Did the Council of Trent enable the sex abuse scandal?

The conviction of Philadelphia’s Msgr. William J. Lynn for endangering children by allegedly providing cover for priest pedophiles was recently reversed by a higher court. Lynn, after serving 18 months in jail, is out on bail under house arrest as the district attorney appeals to the state Supreme Court. The original guilty verdict was, according to The New York Times, “hailed by victims’ rights advocates who have argued for years that senior church officials should be held accountable for concealing evidence and transferring predatory priests to unwary parishes.”
“The revelations of sexual abuse,” the Times noted, “and seeming official indifference have tormented an archdiocese [Philadelphia] that was long known for imperious leaders and an insular camaraderie among its priests.” That defines clericalism, the energy source of clerical culture, that first-class section of the plane from which its members could look back at the everyday Catholics jammed into coach who had to buy their own tickets and pay for the clergy’s, too. That’s how clerical culture understood the phrase, “It is right and just.”
To construe the conviction of Msgr. Lynn as making high church officials finally accountable for their mix-and-match policies in dealing with sex-offending priests is on a par with, as Jimmy Breslin once wrote, “blaming the Johnstown flood on a leaky toilet in Altoona.”
You cannot stop the Mafia from selling protection by arresting an aging low-level capo who has never been more than a gofer and who lives far beneath the godfather who hardly knows his name. Neither can you stop the official church from providing protection for clerical sex abusers by indicting an aging bureaucrat who also lives far beneath the archbishop who wonders, as Chicago’s late Cardinal George Mundelein famously asked his secretary on the way to a priest’s funeral, “What is Monsignor’s name anyway?”
Msgr. Lynn is a product and a victim of the same hierarchical structuring that divides the church into football stadium seating with the owners (the bishops) on the top in the skyboxes; the priests and religious in reserved seats below them; and in the standing room by the one-yard line with a skewed vision of the game, the ordinary men and women who, in fact, are the church. The hierarchical dynamic put everybody in their proper place. That is why, for example, there has been a major move to install altar rails in churches and new regulations to prevent laypeople from handling the sacred vessels while mandating them to bow to the priest before receiving the Eucharist. You can’t make this stuff up, but the hierarchical mind grinds such regulations out in order to get lowly laypeople out of the sanctuary and back where they belong.
No great victory has been gained by those who think getting the monsignor out of his purple robes and into a prison jumpsuit really gets at the bishops who have, in effect, scapegoated the loyal bureaucrat for their own sins.
The sex abuse scandal is a function of hierarchy; that is, of a system that places all power in the hands of those at the very top of its steppe-like structure. This divided concept of the universe was not what Jesus had in mind when he established his collection of apostles.
The divided concept, a model of which can be seen in the da Vinci museum in Milan, originated in the map of the universe split into heaven above and earth below, devised by priests in that land we now call Iraq as, 4,000 years before Jesus, they observed the passage of planets through fixed stars.
This pattern of the heaven above and earth below led to earthly kingdoms presided over by monarchs endowed with power “by divine right.” Their courts of privileged princes and other dignitaries (vestiges of which are found in “domestic prelates,” as monsignors were originally designated) were thought in some ancient cultures to be so identified with the monarch that they practiced “sacral deicide,” burying court members with the monarch when he died.
The hierarchical model granted unusual privileges and exemptions to those who lived on top and to whom respect was to be paid at all times. The ethic of unearned privilege is second nature in a monarchy, a system that foundered and failed in the First World War and now survives symbolically, for example, in the British royal family that, now that the sun has set on the empire, serves as a combination of national soap opera and tourist attraction.
The hierarchical model made the sexual abuse of children possible because it cloaked its priests in special privilege on a level above laypeople, who were denied any real standing or voice in forming church policies. It also created the clerical culture, a gated community for priests who were welcome because their ordination confirmed their status as superior to the excluded masses of ordinary, garden-variety Catholics who were to respect and go along with, if not strictly obey, their priests and bishops.
This culture conferred automatic deference to anybody who wore a Roman collar. The demand for celibacy in the ranks of its courtiers and priests served the hierarchs well because it was less a spiritual ideal than a pragmatic discipline that made the lesser acolytes of hierarchy sign on for a life of servitude to the system and to the superiors on whom they were emotionally and financially dependent.
Control a person’s sexuality, monarchs understood, and you control them completely, and there is no need to worry about the suppression, confusion, and stunted psycho-sexual growth problems that were the side effects of such hierarchical dominance. Where there should have been a warning label for applicants to read, there was a printed a favorite hierarchical mantra: This is God’s will for you.
That is where Msgr. Lynn came in as a victim of a hierarchical system on which he was completely dependent and in which he was to carry out the orders of his cardinal-archbishop without hesitation or question.
In a reflection of sacral regicide, the archdiocese was willing to let him be buried with Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, who was responsible for the orders given to Msgr. Lynn but who died before he could be thoroughly examined on how, as an all-powerful hierarch, he presided over a kingdom in which sex-abusing clergy were dealt with as carefully as if they really deserved their privileged aura as members of the clerical court.
