The Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report continues to destroy the Catholic Church. Many truths become glaringly apparent as we read its many pages. One of the biggest ones must surely be that the Catholic Church is hopelessly broken. It functions like any other broken system. Indeed, at some point it became, like they all do, a hunting field for predators seeking prey. Predators gravitate toward these systems because they are a reliable source of prey. Today, I’ll show you how the masters of the broken system keep the prey in the sheepfold.
(Page numbers listed in this post belong with the Pennsylvania report.)
A Brief Overview of Broken Systems.
A group that becomes a broken system stops caring about whatever it’s supposed to be about. It can no longer accomplish its own stated goals.
Instead, this group’s moved into the business of gathering power for its leaders. Once it becomes broken, it exists for one purpose.
It exists to protect and grow its leaders’ personal power.
Broken systems share a number of characteristics.
- A stunning lack of effectiveness at achieving its own stated goals
- High turnover among leaders and members (especially as the group’s retaliatory powers wane)
- Vicious retaliation against dissenters and apostates
- Huge power disparities between leaders and members
- Members’ main activity appears to be gaining power—then flexing it
- Extraordinarily high numbers of scandals and abuse allegations
- “Circle the wagons” mentality toward criticism or abuse allegations
- Protecting abusers at the expense of victims
We’ll be adding one more trait to that list today:
- Silencing victims by promoting a protective mindset toward the group and its leaders
Early on (pp. 2-3), the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report talks about what they call “the strategies” deployed by the masters of the state’s dioceses. The dioceses utilized these strategies “not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal.'” The scandal was not, the report writers clarified, their chosen word. Rather, it was the word the leaders of those dioceses used. It fits, too.
“The strategies” all aimed to protect the diocese from the fallout of the child rapes committed by predatory priests in Pennsylvania. These priests’ masters employed simplistic euphemisms to describe the rapes. They assumed the trappings of legitimacy through substandard counseling for the priests. They shuffled priests around, refusing to warn parishes about those priests’ pasts. And worst of all perhaps, these shepherds of God actively tried to silence the priests’ victims. When all that failed, they simply discredited them.
The central motivation of these hypocritical leaders, they felt, was protecting the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) itself. They sometimes seem in their correspondence to feel impatient or angry with the predators. But they protected them all the same, in the name of what they felt was the greater good.1
How to Get the Sheep to Re-Prioritize.
The leaders of these broken systems don’t come by this mindset by accident. It’s orchestrated. I don’t know if it’s mindfully done or just seat-of-the-cassock. But the end result remains the same.
One important way to foster that protectiveness is to invest members with a sense of ownership in the group. It’s a false teaching, of course. Because of the way leaders allocate power, members can’t do anything serious to affect the system. But the sheep need to feel that they are a big part of the group’s success.
Moreover, individual members need to feel that they could cause the group’s failure.
Leaders want those flocks, therefore, to feel they must guard carefully their church’s reputation.
For example, in 2015 a group of abuse victims banded together to issue a ringing accusation against their Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) church. Not only did their pastor, “Thomas,” deny the charges, but the larger church merging-with-then-buying their church issued a statement. I present here part of that statement (emphasis from original):
. . . there’s nothing sinister going on at The Church at Schilling Farms. Nothing bad’s taking place. I assure you. Here’s what’s going on: God has orchestrated two great churches to come together and do something better than we could have done on our own.
Protecting the System.
This topic occupies my mind lately because we see the exact same dynamic on display in different groups. For example, take the Bill Hybel sex-abuse scandal. One of his victims, Pat Baranowski, worked as the megachurch pastor’s assistant. He quickly began preying upon her.
She stayed silent about this abuse for years—until #MeToo emerged. Like many other victims of similar abuses, she kept silent because she wanted to protect their group from the reality of its predatory leader. She told the New York Times,
I felt like if this was exposed, this fantastic place would blow up, and I loved the church. . . I didn’t want to hurt anybody. And I was ashamed.
We see Rod Dreher similarly downplaying the many, many faults of his “Benedict Option” communities. He writes books promoting a lifestyle that he knows can go hideously wrong. However, you won’t find him engaging with those examples. Nor does he suggest solutions or preventive measures regarding them.
