Authoritarian Patriarchy Is the Root of Sexual Abuse in the Church

Pennsylvania Grand Jury report uncovers 70 years of sexual abuse of at least a thousand children by 301 priests. We speak to theologian Matthew Fox about the scandal’s causes and consequences

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Story Transcript

MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. It’s good to have you with us.

The grand jury findings in Pennsylvania that 301 Catholic priests over a period of 70 years sexually abused and molested at least 1000 young people who were in their charge shattered the world and the Roman Catholic Church. Because of these widespread charges of sexual abuse by priests, not just them, the United States, Chile, and Australia and Ireland, over these years, it’s clear that a massive coverup by bishops took place, who rule their diocese and the church. Why did it take place? First, listen to these voices; the voices of people who are now adults in Pennsylvania, who suffered unmentionable horror by priests they trusted.

SURVIVOR 1: This report is me getting my life back, saying these are the evil bastards that stole my life.

SPEAKER: How many of you believe that right now a child is being abused at the hands of a priest?

SURVIVOR 1: Why statute of limitations ended for my abuse. But to me they’re re-abusing me right now.

SURVIVOR 2: I want the right to stand in court and face my abuser.

SPEAKER: And say?

SURVIVOR 2: Just have him go through the court process, tell my story, make him listen to me. I would say to him, why did you do this to me? And I believe his answer is going to be because I can. Because I could.

MARC STEINER: But what is to be done? What justice can they expect? What is it about the Church, about its power, that has allowed this to go on for all these years? Here’s what Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said when he presented the AG’s report on sexual abuse by priests in Pennsylvania.

JOSH SHAPIRO: The grand jury subpoenaed and reviewed a half a million pages of documents. Internal church documents and official records. The abuse scarred every diocese. The coverup was sophisticated. And all the while, Church leadership kept records of the abuse and the coverup. These documents from the Diocese’s own secret archives formed the backbone of this investigation, corroborating accounts of victims, and illustrating the organized coverup by senior church officials that stretched, in some cases, all the way to the Vatican.

MARC STEINER: We’re joined today by one of the world’s leading spiritual voices and thinkers, Matthew Fox, who was at one time a member of the Dominican order within the Roman Catholic Church before he was expelled himself, and he became a member of the Episcopal Church. Now is one of our leading scholars, thinkers, and activists in the world of spirituality in our country. Matthew Fox, welcome. Good to have you with us.

MATTHEW FOX: Good to be with you. I wish the topic was more positive.

MARC STEINER: Me too. I wish our topic was more joyous and in depth about the spiritual life that we live and who we are. But this is a horrendous piece that has been thrown at us once again. I just want to hit it from the top, if I might, with you, as difficult as it is. What is it, I mean, about the Church that allows these coverups, that this actually happened; 300 priests over 70 years. And of course we don’t even know how much this is still pervasive inside the Church, whether we’re talking about Berkeley, California, or Lagos, Nigeria, or wherever that might be. So can you describe and kind of analyze what that means, why that is?

MATTHEW FOX: Well, of course, it is appalling, just as you say. And it’s scary. This is only part of the state of Pennsylvania, and there are a lot of other states. And you know, when this kind of information came out in Ireland a few years ago, it just totally trashed the Catholic Church in Ireland. I mean, the Church went from like 90 percent participation to down to like, 10 or 15.

So your question, of course, unpacks the many layers of problems here. There’s an ideology around sexuality that has hung around since St. Augustin, for a century in the Catholic Church, that while there have been efforts to replace it and to displace it, it still hangs around, and essentially is telling us that our sexuality is a negative thing, so we should just sit on it, or have a very narrow view of how it is to be employed. So of course with contemporary psychology in the 20th century, beginning with Freud but expanding well beyond that, is of course a healing, if this can be integrated into into the spirituality and theology of the Church. But there’s been so much resistance about that.

There’s patriarchy. There’s the power of men. It’s a men’s club. When women are, are exiled from decision making, from any real power in decision making in the Church, you set yourself up. That’s a big part of it. Pope Francis, in the letter just released trying to apologize for this, talks about the sin of clericalism. But the fact is, you have to deconstruct that. I mean, he has a lot of nice words in his letter of apology, but he doesn’t talk about undoing, deconstructing this unbelievably heavy patriarchal all-male club that makes all the decisions about everything, and therefore creates all the secrets and the laws that keep the secrets covered up.