What has this got to do with the Council of Trent, you ask? One can read all about it in Jesuit Fr. John O’Malley’s excellent book, Trent: What Happened at the Council. The three-part council pursued many objectives in its effort to forge a Counter-Reformation to the revolution Martin Luther had so spectacularly begun. One of this council’s principal goals was to justify and bolster the church as a divinely established hierarchical structure.
In its 23rd session, for example, it stated in Canon 6: “If any one saith, that, in the Catholic Church there is not a hierarchy by divine ordination instituted, consisting of bishops, priests, and ministers; let him be anathema.”
Canon 7 avers that anyone who says “that bishops are not superior to priests; or, that … the power which they possess is common to them and to priests,” along with several other assertions of the independent validity of a bishop’s powers, “let him be anathema.”
The council also insisted on the “excellence” of celibacy and condemned the view that marriage was a more blessed state than virginity or celibacy. When some European princes who were very interested in the council’s impact on their functioning asked for mitigation of celibacy for their priests, their requests were denied.
Spain’s Philip II, O’Malley tells us, “let the pope know he was utterly opposed to any concession, arguing that, if a change were made for the empire, other nations would demand it which would result in an end to the church’s hierarchical structure.”
We have here an important clue about the origin of the sex abuse scandal. It is found in the impact of the hierarchical imperative on the inner development of candidates for the priesthood and religious life. Celibacy and chastity were the dynamite packed into their official endorsement as conditions for the privileges of accepting their lot as God’s will and serving, much like the butlers and maids of “Downton Abbey,” in the secondhand glory of the great hierarchical palace. Questions of sexuality, other than identifying its least impulse as a sign of serious sin rather than a signal of being a healthy human being, were ruled out of order. As Philip II realized, if the pope were to give ground on celibacy, there would go the whole hierarchical neighborhood.
I had a firsthand experience of this many years ago, when I chaired the psychological research panel of the multidisciplinary study of American priests commissioned by the bishops themselves. Cardinal John Krol of Philadelphia was the bishop coordinator when we reported our results. Although he could be a genial man, he was furious that day, telling me I should never have allowed any investigation of the sexual adjustment of priests. He waved away my explanation that priests were neither more nor less than human and one could not understand them without some knowledge of their psychosexual development.
“These priests,” he snorted dismissively, “merely want to exchange their power over the body of Christ for power over the body of a woman!” I did not realize it at that explosive moment, but its fuse was strung across the four centuries that had passed since Trent placed the preservation of hierarchy above the understanding of human personality.
It is possible to speculate that the refusal to consider women priests, highlighted by the recent crackdown by lofty hierarchs on women religious and the refusal of the official church, despite the history of sex abuse by the clergy, to examine celibacy, is rooted in the Tridentine fear that yielding even an inch on these subjects would threaten the entire hierarchical structure. This reflexive assertion of the intrinsic superiority of forsaking sex for the Kingdom thus emerges as a political rather than a theological conviction.
In 1965, as the Second Vatican Council neared its end, the Brazilian bishops expressed interest in discussing celibacy. Pope Paul VI responded with a letter, read by Cardinal Eugene Tisserant to the council fathers on Oct. 11, 1965. Paul VI considered such a discussion highly inappropriate, and he further insisted that he intended to safeguard and maintain the ancient discipline of Latin church in that regard. “The letter,” O’Malley tells us in another of his books, What Happened at Vatican II, “was met with applause.”
Trent also established an Index of Forbidden Books that was first published in 1559. O’Malley observes in Trent: What Happened at the Council that this index “would be an ongoing feature of Catholic life. It remained such for the next four hundred years.” Trent, he observes, “helped develop the Catholic mindset reluctant to admit change in the course of church history.”
Through several centuries, in order to maintain a hierarchical structure, church officials have insisted on celibacy for priests and exalted virginity over marriage. Trent refers to ecclesiastical hierarchy “as an army set in array” and declares that “bishops who have succeeded to the place of the apostles, principally belong to the hierarchical order.”
Long centuries afterward, Msgr. Lynn has emerged as the subject of this tangled system of which he was a servant, indentured to be sure, rather than in any sense an author. Philadelphia is a classic example of what a hierarchical institution convinced of its divine commission and confident of its privileged position is like when it is faced with preserving its order of battle or allowing anyone to examine closely the claims to the superiority of celibacy and chastity: It defends itself rather than the children entrusted to its care.
We may hypothesize that the seeds of the sex abuse scandal whose flowers of evil bloomed fully in the 21st century were planted in the 16th century by a church reeling from the Reformation that refused then, as it does now, to examine in depth its presumptions about human sexuality. It remains divinely confident that it is right and remains ready to sacrifice a thousand Msgr. Lynns to maintain a hierarchical structure that may indeed be more sinning than sinned against.
[Eugene Cullen Kennedy is emeritus professor of psychology at Loyola University, Chicago.]