Instead, to protect his legacy, Dreher pretends that his communities function beautifully in the main.
The people trapped in those communities feel more frightened of potentially causing their group to fail than they feel dread at the idea of living forever with a terrible secret.
But it gets worse.
Carrying the Ones. The Many, Many Ones.
An advocacy site, #Silence Is Not Spiritual, makes the exact same association. A theoretical abuse victim agonizes about whether to report her youth pastor’s sexual assault:
If she told, wouldn’t it mean she was ruining a promising ministry? Would God be mad at her?
And long-time readers might remember that my then-husband Biff used this exact rationale to try to induce me to return to our marriage. If I didn’t return, I would ruin his potential career as a preacher or pastor. I’d send people to Hell.
It was the same rationale he’d used years earlier to try to persuade me to keep quiet about his purely-fabricated testimony.
It failed that first time, so I don’t know why he tried it again.
When silencing has worked so incredibly well for so incredibly long, abusers have trouble even conceiving of any other tactic.
Fervor = Control.
One truth (out of many) stood out in that Pennsylvania report: the more fervent a parishioner felt about the group and its ideology, the more control the diocese enjoyed over that person.
We see the exact dynamic happening in Protestant scandals. Take, for example, Rachael Denhollander’s case. Nobody could possibly accuse her parents of not doing enough for their church. They led one of the church’s ministries out of their home. When a church acquaintance warned them that Rachael’s abuser showed classic signs of grooming, the parents struggled with how to respond. If they acted too strongly on the warning, they risked wrecking the abuser’s future. They decided to wait till he actually did something. By the time they decided that, he already had.
Similarly, in the Pennsylvania report we find shocking gaps in oversight; any predatory priest who could spin a good yarn could deceive bishops and archbishops easily about just how rehabilitated he was. Abusers find the faking of fervor incredibly easy. I suppose they simply imitate what the actual fervent people do. Since the group conceptualization of the quality of fervor bases itself on something nonexistent, it’s not difficult to fake signs of it.
And with parents who truly believe in the work of their church, who truly believe that making noise would harm that church, that play-acting pays untold dividends–for the abusers (p. 146).
The Flocks Do The Work For the Wolves.
Worse yet, the fervent TRUE CHRISTIANS™ around these abuse victims fail spectacularly at accurately reading the character of the abusers in their ranks. Indeed, Rachael’s congregation had already moved to censure and retaliate against her parents for even entertaining their suspicions about her abuser.
When we describe Christian groups as “rallying around” their accused leaders, as this one does, we’re not just talking about them showering supportive words upon their accused leaders. I mean, they do that, yes. But they also snub, shun, and outright work against their leaders’ accusers.
In broken systems, power guards itself. But the most enthusiastic members of the group seek that power for themselves. They think they can get it by crowding close to those who have it already. These members identify their leaders as being the group itself. If the leaders turn out to be no damn’ good, that says some terrible things about the followers–and about the whole tribe.
Truly, it’s insidious.
But Heroes Emerge.
My heart lifted at the many strong responses from parents in the Pennsylvania report. Many of them reacted exactly as one would hope: with support for the victims and anger toward the predators. (See in particular p. 75.)
But oh, oh! One hero rose quickly to the top of the heap.
This was glorious.
On page 58 of the Pennsylvania report, I suddenly let out a loud cheer. I couldn’t help it.
In 1987, a priest named Mike Lawrence molested a little boy. When the victim’s father found out, around 1998, he absolutely went completely ballistic. And by the way, you’ll find that exact word, ballistic, in the description given at the time by the Monsignor this father exploded at. (A Monsignor ranks fairly highly in a diocese.3)
This boy’s father was everything I’d have wanted, had I been in that victim’s position. He charged into the Monsignor’s office, tore him up verbally, and demanded explanations NOW. The Monsignor wrote later, in a confidential memo:
The father of the boy was about as angry as I have ever seen anyone, and I have the feeling that he was just short of resorting to physical violence. He was almost irrational and it was very difficult to deal with him.
They couldn’t silence him! His fields were barren!
The REAL Perseverance of the Saints.