And I mean, one of the most appalling statements that you just shared with us is from the attorney general, saying that they had these secrets in vaults. And of course it took the civil attorney general to break through and try to and unpack all this evidence that is there. So the Pope doesn’t even allude to that. He talks about, he says something about how we need to do everything necessary. But he doesn’t talk about actually inviting the civil powers in to look at the facts and to help us resolve this. So there are just so many layers here of perversion.

Now, it is true, of course, that maybe 6 percent of the Catholic priesthood is pedophile like this, and they’re 94 percent of other priests who are very good and generous and all the rest. But the bad apples just sour the, the, what can I say, the value in the, the ideology that there’s something good going on here. It’s a scary thing. I’ve had parents tell me that they don’t want their children to be in a church where this is so possible. And so it’s, you know, this could be a real moment of truth for the Catholic Church. It’s very unsettling. But at the same time, like anything that’s disturbing, it’s a breakthrough and awakening. And I’m kind of disturbed, actually, in the Pope’s letter that he goes on and on about penance and fasting. He doesn’t see anything about lawyers, getting lawyers involved, and attorney generals, and all the rest. I mean, it’s rather, he goes into this mode of kind of airy-fairy spiritualized language that doesn’t get down to the roots of things.

MARC STEINER: So one of the things that- some of the popular wisdom here is you hear all the time if they would only let priests marry, this wouldn’t happen. Well, that may be a part of it. But what you’re describing here is something much deeper than just the question of whether priests should be allowed to be married. Right? It’s really important to probe that.

MATTHEW FOX: That’s right. I mean, I do think the option of celibacy, which means allowing priests get married, is part of the solution. But it’s not the whole solution by any means, because married people also engage in this kind of thing. And of course, pedophilia, as we know from these coaches at Ohio State, and the rest, you know, that all kinds of married people do these kinds of terrible things as well. So I mean, you know, we need a public discussion about pedophilia and about its causes, and about its prevention and all the rest. But as you say, the idea of having priest marry is just a part of the picture. It doesn’t guarantee that pedophiles are now excluded because they’re married, obviously.

MARC STEINER: And it goes on to me, in some ways, beyond pedophilia. I mean, one of the things- a couple things I’ve thought about here, I’m just curious as to your thoughts as a former Dominican yourself. I’ve raised this question with a number of people I know who I respect to a deal inside the Church, and also people who have left the priesthood or are no longer nuns. But that, you know, it’s when you, when you see the abuse police take upon citizens of color in this country, and that happens every day, fellow officers understand that goes on. Most don’t say anything, because the institution is so large people are afraid to say things. And I understand that. Is it the same in the Church? I mean, how can this go on and people not know it, not see it? And even from the highest parts of the Church, from the bishops themselves who run the diocese, and also run the church, to cover it up is just so absolutely illegal and immoral, both those things, those poles. I mean, what are your thoughts on those?

MATTHEW FOX: No, absolutely, it’s illegal and it’s immoral. But you know, standing up to power that can threaten you, because your job is at risk, whether you’re a football coach, or a priest, or a politician, of course, this takes moral courage. And I think that moral courage is often at a premium in our culture. I don’t think that our seminaries, for example, the way we train our clergy are particularly advanced, nor is academia in general, at developing courage. I think something like the civil rights movement of the ’60s and ’50s, where young teenagers were learning courage, moral courage, to fill the jails and to march, even when it was dangerous in the South, now, that’s a school for courage. But where do we really teach courage anyplace in our culture? We have a few individuals who we admire. But the point is we should be teaching courage, moral courage, in our educational systems. Of course in our professional schools.

You know, it’s a question of kind of what, what is education about, and how do you go about it? And if you leave the heart out- and courage is from a French word, big heart. If you leave the heart out of education, which we do, we stuff it all into our left brain, you’re not going to be turning out courageous lawyers, or politicians, or businesspeople, or clergy, or teachers. But again, where is courage on our radar?

MARC STEINER: And just very quickly, before you have to run, I’m curious about your thoughts on what the Church should do at this moment. I mean, I heard a priest this morning on the radio talk about that, that maybe the Church shouldn’t be sued, but the church has set aside money so people can get recompense for what happened to them from some other authority, but with the church’s money. That’s one idea, clearly. But the Pope and the people who run the Church could be doing a great deal more in terms of talking with people who have been abused, and really using this as a time to change things, bringing them in. What should be the response here? I mean, we’re talking about people- the things I read in this report from the AG’s office were just, I mean, they were horrendous, in terms of what they did to some of these children.

