Thursday, April 13, 2017

On Holy Thursday, a Letter I Wrote a Bishop Twenty Years Ago: "Will a Church That Destroys the Careers of Valuable Lay Ministers, While Protecting Pedophile Priests, Have a Bright Future?"

It's Holy Thursday, and so I'm thinking, of course, about Jesus' command that his followers serve each other and not seek to lord it over others. As was typical in his ministry, he put this message into action by taking a basin and towel and washing his disciples' feet, an action people considered "lower" than others — slaves and women — undertook in his culture. 

Thinking about the significance of the gospel accounts on which Holy Thursday is based brings to mind another letter I wrote to the the-bishop of Charlotte, North Carolina, in September 1997. As with the letter I shared on Palm Sunday, I have spoken about this letter in a previous posting without sharing its entire text here. Now I'd like to share the letter in full. 

Colleen responded to the letter I shared on Palm Sunday by noting that it struck her as amazing that I spoke out in 1997 in the way I did in that letter, when the abuse crisis had not yet taken place. She's right about the fact that my 1997 letters predated the breaking open of the abuse crisis in the Catholic church. Later in the year in which I wrote the letter I shared on Palm Sunday, I began to have more and more inklings that something was looming on the horizon for the church — revelations about clerical sexual abuse. Already in 1997, as a lay theologian, I had begun to hear hints about this from priests, who usually carefully guarded their tongues when speaking about clerical secrets — hints of abuse cases and pay-offs to silence families filing such cases.

I heard discussions, in fact, between two former monks of Belmont Abbey about two cases in which there had been pay-offs to silence victims, about which they knew in a very direct way, and I believe they wanted me to overhear their conversation. One of these cases actually made the news when information about it reached the media.

Steve's and my experience with Bishop Donoghue (who was bishop in Charlotte at the time I was given a terminal contract, and who then shifted to Atlanta, at which point Curlin came on the scene) and Bishop Curlin and the monks of Belmont Abbey showed me in an irreducibly revelatory way what a serious problem abuse (I mean here abuse in general terms, not specifically sexual ones) of lay Catholics by Catholic pastors is in the Catholic church. And so as the abuse crisis began to break open, I was totally prepared to believe the claims of survivors of childhood sexual abuse by clerics — because I myself had had to learn bitter lessons about what the pastoral leaders of the church are capable of. I had learned that clericalism goes hand in hand with power and privilege that by its very nature fosters abuse, given the powerlessness of lay people in the governing structures of the Catholic church and the fatuous claims made by clerics to stand in God's place and be "ontologically" superior due to the bishops' hands laid on them.

Here's a letter I sent to Bishop Curlin on 1 September 1997, after I had read in my local paper about a network of bishops in Texas who had protected a priest who had molested children:

Dear Bishop Curlin:

I am writing you today after having read in this morning's newspaper of a network of bishops that protected a priest who is a child molester. The newspaper reports that the Texas bishop who offered to incardinate the known child molester said that the church must avail itself of the services of all priests in a time of priest shortage.

After having read this, I observed to Steve Schafer, "Isn't it interesting that a network of bishops has been willing to participate in the destruction of our careers and reputations, while providing no reason for this? And yet a network of bishops is also willing to protect a known child molester, and withhold information about this from those the priest serves."

Something seems awry here, doesn't it, Bishop Curlin?

Perhaps I should note that I continue to be unemployed. From the time of Belmont Abbey's action towards me in 1993, I have been unable to find another full-time position. Effectively, Belmont Abbey destroyed my career, and I have never been told why this was done to me.

Does that seem just, Bishop Curlin?

When stories like these are known in detail, do they make people trust the church and accept its teaching, particularly about matters of justice? What can people conclude when they place this story beside the one in today's paper, except that the church is perfectly willing to violate its most basic norms of justice and charity to destroy the career of an esteemed theologian, while protecting a child molester?

What can this mean, except that clericalism drives many decisions of the church hierarchy — despite the church's own teachings about the priesthood of all believers?

Could the crisis in priestly vocations somehow be related to these two stories? Is it possible that idealistic young people will not give their lives to the service of a church that behaves as dishonestly and unjustly as the church has behaved in these two stories?

