abuse, then those he reports to are the ones to be held to blame if they do not do what they ought to do. However, if the bishop does not do what he ought (reporting the sinful priest), how can the Curia do what they ought to do? What the Bishop did (is) is different than what he ought to have done, and the expected state is hindered by the failure of the bishop.

This can work the other way. Prior to 2001, every accused priest (whose case was actually reported) was required to have an ecclesiastical trial. So the ought in this case is that the Church follows the rules it sets for fairness. Now the old rules did in fact need reforming, and they were reformed. However, one cannot change the rules in order to achieve a desired result. So when there were procedures which once took years to resolve, the Church was doing what it ought to have done in making sure the accusations were true, and making sure the penalty fit the action – provided that the bishops did their jobs in reporting it to them in the first place. If the Bishops did not do as they ought, how could the Curia do as it ought?

Analysis of the Media attacks

The media writes from the assumption that the Church willfully did not do as it ought to have done. This is the fallacy of equivocation in not defining what is meant by “the Church.” If one looks at the Church as a monolithic block, one looks at the Church wrongly. The Church is headed by the Pope in Rome, but the bishop is expected to be the episkopos (overseer or shepherd) of the diocese. He is expected to look after his people, looking after their spiritual well-being. This includes protecting them from the wicked among the ordained. Each diocese is made up of numerous parishes, with a pastor who is responsible for the well being of the people of the parish.

Understanding Subsidiarity

The Catholic Church, under the model of subsidiarity expects each part to handle things at their own level and the next level up intervenes only when there is a failure at the lower levels. Thus we see that the Pope does not deal with what liturgical music is used in a parish in California. Rather, his concern is over the whole Church. He could become involved in this hypothetical example if there was a significant crisis which affected the whole Church (say a popular hymn promoting a heretical teaching which needed to be stopped).

A chart of subsidiarity could look like this:

1. Pope (and the Curia) oversee the governing of the Church as a whole

2. Bishop oversees the governing of the Church in his diocese

3. Pastor oversees the governing of the Church in his parish.

If there is a failing in the parish, it is the task of the Bishop to correct it. If there is a failing in the diocese, it is the task of the Vatican to step in. Of course, there are different ways to handle a situation. Some are objectively better and some are objectively less good. Some of the individuals who are in the positions of authority are more competent and some are less competent.

An Analysis of Culpability

However, where condemnation is justified depends on the analysis of some things:

1. What was actually done in comparison to what one was obligated to do

2. What the person was obligated to know

3. What the motivation was for their acting

In other words the three things to be considered are, the act itself, the knowledge of the individual and the intent of the act. Each needs to be assessed. So let’s take a look at a hypothetical abuse case (I choose a hypothetical case instead of a real one because for purpose of analysis, we need to have a case where we know all the facts). Keep in mind that as a hypothetical case, I am not saying this is what happened in real life for any of the cases brought to our attention by the media. However, the principles I use here should be used to examine the media allegations. Only if the Vatican refuses to do its job can one say the “Vatican” did wrong. Of course this requires knowing what the Vatican is required to do compared to the Bishops and others.

Let us assume a case where a minor is sexually abused by a priest. The first step is to look at the bishop, right?


Obligations of the Victim

The first step is with the victim. If he or she does not report the abuse, then it is impossible for anyone who could take action to know this abuse takes place. So, if the individual stays silent instead of reporting it, we would have an act which was objectively wrong [failure to report makes it possible for a predator priest to continue victimizing others]. In such a case, we would have to look at the reasons for their actions.

Did they know they were obligated to report the abuse? If they did not know, and their lack of knowledge was reasonable [I would think this is a fair assumption. How many teenagers know what canon law is, let alone what it says], then their not reporting it due to ignorance could not be faulted.

Then there is the motivation for their inaction. Shame or fear or guilt are common tactics an abuser counts on to keep a victim silent. If the youth [wrongly] thinks it is somehow their fault, it is probable they will not recognize they are a victim, or even seek the help they need to recognize they were a victim.