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  1. Gene Carr says:

    In order to establish whether an hierarchical structure or mandatory celibacy had any correlation with any incidence of sex abuse of minors and children, you would have to show that there is a lower or much lesser incidence in other institutions with the opposite characteristics, and who deal with minors and children. However this is most definitely not the case. Consider for instance American Public School teachers. According to Professor Charon Shakeshaft, the incidence of abuse of minors and children is greater than that of the clergy abuse ‘by a factor of a hundred’. Furthermore, they are rarely reported to the civil authorities and are protected and covered up by their Teachers Union. Also they are moved around from school in a procession as “passing the trash”. The record of another institution the Boys Scouts is also very problematic. Now the Council of Trent, whatever else it did, had nothing to do with the structure and policies of the US public school system. And as far as I am aware, teachers do not take a vow of celibacy.

  2. #1 The most scandalous aspect of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal was not the fact of clerical sex abuse but the fact of hierarchical concealment of that abuse, to the endangerment of children – until the very moment this cover up was revealed by some of the families affected. The history of the church will record that it was that revelation, and not the fact of the abuse becoming known to hierarchy, that marked the start of the hierarchy’s now publicly assiduous concern for child protection.
    None of this has yet been explained, and (rebutting the argument that bishops are upwardly accountable) not a single bishop has yet been fired either for the cover up or for the deferral of child protection until the cover up failed. Yet the hierarchical (read non-accountable) model still regards itself as sacrosanct.
    We now know also that for the past four years this hierarchical model in Ireland has been progressively reducing the funding of Ireland’s NBSCCC – a bolt-on allegedly ‘independent’ body that still cannot even ‘audit’ a diocese unless invited to do so. (We know this from Ian Elliott, the retired CEO of the NBSCCC.)
    And even yet Catholic parents are not invited to discuss issues of accountability and transparency with their bishops, or seek answers to vital questions (e.g. about the NBSCCC) in open forum. Bishops have not even yet sought to measure the loss of trust in their office caused by this behaviour.
    The concentration of all preferment in the hands of men who exercise undivided power and are totally unaccountable to those they ‘serve’ is a clearly self-corrupting system, totally unworthy of the people of God. If it cannot teach accountability by example it cannot teach anything else either. We don’t need to look further for the root of the current Catholic crisis.

