Saturday, October 26, 2013

Do the Job: "Bishop" Means "Overseer"

Years ago, under the administration of a previous bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota, thousands (if not hundreds of thousands) of dollars were spent for consultants to help the bishop do his job. The faithful, lay and clergy alike, were increasingly outraged. The word "bishop" stems from the Greek word "episcopos," which means oversight. It seemed that the bishop himself was unable to perform the essential functions oversight, and thus, non-ordained outsiders had to be brought in to coach him in doing his job.

Fast forward to the current mess over the repeated mishandling of instances of clergy misconduct by top officials in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. Following the example of successful damage control in at least six other Roman Catholic dioceses, the Archdiocese is hiring outside consultants to review the files of all its "active" clergy to ascertain that any allegations of misconduct are being handled more appropriately than in the past.

Consultants shouldn't be necessary for common sense to be exercised by leaders. A priest who attracted repeated police interventions through cruising known gay hook-ups spots very obviously shouldn't be allowed to work in a parish without at least alerting lay leaders and staff members to their priest's particular failings, and requiring that priest to undergo massive therapeutic interventions and intense supervision. Duh. The consequences of this lapse in obvious common sense: two boys of a parish staff member were abused, and the perpetrator is now in prison. Kevin McDonough, first appointed by Archbishop Harry Flynn and key player in making this absurd judgement call, deserves major opprobrium for it, because this particular instance of abuse was so easily and obviously preventable.

Then there's the case of the popular priest who, at minimum, had an intense emotional affair with a minor, and allegedly some inappropriate physical contact, as well. Post-investigation recommendations that this priest not be permitted contact with young people needed to be followed. Duh. But what was this priest's assignment? Campus minister at a college, where his duties included private counseling with students and leading overnight student retreats, both locally and abroad. The obvious common sense recommendations were not followed. So to establish credibility, the Archdiocese needs highly-compensated consultants to examine the files and ascertain that no further idiocies like these are being committed.

Showing the door to overly-troubled clergy and guiding reasonably-healthy clergy are essential functions of oversight. If a particular bishop's administration is so fundamentally--let's not mince words--screwed up--that it can't make these obvious judgment calls correctly, it's time for a drastically different network of oversight to be substituted. Frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if the average pewster will not be terribly impressed with new actors simply being placed in old roles.

The mysteries of a supposedly-universal charism of priestly celibacy are admittedly beyond the ken of this Episcopalian (i.e. American Anglican) writer. But my deepest hunch is that this dual-headed problem of sexual misconduct and horribly-skewed oversight would mostly disappear if clergy were permitted to marry and if women were welcomed into the ranks of the clergy.

More than a few folks have asked me why I bother with so much concern about a denomination not my own. The answer is that all of us Christians are in this together. A lack of credibility in one part of the Church Universal affects every other part. We don't each, separately, need to reinvent the wheels that carry us towards a more perfect Church. Experience in one part of the body can and should benefit another if we can offer and accept it non-triumphally and non-defensively. There are many, Many, MANY things this conservative Episcopalian admires about the Roman Catholic Church and wishes her own denomination would emulate. When it comes to handling clergy misconduct well, however, I do think that the Episcopal Church, while not enjoying a perfect record (as recent news stories reveal) is further down the holy path of common sense.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Could they REALLY be THAT Stupid? Apparently, Yes.

Imagine getting a call from your child's high school principal. "Mrs. Smith? We have learned that your son recently stayed after school alone with his teacher, Mr. Jones. In the future, please make sure that another adult is present in the classroom with your child if he stays after school with Mr. Jones. We need to protect our teachers from the appearance of scandal."

Absurd, right? Yet, according to the mother of two boys abused by the (former)Rev. Curtis Wehmeyer, this is precisely what happened when now-Bishop of Duluth, Paul Serba(then Vicar General in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul) called her and asked her never to allow her son to go camping alone with their parish priest again. By that time, the Vicar General knew of Wehmeyer's encounters with police and that the troubled priest had been propositioning young males at known hook-up spots frequented by gays.

With that same knowledge, the Rev. Kevin McDonough wrote an unbelievably cavalier memo about the troubled priest. Copying the memo to then-Vicar General Sirba, McDonough wrote that Father Wehmeyer

"really was not all that interested in an actual sexual encounter, but rather was obtaining some stimulation by 'playing with fire.' This sort of behavior would not show up in the workplace. I agree with Father Curtis that disclosure [at his workplace] would only serve to out his sexual identity questions (which, by the way, would be unlikely to surprise any observant person in the parish!).

"On the other hand, disclosure to a group of peers is meant to help a priest to remain accountable for the spiritual and psychological work needed to maintain and improve his trustworthiness. I do not recall: has he done so? In fact, I do not remember whether he has a priest support group of any sort. I think that he would do well to have some real friends who can challenge him about how he is doing in living his priestly vocation with integrity.

"My recommendation is that we would encourage (or even require) Father Wehmeyer to disclose his pattern of self-destructive behavior to a small circle of trusted friends."

So what kind of oversight is that--POSSIBLY requiring Wehmeyer to tell his fellow priests about his unacceptable behavior? McDonough was, until his recent resignation, "Delegate for Safe Environment," a job that includes oversight of all child-abuse prevention efforts in the archdiocese. And so, Wehmeyer was allowed to continue to serve in a parish without restrictions and without any warning to parish leaders or other employees. The sad aftermath of Wehmeyer's continued placement is that two sons of a parish employee were abused by Wehmeyer in his camper that was parked in the church parking lot. Wehmeyer is currently serving a five-year prison term.

