Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Roman Catholicism's Fundamental Problem: The Cultic Priesthood and Its "Diseased System" of Clericalism

The clerical leadership of the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has been in the news recently . . . and not in a good way.

Last week's broadcast of the Minnesota Public Radio documentary Betrayed by Silence shocked and upset many. The documentary is, after all, a damning indictment not just of the current archbishop but of his two predecessors also. Following is part of the documentary's introduction.

For decades, the archbishops who led the Catholic archdiocese in the Twin Cities maintained that they were doing everything they could to protect children from priests who wanted to rape them.

Reporters picked up those assurances and repeated them without question. Police and prosecutors took the assurances at face value. Parents believed the assurances and trusted priests with their children.

But the assurances were a lie, and the archbishops knew it. Three of them — John Roach, Harry Flynn and John Nienstedt — participated in a cover-up that pitted the finances and power of the church against the victims who dared to come forward and tell their stories.

[Betrayed by Silence] draws on dozens of interviews, thousands of never-before-published documents and insider accounts to explain how and why powerful men protected priests who abused children.

And if this wasn't bad enough, there were soon newly-published revelations from Jennifer Haselberger (left), about which the Star Tribune notes the following.

Whistleblower Jennifer Haselberger described the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis as a place where child abusers were given repeated opportunities to remain in the priesthood, where “monitoring” was lax or nonexistent and where investigations often favored priests, in an affidavit filed Tuesday [July 15] in Ramsey County District Court.

Haselberger, who exposed troubling practices in the church’s handling of clergy abuse cases, wrote that the archdiocese had a “cavalier attitude toward the safety of other people’s children.”

The written testimony of Haselberger, an archdiocesan canon lawyer before resigning last year, comes in response to an explosive lawsuit filed on behalf of a man who claims former priest Tom Adamson abused him in the 1970s.

Haselberger is one of the major players in the resulting sex abuse scandal rocking the archdiocese. A canon lawyer who worked for the archdiocese for all but two years between 2004 and 2013, she is among key critics with direct knowledge of child sex abuse practices.

The lawsuit was filed shortly after Minnesota changed its statute of limitations to allow older child sex abuse cases to be heard by the courts. The changes in law, combined with Haselberger’s public disclosures about church practices, set the stage for unprecedented revelations now being made public about how the church handled abusive clergy.

Her written testimony is important because if lawyers are to argue that the archdiocese has created a “public nuisance,” it requires evidence of continued practices that endanger children.

Much has been written about Haselberger's testimony, and, not surprisingly, there have been renewed calls for Archbishop Nienstedt's resignation. Even the editorial board of The New York Times has chimed in, noting that:

When Pope Francis met earlier this month with victims of rape and sexual abuse by priests, he vowed to hold bishops accountable for covering up the scandal instead of confronting it.

A good place to start is with the St. Paul-Minneapolis archdiocese, where calls are mounting for the resignation of Archbishop John Nienstedt, a warrior against same-sex marriage who, it turns out, is facing accusations that he indulged in improper sexual conduct in the past with priests, seminarians and other men.

. . . Archbishop Nienstedt acknowledged earlier this year in a sworn deposition for a pedophilia lawsuit that he did not fully disclose to police or parishioners which priests were under suspicion. But the archdiocese insists reforms have since strengthened disclosure.

The situation was only worsened by another deposition from a former vicar general of the archdiocese, the Rev. Peter Laird, who in conferences last year with Archbishop Nienstedt twice suggested that the archbishop consider resigning. Concerned Catholic parishioners, individual clergy members and university professors have also called for the archbishop to resign as the best solution. Instead, the archdiocese has made a mockery of accountability.

Hundreds of American priests have been forced from service because of pedophile crimes, but the parallel need for accountability among those who covered up the scandal has been shamefully avoided. In promising closer attention to this issue, the pope should not overlook the church’s leadership disarray in the Twin Cities.

Locally, one of the best commentaries on what the New York Times calls the "leadership disarray" in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis has been written by Pioneer Press columnist Rubén Rosario (right). Here's part of Rosario's July 18 column, "Archbiship Nienstedt Needs to Go. Now."

Haselberger's affidavit paints a disturbing picture of church officials acting more like a cabal of corporate schemers or a power-driven political administration run amok than like shepherds of the state's largest Roman Catholic diocese.

Haselberger details how archdiocese officials gave special payments to abusive priests, allowed others to continue in public ministry and failed to notify authorities of abuse allegations in violation of a 2002 churchwide policy.

In the case of the Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, Haselberger warned Nienstedt and others of his sexual proclivities and habit of trying to pick up men. Not only were her concerns ignored, Wehmeyer was promoted to pastor of a church on St. Paul's East Side before his conviction for molesting two boys in his parish.

These were not allegations decades old. They were recent. There's the tale of former Vicar General Peter Laird's attempt to declare disabled Father Mike Tegeder of St. Frances Cabrini Church in Minneapolis because of his criticisms of Nienstedt in the debate over the proposed marriage amendment to outlaw same-sex marriage. Laird resigned soon after Haselberger's concerns were made public.