  3. Joe O'Leary says:

    Gene, the most relevant point of comparison would surely be with clergy in other denominations or religions.

  4. Kevin Walters says:

    The most scandalous aspect of the Catholic clergy sex abuse scandal was not the fact of clerical sex abuse but the fact of hierarchical concealment of that abuse, to the endangerment of children
    This excellent article in The Tablet backs up what you are saying.
    kevin your brother
    In Christ.

  5. Gene Carr says:

    Joe at 3; Your point is well taken. The trouble is that though there are some patchy studies there has not been any extensive analysis of other Churches–certainly not of the size and comprehensiveness as that carried out for the US Catholic Church by the John Jay Law School at John Hopkins University. This covered a huge population of over 110,000 priests and examined records for an extensive time period from 1950 to 2004. According to Professor Philip Jenkins from what evidence we do have there appears to no reason to believe that abuse is any less prevalent in other Church communities. The first dioceses in North America to be bankrupted because of abuse were Anglican. And, for example insurance companies to not penalise Catholic Diocese over other church communities, who are organised on a Congregationalist model. There are also many differences that need to be controlled for. For example the Catholic Church because of its size and organization keeps records going back decades (even centuries). Baptist communities do not; reporting of abuse tends to be only contemporaneous. Also, to a far greater extent the Catholic Church has had a more extensive direct involvement in education, orphanages, etc, than other religious communities. The incidence of abuse is determined as much by ‘opportunity’ as by ‘propensity’. This is one good reason why a comparison with the public school system is appropriate in trying to include or eliminate any hypotheses about causal factors. It is hard to be dispassionate and clinical about such a grim subject, but good remedies must strive to correctly diagnose the causes.

  6. Lloyd Allan MacPherson says:

    This profession is unlike any other. A childhood friend of mine (both of us are victims of abuse by the same priest) became quite vocal about the way a certain priest interacted with the young boys within our group. He did a courageous thing no other wanted to do. Within a month or so of reporting it to only his parents, he was practically ostracized by his family. It created so many problems for him that he was never the same way after that. Later, we would find out that it was his father who refused to believe it and his mother who felt like something should be done about it. Within a year, it was moot point because the priest was moved to a neighboring parish and his parents had separated. As years past, he became more and more disconnected from the community and by the time he was a teenager, was serving time in a juvenile prison. Had this been a scout leader or a teacher, would there have been less controversy and more action on the part of the parents? This priest was the most trusted of people in our community – you can’t compare it to any other profession where I am from. Those days are gone but the sting of such idolatry remains. I for one believe that to tackle some of the outstanding issues we face in this world, we need a strong committed body of “believers” and based on the core competencies of its founder, Christianity is a shoe-in so I remain ever faithful. The priest in this story ate supper at the home of two boys he continuously and inappropriately touched. How often did he attend? Every other week for two straight years. The gravity of these crimes are enhanced by the proximity of the abuser both to the family and God. I don’t see the hierarchical concealment as scandalous but rather the obvious after effect of men creating unnatural laws. What is scandalous is that the families of the abused most likely at some point bowed down on their knees in front of the abusers of their children and routinely confessed their sins to them and after were given a penance for wrongdoing. What level of psychosis on the part of the abusers would this behavior require? In my mind, it is completely off the charts and as always, I point back to St. Thomas’s theory on Natural Law (with an understanding of the primacy of the ‘individual’ conscience and not what the Church tells us is natural). The more a person is contained within an unnatural law, the more perverse the behavior becomes.