MATTHEW FOX: Yeah. Appalling. Appalling. Well, the Pope’s letter, you know, at least talks about apologizing and so forth. And that’s important. But I think we need grieving practices. I’ve worked on grieving practices for the last 15 or 20 years, because I realize that our culture has a lot to grieve about. The ecological crisis, and so much else. And of course, these kinds of things. So I think we should be doing grieving ceremonies together. And there are ways to do this. Indigenous people have ceremonies, and I’ve developed them over the years. And they’re very powerful, and they work. Because if you don’t let the grieving out, it will fester inside. And it becomes, it turns inside, and then you, you go into drugs or alcohol to try to numb it somewhat, et cetera. So I think grieving is a very important part of this.

I think a shortcut, legally, is- and perhaps that’s what that piece was referring to- just to give some assistance, financial. But as far as, of the kind of therapy that’s needed to work through some of this, you never get over this when this happens to you as a child. You carry it until you die. But there are ways to mitigate the results of it, somewhat. And so good therapy and so forth, and group therapy around this kind of thing is part of the process of healing. And, of course, the reconciliation with God, who is much greater than our institutions. To realize the difference between the Church and the reign of God is a very important thing. The church is very, very fallible and very, very poisoned. But the experience of the [inaudible] even to those who have been profoundly wounded, and so forth.

MARC STEINER: I’m sorry, go ahead, Matthew, I’m sorry.

MATTHEW FOX: No, go ahead, go ahead.

MARC STEINER: I’m just going to say, I’m always so shocked by the contradictions here. I mean, over the years from being a young civil rights worker to now, I spent a lot of time with people who were activists who came out of the Catholic Church. And I always found that people coming out of the Catholic Church were in the movement to be some of the- their view on life and existence was very broad, and they lived a consistent, beautiful life. But there’s a contradiction between how they interpret what it meant to be a Catholic to what is happening inside the church hierarchy. The contradiction is huge. This seems like this is so explosive it could, it could set up some major contradictions that could determine the future of the church.

MATTHEW FOX: Well, absolutely. In my book The Pope’s War, which I wrote-.

MARC STEINER: Oh, yes. Great book. Great book.

MATTHEW FOX: I lay that out. There these wonderful movements like Liberation Theology and based communities. A student of mine, Sister Dorothy Stang, she was assassinated, martyred, because she was defending, supporting the peasants and the Amazon forest and the rainforest Indians there. Even Thomas Merton, the Catholic monk, it’s now proven that he was murdered by the CIA, actually, in 1968 for standing up against the Vietnam War.

So it is so true. There is, there is so much beauty and power, positive power, in the Catholic tradition. But here we have a cabal who are, of course, poisoning the thing. And as I pointed out in my book The Pope’s War, for 34 years there were these two popes who shut people up. Who shut theologians up. I was one of 108 who were silenced under Pope Benedict XVI. And when you shut up the theologians, it’s their job to help think the church through. But then it’s like, it’s like Donald Trump trying to shut up his naysayers, and so forth. You know, it’s the same thing going on. It’s about control, control, control. The idolatry of control. And when you get that, you’re going to have a lot of festering perversion of all kinds. Including poisoning the idea of what the faith is about. As if it’s about obedience, and just getting in line. And as I lay bare in that book, Father [inaudible] was one of the greatest [inaudible] of all time. He was like this with Pope John Paul, who would take him on his plane with him. He was raising lots and lots of money. Meanwhile [inaudible] kinds of seminarians in his, in his organization.

So this, this- it’s part, as you said at the beginning, it’s part of a much bigger picture. And in many ways, the whole thing has to die for it to start over. It’s got to return to the teachings of Jesus and those who are really trying to live them out. And we have these great souls through the centuries. And in your own lifetime you’ve experienced them. Archbishop Romero, who’s going to be canonized by [inaudible]. There’s a martyr for peace, and so forth.

And so there’s greatness there, and there is truly a shadow of darkness there. And I guess that makes it all very human, doesn’t it. Because that is true of most human organizations.

MARC STEINER: It does. Matthew Fox, I deeply appreciate the work you do for us all, and what you’ve done in the past, what you’re doing now. Thank you so much for joining us here on The Real News today. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.

MATTHEW FOX: Yes, the truth must come out.

MARC STEINER: Take care.

MATTHEW FOX: You bet.

MARC STEINER: And thank you all for watching. I’m Marc Steiner for The Real News Network. Take care.