This father was furious!
Nor could the Monsignor–or anybody else really–calm this father down. He pops up a few times over that part of the report. Every time, you can taste the fear of the Catholic leaders shielding the predator of his precious child. They literally couldn’t publicly do anything regarding Mike Lawrence without expecting this father “banging on the door once again.”
Eventually, the father’s persistence drove the diocese to make changes in how they honored priests for their awards. That’s a big screamin’ deal in the Catholic church. A lot of local newspapers in heavily-Catholic areas print announcements regarding ordinations and renewals. Mike Lawrence received a mention in the paper. He’d received a renewal of his permission to serve a particular office. And the victim’s father had seen the mention and marched straight to the Monsignor’s office. The letter on page 59 tries to reposition the renewal as “hardly an honor,” but nobody who’s been around Catholics for long would ever buy it. And this dad didn’t.
It’s likely, given the timeframes involved here, that Lawrence fell outside of the statute of limitations. I hold every confidence that if the victim’s father had been able to seek legal recourse, he absolutely would have.
Before the father had to employ more direct methods, Mike Lawrence himself requested early retirement–right about when the Spotlight reports began coming out in 2002. Lawrence continued to offend after that retirement, unfortunately–but the father stops showing up in the memos around this point.
Whatever it takes to get the hero to the finish line. When I think of Catholics’ child-rape scandal, I always think of this exact scene–that little tightening of the collar. I hope every craven leader shielding Mike Lawrence from the law and from his victims’ parents did that little wiggle at some point to adjust their own.
The leaders of broken systems try hard to create and maintain followers who dedicate themselves to preserving the system itself.
They already possess the dynamic of power-lust itself. Members already tend to side with powerful people in the group against those who aren’t powerful. Religious group members tend to identify their leaders as possessing extra approval from their god. In turn, those leaders do little to temper that attitude.
Members also tend to view their group as needing their special protection and nurturing to survive and grow. They identify so powerfully with the group that they perceive criticism of the group as an attack upon themselves. When you see church members retaliating against critics and bad-mouthing those who leave their groups, that’s largely why. And when they become victimized, they stay silent out of feelings of loyalty to the group–or fear of that retaliation from their peers.
We can’t overstate the importance of that implied threat. Victims ain’t dumb. They see those same dynamics in play that we do. They know that talking about their abuse will land them in a lot of trouble. Their groups might as well carry placards and signs announcing how bad an idea it would be for any victim to say a word. Whenever one of those victims tries to do so, the group will be right there to reinforce the lesson.
Or at least, they’ll try.
Once upon a time, these groups still had enough cultural power to make life very, very hard for victims and their families seeking justice. Now that power seems more scattered, and public sympathies rest firmly with victims–not with the predators who abused them. If they still held those powers of coercion, they would still be able to maintain that silence.
This is one genie that’s never going back into the bottle. That one boy’s father? I bet a lot more parents react that way nowadays.
NEXT UP: The masters of broken systems would love for members to think that they can fix the system from inside. But no members can. I’ll show you why, next time. See you soon!
1 In the masterful 2007 homage Hot Fuzz, the same motivation drives the villagers who turn out to be the villains. They even chant a call-and-response! Whenever one of them says the phrase “the greater good,” the rest of the group chants together, “the greater good.” Eventually the hero gets mad at them, because obviously they’re committing a number of very evil (and illegal) deeds in accomplishing this nebulous “good” they pretend they want. (Back to the post!)
2 As that Medium post points out, “Thomas” ended up taking a sabbatical “to rest and refuel.” Before the scandal broke, this predatory pastor had prepared for a far more active role in the churches’ merger. Also after the scandal, the merger became a flat-out buyout by Andy Savage’s megachurch. As the writer points out there, this kind of language around “sabbaticals” is a page taken straight from the Catholic playbook. (Back to the post!)
3 A monsignor is basically still a priest, just one granted quite a lot of honor and power for a priest. For folks my age, 90% of what we know about Monsignors comes from the 1982 movie Monsignor with Christopher Reeve. Until the full scope of the child-rape scandal came out, I’d always figured that movie was largely speculative. (Back to the post!)
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