  7. This is all so old. I think it is time to move on. There will only come healing when those who are wounded trust the Lord to heal them, to trust in Him and His goodness and a new day. To dig over old graves is to find nothing but sadness and prolongs the suffering. Jesus said ”Behold I make all things new”. This goes for everyone, even those who have been sexually abused by priests or family members. Do we trust Him or not? Grace is in the present moment.

  8. #7 ‘Time to move on’ – the refrain heard by survivors from the earliest days – always for the convenience of others. Do you know any survivors, ‘Shaun’ – or have you set out to get your head fully around the damage this experience can cause from the wealth of published literature?
    Personally I think it wrong to speak of ‘ruined lives’, of course, given the healing power of grace and time – but the damage done to spiritual well-being by priestly abuse is colossal, and the church still lacks a sure means of addressing it.
    When the survivor can say ‘yes – I can now move on’, fine. To tell a survivor to move on is to be insensitive, to imply that it is the survivor, not the abuse, that is the problem. It’s the equivalent of calling someone with a broken leg a malingerer for not walking.
    All in the church need above all to be caring, prayerful, patient in this matter – and intolerant of all obstacles to the healing of survivors. One of these is the continuing non-accountability of bishops for maladministration on this issue, and the keeping in office of men who are a constant reminder of that fact – simply to prove a point to the media: ‘you don’t tell us what to do’.
    Even the pope has admitted that there is much work still to do on this issue – so the ‘move on’ reflex has no validity.

  9. Fair enough Sean. Perhaps my comment was insensitive. I apologise if anyone was hurt by what I said or how I said it. I guess what I am really saying is that as an ordinary young Irish Catholic, I am sick of hearing about sex abuse. Do you know I’ve been fed a media diet of sex abuse stories and scandal since 1995, aged about 14? This has had a profound effect on all of us, most especially, obviously, and in a horrific way, on the victims of abuse. But I think so many Catholics are just sick of it, and it is perhaps this we are really saying when we say such things as ‘it’s time to move on’. Call it fatigue. By all means, the victims themselves must receive care and healing. They must feel the pain and somehow bring it to Christ so He can heal them. There are people in the Church who can help with this, though they may be hard to find.

  10. Con Devree says:

    Did the Council of Trent enable the sex abuse scandal? Did the conjugal acts of Henry VII (seventh) and his wife enable the death of Ann Boleyn?

    The answer to both questions is “NO!”

    The child abuse scandal was an outcome of disordered sexual activity, a failure to recognise and deal with temptation, a certain amount of ignorance about sexual abuse, a refusal to recognise objective evil for what it was, and a blatant decision to ignore the rightful claims of the abused and their families.

  11. Pope Francis’s comments the other day to the effect that no institution had done more than the catholic church to combat the abuse of children gives the game away. Behind all this I suspect is cod theology, which proposed that the actions of a priest are intrinsicly sanctifying, “ex opere operato”. The priest is “higher than the angels”. That makes any priest, however corrupt, worth a thousand lay people, or children.