On the other hand, if the victim stays silent because it seems too difficult to follow an obligation they know they have, this does hold some fault, as speaking out will protect others from being victimized. If a report is not made, the bishop cannot meet his own obligations on the matter.

Obligations of the Bishop

So let us assume that in the above case, when the victim does realize their obligation and does report it to the Bishop. Prior to 2001, the obligation to report it to the Vatican was limited to cases of solicitation in the confessional. After 2001, all cases were to be reported to the CDF.

Once the report is made to the bishop, he is obligated to investigate the claims and report it to the CDF if it is not immediately clear it is a false accusation. Now if the bishop does not report it (the act), the question is whether he knew of the duty. In this case, it seems unreasonable to assume the bishop would not know of the duty if he had been doing his job to begin with. So if a case was reported to him and if the case was credible, it seems a bishop could not claim invincible ignorance to his duties.

So when it comes to transferring a priest who was an abuser (which had tragically happened too often in the United States), we need to look at the motive. Did the bishop kick it under the carpet out of a motive such as careerism? Or did psychological experts of the time recommend that getting the priest away from the victim was the best solution? In these cases, the first obligation is wrong and condemnable. In the second, it would depend on whether or not the bishop acted in good faith. If the bishop at that time honestly and reasonably (for the time… we now know psychiatry erred on this) believed the psychiatrist was giving a professional medical verdict, his culpability might be considered lessened. If the bishop used the psychiatric evaluation as an excuse to transfer a predator priest to another diocese, knowing of recidivism culpability could be considered greater.

In other words, when considering the information the bishop had at the time he received the news was his actions, knowledge and intent in keeping with what was understood to be right?

In any case, the bishop always had authority to restrict or forbid a priest to practice their ministry for the good of the faithful. What he did or did not do would have to be assessed by the same standards.

Obligation of the Curia: Handling the Case

Let us assume that in this case, the obligations are met which require the case to be reported to the Curia and the bishop does so. What is the curia to do? Prior to 2001, it was the bishop who held the duty to handle the priest and report the results to the Vatican. After 2001, any reasonable charge had to be reported and the CDF would decide whether to take action itself or have the diocese take action. Prior to 2001, a trial was required. After 2001, a trial could be skipped if the evidence was overwhelming.

Now, ecclesiastical trials do take time, especially when one considers how small the Vatican curia are. For that matter, so do investigations of annulments sent to the Vatican. (See Morris West’s Shoes of the Fisherman for an example of how the pre-Vatican II Church was viewed on the subject). Evidence must be gathered, victims and accused must be interviewed, and a decision which is just must be made. Just for the accused and accuser alike. If it turns out the accused is innocent, he must not be punished. If he is guilty, the punishment must fit the crime.

For example: Was he a young priest who had a onetime fling with a 17 year old girl who was also interested in a sexual encounter with him? This is wrong of course, and even if the victim was willing, she would have been a minor and considered less able to make a decision. Or was he a predator, stalking youth and making many victims over a long period of time. Both are wrong of course. However the second case is far more serious than the first, and merits a harsher action… especially if in the first case the priest is deeply sorry for his act and in the second case the priest is unrepentant.

So before denouncing the Vatican for these things, we need to ask:

1. What were they made aware of?

2. What did they do in response?

3. How did that response match up to their obligation?

For cases where bishops did not report cases, the Vatican can hardly be blamed for this. In cases where they were notified, it requires us to know what was done to assess whether they did right or not.

This is where the media attacks on Pope Benedict XVI fall down. The review of the facts shows media attacks are based on the absence of information which is assumed to be indifference or squelching. Squelching a case (which the Pope has been accused of) is an action which requires evidence. Otherwise it is the argument from silence fallacy [We didn’t hear of anything, therefore nothing was done].

Before one can accuse the Vatican, the Pope or the CDF of blocking a case from moving forward, it must be proven. A case which took years prior to 2001 can move faster now. However, when it goes to trial (as I recall this was 20% of the cases), it can take time.