After all, I myself followed the vocation of a theologian, because I believed that God had called me on that path, and that I had something of value to contribute to the church. Though, over the years that I was permitted to serve the church as a theologian, there were many signs that my vocation bore fruit in the life of the church, you, your brother bishops (particularly Bishop Donoghue), and the good fathers of Belmont were permitted to "discern" that my vocation was inauthentic, while not making public your reasons for that discernment.

With regard to Bishop Donoghue: as I informed you in my first communication with you about what was done to me at Belmont, I have strong reasons for believing that he took a very active role in my firing at Belmont Abbey.* This is widely believed in the Charlotte diocese, and has been reported to me numerous times by laypersons and clerics in that diocese.

I also have been told by religious friends of mine that, after Bishop Donoghue took very unjust action against their religious community and others in Atlanta, you informed the superior of their community that Bishop Donoghue had made a terrible mess of the Charlotte diocese, and that their community was, in fact, fortunate not to have to work under this bishop anymore.**

If it is true that you said this, Bishop Curlin, and that this accurately represents your opinion of Bishop Donoghue as a pastor, then I wonder why you were so willing to participate in the web of lies, secrets, and silences that surrounded what Belmont Abbey did to Steve Schafer and me.

Not only do I remain unemployed, despite the numerous applications I have made now for four long years to obtain another position. I also remain unable to participate in the Eucharist, for reasons I have outlined in previous letters to you.

As those letters state, I will be willing to return to the Eucharist, as I long to do, only when the church issues me some apology for destroying my livelihood, and for making my life itself very burdensome, precisely when my aging mother most needed me to support her.

To put the point differently: my fate, both my difficult life after Belmont Abbey, and my inability to participate in the Eucharist, implicate you. The church teaches that we are all bound together in Christ. What you do affects me.

You cannot proclaim a justice and charity that you do not practice.

Please think of these things following this Labor Day.

Your refusal even to meet me and see me as a human being seems to me to belie your pastoral office in the most blatant way possible. Such actions on the part of the bishops of our church make it increasingly difficult for me, and many others, to see in the church and its hierarchy the face of the compassionate, healing, all-loving Jesus you keep preaching to us.

In the final analysis, stories such as this morning's story about the protected pedophile priest make many of us think that what counts most for many of our bishops is not fidelity to the gospel and to central tenets of Catholic teaching about justice, but what bishops can get away with.  This gives many of us the impression that what interests many bishops most is protecting — at all cost — mutable structures (e.g., the clerical structure) that are now badly serving the church's best interest.  Increasingly, many of us think that many bishops will do what they are willing to get away with in situations such as mine and the pedophile priest's, rather than what is clearly right.

Can such a church command people's loyalties?  Will a church that destroys the careers of valuable lay ministers, while protecting pedophile priests, have a bright future in the new millennium?

I may have been removed from your midst physically, but these questions—which are central to what happened to me at Belmont Abbey—won’t go away.  They demand honest, open, discussion.

Sincerely yours,

W.D. Lindsey.

* The president of Belmont Abbey College who presented me with a terminal contract told me, in fact, that Donoghue had pressured him to fire me, and showed me a threatening letter Donoghue wrote to him about the theology department with me as department chair. He asked me to advise him about this threat, and I spent much of my Christmas holidays in 1992 writing up a document in response to his request that I counsel him.

When he received that document after Christmas early in 1993 in total silence and never thanked me for it or responded to it, I knew that something had changed, and was not surprised a few weeks down the road to be given a terminal contract in my annual evaluation meeting with the academic vice-president, who informed me that my teaching ratings by students and my peers were outstanding, I had published more than any other faculty member in the previous semester, I had a strong record of service to the college and the community — but he intended to see that I got a one-year terminal contract for which he refused to give any reason.

** One of Donoghue's first acts when he became bishop of Atlanta was to run out of the Atlanta archdiocese several religious communities that had ministries there, and to bring in the Legionaries of Christ to staff Catholic institutions in the archdiocese.

The graphic: a page from the 11th-century Theodore Psalter from the monastery of Studion in Constantinople, which is now held by the British Library. The image has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing. 

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