  12. Stephen K says:

    Attributing causality is a risky business, I think. How far back does one go? Rather like the idea that each of us is the product and clone of thousand ancestors, it becomes mind-bogglingly impossible to separate distinct causal strands. And, to speak in Aristotelian terms, are we concerned for the efficient, the material or final causes?
    Nevertheless, I believe, on balance, that there is merit in seeing the roots of later acts in earlier ones. But the Council of Trent was itself a product of individuals formed in a tradition or development of values. So, the object is not to diminish the individual responsibility of the sinner and criminal, by focusing excessively on the past and the culture, but to recognise that they do not exist in a vacuum, and that there is a sense in which it is very true that we are each linked in each other’s sins.
    Having said that, I myself agree absolutely that the root of the clerical abuse problem lies in the idea, theologically underpinned and previously culturally accepted and reinforced, that the priest was a “priest forever”, in other words, metaphysically different and superior. Was this idea the cause or consequence of the clerical hierarchical establishment supporting the bishops and cardinals? Perhaps a bit of both, if that can be allowed. The fact is, priests were accorded a privileged and automatic, unthinking respect, and this was bad for them as well as the laypeople who gave it. The lay religious, men and women, Brothers/Sisters, enjoyed a large part of this respect by mental association (i.e. they wore habits and collars too).
    Never let anyone imagine that the clerical abuse problem is a problem of the modern era. It is the modern era that has exposed it, that is all. For all those dedicated, hardworking, very human but ultimately trustworthy priests, religious we may know, who are shamed and punished by the actions of a minority, we must feel compassion and regret and never abandon. But they, as we, have all grown up and worked in a centuries-long culture that made, not so much the crime possible – human nature did that – but the concealment, hypocrisy and contempt of church leaders.
    For my money – tainted though it is by my own sins – the first and most significant thing that must be done is to remove from all seminary training the notion that ordination represents an ontological change of an ordinary man and to instil rather the notion that it is essentially the commissioning by a shepherd (the bishop) to the service and protection of the flock.
    It may come as no surprise that I do not agree that women cannot be priests. The tradition of the Church is, in my view, not worthy of the capital ‘T” but merely a cultural and psychological fetter. But my view on the pivotal nature of the pernicious notion of the permanence of priesthood has, I think, some implication for the movement in support of women priests: namely, that the language of the campaign might beneficially change from a focus on a right to “be a priest” to a focus on a readiness to “pastor to the flock”.

  13. Kevin Walters says:

    Shaun @7&9
    They must feel the pain and somehow bring it to Christ so He can heal them. There are people in the Church who can help with this, though they may be hard to find
    Yes they are hard to find Shaun; the great responsibility that Gods leaders have is to show their love for Him by keeping his commandments (Serving the Truth which is Love) and in so doing lead by EXAMPLE His flock to “love one and other”
    Many have struggled to find justice and in trying to find justice have come up against the hypocrisy of a self-serving church that from the Pope down put its own image of worldly goodness before the most vulnerable in society. Until our church accepts this in true contrition from the top down, this festering sore will continue to blight Gods holy church on earth. Even Jesus poured scorn on the Pharisee for purporting a worldly image of goodness, as now mankind and many who have been wronged (Wounded) now pour scorn on a dishonest Church, that has lost its moral authority
    When are leaders say to the wounded “for give us our trespasses” and can touch the hand of our brother and sisters in tenderness and look them in the eye openly and acknowledge their own guilt, with honesty before all of mankind, their anguish that cries out for relief , can start to be healed and then, they (The wounded) will be able to follow their example and say “as we forgive those who trespass against us” Then those who exhort us to move on beyond the perpetual memory of an offence and it long term effects that has blighted the lives of so many, will have a miracle, for all of us to share in and then you will be able say that these words have been fulfilled in the present situation
    “Behold I make all things new”.
    And then we can all say “It’s time to move on”
    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  14. Gene Carr says:

    Would it not be just as rational to blame the Second Vatican Council for the abuse crisis as blame the Council of Trent? After all the main incidences of the recent eruption was between 1965 and 1985, was it not? Could it be that the ‘blame’ did not lie in the seminary system of priestly formation bequeathed by Trent but by the breakdown of that system that followed on Vatican II? I am not blaming the Council here but rather the breakdown of theological and moral discipline arising from a distorted reading of the intentions of Vatican II and the actual content of its decrees. If even half of the corruption of seminary life depicted in Michael Rose’s book “Goodbye Good Men” is accurate then is this a thesis that must be taken seriously?

  15. Do you know the bible story of the foolish people who went to sleep while events passed them by? Life is complicated and simple formulae won’t serve, in seminaries, in church government or anywhere else. Among other things, lessons learned from the Reformation, from developments in so many human fields, cannot be set aside for a refuge in simple pieties. All these things are part of the human situation.

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