. . . Nienstedt apparently has an ornery side to him, warning folks not to bother him and sending critical emails to church subordinates that one described as "nastygrams," according to the affidavit.

Haselberger recounts how Laird basically ignored her concerns and refused to read documents about a priest, removed from ministry just this year, who had a sexual attraction to young boys.

"I literally followed Father Laird out of the building one evening with those highlighted documents in my hands, saying that if he didn't have time to read the whole documents, he could at least read the highlighted remarks. He refused," Haselberger wrote.

Laird's reaction, Haselberger noted, was just one example of a "cavalier attitude toward the safety of children."

Cavalier? More like shameful.

In his op-ed, Rosario asks Haselberger who or what kind of archbishop she would like to see take over. Haselberger responds by saying, "I would say a no-nonsense kind of guy with more or less a pastor's heart."

Reflecting on this response I find myself thinking of and agreeing with Colleen Kochivar-Baker's contention that it's actually the system of the cultic priesthood that's the real problem, more so than individual "leaders," even those as inept as John Nienstedt. After all, as theologian and former priest Paul Collins points out, the clericalism that largely defines Roman Catholicism's cultic priesthood is a system "which has developed a kind of moral immunity over the centuries."

What happens, says Collins, is that "everyone who works in the system, no matter how generous, saintly, and virtuous they are, has to struggle to avoid being inexorably caught up in a clericalism that misuses power and that is essentially deceitful and corrupt."

Collins is quick to point out that he doesn’t believe that priests themselves are necessarily corrupt. Many, he notes, are "men of considerable integrity." Nevertheless, "they work in a diseased system and it is very difficult for them to avoid the consequences of clericalism."

Theologian Diarmuid Ó Murchú offers a similar analysis, observing that "innate to clericalism is a patriarchal, subconscious driving force which is much more about power in the name of religion, rather than about service in the name of spirituality."

It seems pretty clear to me that this is exactly what has been the case here in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis. What's new is that it's finally being exposed, thanks in large measure to Jennifer Hasselberger.

I'll conclude with an excerpt from Colleen's aptly titled July 17 blog post, "Jennifer Hasselberger Drives a Truck Through the Lies of the Clerical Caste of the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis.

I'd love to believe the circumstances cited in [Hasselberger's] deposition were exclusive to the Archdiocese of Saint Paul and Minneapolis, but after doing decades of research, I can no longer find it in my Catholic soul to believe the situations and attitudes she describes are unique to this archdiocese. They are not the exception to the rule. They are the actual observed practice, and this in spite of all the recent rules written specifically to look as if these practices are no longer the rule. The real rule in operation, as Jennifer shows beyond a doubt, is now as it always has been: the welfare of the offending priest before any thought of any justice for a victim.

I also know there really are dioceses where the unwritten rule does not hold sway, but these are the exceptions. The exception is not the level of duplicity and corruption in the Archdiocese of St Paul and Minneapolis. The only exception here is that a highly placed archdiocesan individual refused to play the clerical game, and unsurprisingly she just happened to be a lay woman. As for religious women and lay men, they were complicit at least to the extent that information stayed in house that belonged in the hands of police.

I don't know how many times I have written, here and in comments elsewhere, that the corruption and abuses will not stop until Catholics are released from the conditioning that God desires a magical celibate male priest as essential to the sacramental functions in the Church. The abuses of our clergy, both sexual and financial, will never end as long as all the power is in the hands of the very men who are causing all the problems. Pope Francis will not solve any of these issues by leaving the current theology of the priesthood as is. He has done nothing that demonstrates to me he has any desire to change one aspect of this theology. Even if it is eventually decided to let married men in the priesthood, that does not change a thing about the exclusive power held by the priesthood.

Related Off-site Links:
Betrayed by Silence: How Three Archbishops Hid the Truth – Madeleine Baran (Minnesota Public Radio News, July 14, 2014).
Under Oath, Whistleblower Challenges Archbishop Nienstedt Over Abuse Testimony – Madeleine Baran (MPR News, July 15, 2014).
Jennifer Haselberger Was Ignored, Bullied Before Blowing Whistle on Archdiocese, Records Show – Jesse Marx (City Pages, July 15, 2014).
Holding Church Shepherds Accountable – The Editorial Board (New York Times, July 17, 2014).
Archbishop Nienstedt Needs to Go. Now. – Rubén Rosario (Pioneer Press, July 18, 2014).
MN Archdiocese Wanted to Label Marriage Equality-Supporting Priest ‘Disabled’ – Andy Birkey (, July 22, 2014).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
Paul Lakeland on How the Clergy Sex Abuse Scandal Reveals a Crisis of Leadership
A Clerical Leadership Unresponsive to Voices of Reason
Has Archbishop Nienstedt's "Shadow" Finally Caught Up With Him?
It's Time for Nienstedt to Resign
Time for a Fresh Start in the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis
In the Archdiocese of St. Paul-Minneapolis, the Unravelment Continues

1 comment:

Bose in St. Peter MN said...

Thanks, Michael... I've been looking forward to your thoughts since the Haselberger depo was released.

--long-time follower and fan, infrequent (first time?) commenter