What sense can be made of such bizarre decision-making on the part of diocesan officials charged with protecting the laity? Are there other ways that now-Bishop Sirba sought to transfer the responsibilities of clergy-oversight to those he should have been protecting? What other--perverse--behaviors might the Rev. McDonough deem only as "self-destructive," rather than recognizing them as the very clear danger they pose to innocent people?

Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest who was an early whistle-blower on clergy sex abuse nationwide, commented, "Celibate clergy who aren't trained in psychology are in no position to make that kind of a judgment call over someone like Wehmeyer." (quoted by MPR News). On top of that, McDonough has both gay and lesbian siblings, and therefore might tend to minimize the threat of certain homosexual behaviors that would constitute major red flags to persons without that personal background. (I am battening down the hatches for response to this last statement here in liberal Minnesota where the highly-regarded McDonough family boasts of yet another sibling in the eleven-child clan, Denis McDonough, who serves as President Obama's Chief of Staff).

Where will the Roman Catholic Church go from here? The Rev. Kevin McDonough has ever-so-appropriately resigned from his position as Delegate for Safe Environment. Bishop Serba of Duluth needs to step down from his position as well, having demonstrated such incredibly skewed judgment, even though it occurred before he was named bishop. Dominican priest, Father Reginald Whitt, from the University of St. Thomas' School of Law, has been appointed as Vicar of Ministerial Standards. Six laypeople with impressive credentials have been appointed to a newly-created Ministerial Standards Task Force. The group includes a retired police officer with experience in internet sex crimes, a law professor, a federal courts mediator, and a sex-abuse psychologist. If this task force's recommendations are taken seriously, it may establish a new precedent for lay leadership within the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly the whistle-blowing former canon lawyer for the Archdiocese, Jennifer Haselberger, seems to have been pushed out of the loop of influence--if she ever truly was in it.

And this business about non-psychologist, celibate male priests making decisions about clergy misconduct? These bizarre decisions would likely all go away (along with a host of other benefits) if Pope Francis' future reforms include opening the priesthood to married men, and even better, to women. World-wide and through time, the hierarchy has never trusted the advice of non-priests, although the aforementioned Task Force may help in beginning to reverse this unfortunate practice.

Meanwhile, God seems to be weighing-in on the crisis through the serendipitously-appropriate readings that have long been set in the daily and weekly lectioneries used in Roman Catholic worship. Appointed to be read last week from the first chapter of Baruch were these powerful words:

We today are flushed with shame... that we, with our kings and rulers and priests and prophets, and with our ancestors, have sinned in the Lord’s sight and disobeyed him. We have neither heeded the voice of the Lord, our God, nor followed the precepts which the Lord set before us.

and on Sunday, all the faithful heard these similarly-convicting words from the prophet Habbakuk:

How long, O LORD? I cry for help but you do not listen! I cry out to you, "Violence!" but you do not intervene. Why do you let me see ruin; why must I look at misery? Destruction and violence are before me; there is strife, and clamorous discord. Then the LORD answered me and said: Write down the vision clearly upon the tablets, so that one can read it readily. For the vision still has its time, presses on to fulfillment, and will not disappoint; if it delays, wait for it, it will surely come, it will not be late. The rash one has no integrity; but the just one, because of his faith, shall live.

I think that the ever-fresh words of scripture are finding their intended targets.

But meanwhile, yes, Virginia, two well-intentioned but arrogant, high-ranking priests have been that stupid. By the grace of God, and by means of some long-overdue scrambling, that arrogant stupidity will soon become a thing of the past, one way or another. And the entire Church will be the better for it; the roots and fruits of reform run deep and wide.

Sources: coverage in the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press, and MPR News

Saturday, June 8, 2013

If the Cap Fits....

The social media and even my local newspaper, the Star Tribune, are clearly enthralled with Roman Catholicism's new Pope. Francis, with his humble and authentic gestures from the very first minutes of his papacy, has both satisfied and stoked a yearning for Something Different. Wearing no gold, ermine, or red leather trappings, he bowed and asked for the people's blessing, eschewed the Papal Palace for a simple suite in the Vatican Guest House, and soon after washed the feet during a traditional Maundy Thursday liturgy not only of a female, but a female who is a teenager, imprisoned, and Muslim. Wow. And financial reform and greater transparency seems in the offing. Double wow.

While his humility and informality seem to be the main game changer, Pope Francis has also resurrected hopes for church-wide changes, such as the ordination of women to the diaconate and priesthood, potential changes admittedly dear to this writer's heart. As the various pro-change websites scour Francis' every word and gesture for possible indications of his good favor on this issue, stalwart defenders of the status quo seem oblivious to the general consensus that a new era is dawning. For example, the homily during last month's ordination service in the Archdiocese of Minneapolis and Saint Paul quoted Pope Benedict two times. Pope Francis was not mentioned at all, even though it might have been a perfect occasion to utilize Francis' recent and vividly charming statement about priests that they, like all good shepherds, should smell like their sheep.

The trajectory towards recognizing God's call to women to serve as priests and deacons in the Roman Catholic Church is something that wizened observers believe will cross into reality--eventually. It seems likely that (dare I say) --when-- Roman Catholicism traverses this decision, it will benefit from other denominations' learnings in the matter. I believe that women are priests differently than men are priests, just the way mothers are parents differently than fathers. There's a fullness to the church's ministry when women stand along with men both behind the altar and among their sheep.

Whenever and by whatever means this important fullness is achieved, I suspect one thing will have become very clear. Women's ordination is not so much a matter of justice for the women ordained, but of justice to God's people who need and want their ministry, in fidelity to God's call.