Obligation of the Church: Reforming Laws

Once it becomes clear that old laws are inadequate and have loopholes which the offenders can exploit, it becomes time to change those laws or rules. This is what happened in 2001 for example. It became clear that the old system allowed bishops to shift priests around without reporting it to the Vatican, so the new law made it mandatory to report the offender.

However, we must remember that just laws require time to draft. It is unfortunate that in a rush to punish the deserving we sometimes are tempted to skimp on justice in the name of “good.” However, in order to be good, a law must be just. This is why the Pope doesn’t just decree “OK, next person accused, send him to a monastery at the North Pole.” If a person is falsely accused, such a decree would be unjust.

The Catholic Church also has a mission of redeeming the sinner and calling them to repentance. If one seems truly repentant, the penalty necessarily differs from one who is unrepentant, and the Church, in her mission, must reflect the mercy and forgiveness Christ requires, without forsaking the justice Christ also requires.

Obligation of the Media: Accurately reporting

Peggy Noonan makes an error concerning the Catholic suspicion of the media. We are not angry that the media reported this at all.

We are justly angry over the attempts to smear the Pope by insinuating he willfully protected the guilty despite the evidence to the contrary. We are also justly angry over the fact that the media has portrayed the real cases of abuse and cover-ups as being more widely spread than the facts demonstrate.

This doesn’t mean the media has done no good whatsoever. In cases where certain bishops have been negligent, the media can do us a favor in bringing it to our attention. However, to be a real good, such media action requires a very different behavior from what has been shown so far. The media needs to understand what canon law teaches, and recognize that the Church governs itself with law, not arbitrariness. Getting a civil lawyer (often one who is suing the Church) to explain canon law is about as ridiculous as getting a Saudi Arabian lawyer to explain American Law.

The media is also obligated to report the facts without bias. Thus far, in media reporting of the abuse in 2002 and the recent attacks against the Pope, we tend to see agenda driven stories. Stories suggest the ending of celibacy or the admission of women priests as a required step for change. Calls for the “democratization” of the Church are common. The treating of dissenters from the Church as if they were objective commentators is also deceptive. Quite frankly, the media coverage of the Church displays a lack of interest or hostility to what the Church actually does. [This would be like asking one of these Tea parties to give an objective assessment of the Obama administration.]

The problem is the media cannot be objective if it approaches the story with an adversarial view. Being objective means reporting what is known. Being adversarial means challenging what one disagrees with or thinks is wrong. Now of course a reporter can disagree with the Church or think it ought to change. However, if the media brings these beliefs with it as an assumption behind the story, the story cannot be considered objective. The Church may have reasons why it cannot accept the personal beliefs of the reporter concerning important things. If the reporter does not consider this difference of view, his reporting will be flawed.


Ultimately the problem with the media coverage is not that they report that abuse happens, but that they draw unproven conclusions and present them as fact. As a result of media coverage, we are seeing polls where the majority seems to believe the Pope should be criminally tried, despite the fact that there is nothing more than unproven media allegations to base it on.

We Catholics are rightly angry at the jabs at the Church which claims to be objective reporting. One needs to be aware of their own biases when reporting. For example, I personally may not like Obama’s stand on Life and Moral issues, but this does not mean he can do nothing right. So when I write on moral issues concerning his administration, I do my best to keep my own political beliefs out of the analysis, hopefully succeeding and try to avoid writing on him when it does not involve issues which involve Catholic Moral Theology. [This is why I haven’t really commented on Tea parties and the like].

Ultimately, before writing the big exposé on the Church, the reporter and the media they work for needs to understand how the Church operates, reporting factually and not by misrepresenting the Church teaching or law.

If a priest or a bishop fails to do his duty towards what the Church requires, then yes report this and bring it to our attention. However, if the Church acts in a way different than the reporter would prefer based on his or her personal moral beliefs, to write a story without getting the facts straight is terribly unjust.

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