Over many centuries, Catholic hierarchy have developed behavioral patterns and practices that have transformed their operations into a veritable factory that produces sexual predators. That is the premise of a new documentary film by Sarah Pearson1, a public policy advocate for several organizations and graduate of Harvard Divinity School’s master of religion and public life program. While many have attributed the Catholic Church’s clerical sexual abuse crisis to external factors such as clericalism, celibacy, or all-male priesthood, Pearson says her documentary, Manufacturing the Clerical Predator, reveals that the distinct form of sexual violence we see among Catholic clergy is actually produced, manufactured, and reproduced within the clerical system itself. Here’s the trailer:
It’s an all-encompassing diagnosis Pearson has developed in her effort to examine the root cause of clergy sexual abuse that has been documented to have been a part of church culture for centuries. Interviewed last week on a podcast devoted to the crisis, The Angry Catholic, Pearson said that we cannot effectively address this pernicious evil if we do not correctly identify its root cause within the organization.
She explains that clergy sexual abuse is actually created within a finely-tuned system ingrained into the formation of Catholic hierarchy. This system is the product of a coordinated effort that, in effect, enables and encourages sexual abuse, concealing it from the public, allowing it to flourish. And this phenomena didn’t just appear within the last 40 years. “We have a pattern of abuse that is inter-generationally transmitted within the organization” that has persisted over the centuries into today in every corner of the globe where the Catholic Church exists, she said.
Because such systemic patterns and behaviors that foster sexual abuse have been ingrained within the hierarchical system of the Church for so long, Pearson cautions against thinking this is a temporary crisis. “‘Crisis’ obscures the true nature of what this is,” she said, noting that we are dealing with a “catastrophe” deeply imbedded in the operation of Catholic hierarchy long before the Protestant Reformation.2 In the podcast episode #181, fast-forward to 30:38 on the timeline to get the abbreviated version of her thesis, but the whole show is fascinating.
Because patterns and behaviors in bishops’ systems of operations have led to clergy sexual abuse metastasizing in the Catholic Church, Pearson said we need to discard simplistic external remedies. These include opening the priesthood to married men, allowing women into the priesthood, and relaxing restrictions on homosexuals in the priesthood. Such external remedies, she explained, are often weaponized to make larger political or ideological statements. While Pearson said she agrees those are important conversations to have in the Church, these limited remedies create false lines of division that do not address the culture of the institution. And it’s a culture deeply rooted in patterns and practices reproduced throughout the clerical system that has led to the suffering of so many people, she notes.
Her documentary film, first screened in May, 2022 in conjunction with the Harvard Divinity School and Nate’s Mission, has not yet been released to the general public. However, you can listen to the audio of the documentary to air for the first time on TheAngryCatholic.com’s podcast on August 27. [Available on most podcast platforms]
While we await to hear in her documentary how she fleshes out her thesis and identifies specific patterns and practices that are the root cause of this phenomena, we can look to our own Diocese of Buffalo for specific examples. Yes, documents, whistleblowers and a state attorney general investigation certainly have revealed a unique form of sexual violence that our diocesan leaders enabled and then concealed from the public through a variety of ways and means. We read with horror the state lawsuit detailing how that violence was manufactured and reproduced under the watchful gaze of our bishops and their clerical executives, literally over generations.
Drilling down to specifics of how the Diocese of Buffalo operates, we can better see Pearson’s point that we are dealing with a systemic cancer, not a surface wound. This blog, LayDOB.com, provides an excellent chronological case study which illustrates the deadly accuracy of Pearson’s thesis in our diocese. Here you can read about a diocesan seminarian who reported to diocesan officials that he was sexually molested by a diocesan priest in 2003. Go back to the first post in this blog and follow through to the latest post to watch the patterns of abuse and institutional practices transmitted through the years which produced the anguish, fear, insecurity, trauma and spiritual depravation of a human being’s soul. It’s a complicated scenario detailing how our diocesan officials, starting with our bishops, carefully concealed this case from the public and law enforcement, providing protection for the priest who officials admitted committed the crime. Not only was this priest kept in ministry as a pastor at two parishes with schools, he was honored with the diocese’s “Priest of the Month,” bolstering his priestly credibility among an unsuspecting flock. No bishop or diocesan official batted an eye.
To pull that deception off for 17 years, too many behaviors, practices and “understandings” within this corrupt system have to be well established. That is precisely Pearson’s point. Who could argue against this being a finely-tuned, coordinated system that bishops and their officials were groomed in? And it wasn’t just clergy but well-meaning laity as well who were groomed into accepting and promoting institutional practices that lead to such pain and suffering of the victims and put others at risk. Let’s take a look at some of these diocesan practices and behaviors–in this one case alone–which I have more than sufficiently documented throughout this blog. Diocesan executives and advisors:
- operated with obsequious, uncritical deference to bishops
- paid for living expenses of mothballed pedophile priests–a financial deception to donors (detailed in the NY State lawsuit) and an unjust response to abuse victims;
- ignored cries for help from sexual abuse victims;
- failed to conduct proper investigations of not only suspected pedophiles but the executives who enabled them (detailed in the NY State lawsuit);
- gave job promotions, honors, titles of office and full retirement privileges to bishops/clergy who are documented as having enabled sexual abusers to flourish;
- made threats to the victim to keep him from reporting his sexual abuse allegation to law enforcement or anyone who could come to his aid in seeking justice and protecting the public;
- failed to alert the public to credibly-accused sexual predators in their midst (detailed in the NY State lawsuit);
- vilified courageous whistleblowers–both men and women;
- did not hold one single diocesan official accountable for this catastrophic crisis while the diocese has spent $7 million dollars (so far) on attorney fees to provide officials cover from litigation.
Do we still think doing something as simplistic as placing more women in chancery roles can begin to fix THIS? Actually, we did that. One woman in the chancery really did react the way we would hope and blew the whistle on diocesan corruption and failure to properly handle clergy sexual abuse reports. Her concerns were dismissed and she is long gone from diocesan work. Same with the woman who blew the whistle in diocesan accounting after a Buffalo News article informed her she was cutting checks for a self-admitted pedophile priest. Another woman is chancellor of the diocese–one of the highest level executives. She continues to play the institutional game, remaining silent, insisting the whistleblower priest apologize as a condition of his re-instatement into full ministry– while she comfortably retains her title. Nothing has changed.
How about women priests? Will that eliminate the bullet-points listed above? Pearson said that argument is based on “an assumption that there’s some sort of non-abusive quality that is attached to the female gender” and that they can somehow “moderate the abusive qualities of male clergy perpetuating these crimes.” The problem with that argument, she points out, is “women have historically played important roles in grooming and trafficking victims and covering up abuse.” Think: Ghislaine Maxwell. Traditionally, rectory cooks and housekeepers were women, one podcaster host noted, and we now know too many of them did not come forward with what they observed. Again, if Pearson is correct in her thesis, such single-issue arguments provide no inoculation against centuries-old behaviors and practices ground into the DNA of bishops who groom their subordinates.
Still tempted to think that allowing priests to marry will solve the clergy sexual abuse problem? Pearson’s conversation with the podcasters revealed that without changing current institutional behaviors and practices designed to perpetuate the crisis, married priests would have even more incentive to look the other way. How could they entertain the idea of whistleblowing with a wife and children to provide for? We saw what the bishops of the Diocese of Buffalo did to the priest who blew the whistle on the corruption he personally witnessed and recorded. December 3rd will mark THREE YEARS since being removed from active ministry.
Bishop Michael Fisher is scheduled to celebrate the second diocesan “Renewal Mass” which will take place on August 28th at the Basilica of St. Mary of the Angels in Olean, NY at 3:00 p.m. A rosary starts at 2:40 p.m. A diocesan notice states: “All representatives are asked to bring their knotted ropes from the first Renewal Mass at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine as we will untie one knot. The undoing of a knot symbolizes the renewed life and hope of our diocesan renewal.”
I. Am. Not. Making. This. Up.
All the faithful of the diocese are invited to attend this Mass.
A reception follows.
Holy Mary, Queen of the spotless one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church of Jesus Christ [and it IS, despite the shenanigans of too many of the men in charge], pray for us.
Banner photo: Protesters outside the Diocese of Buffalo chancery building in 2019, the day after the bishop’s priest-secretary blew the whistle on his boss’s coverup of clergy sexual abuse allegations.