-- Harry Chapin
Pardon Me for Bleeding on You
As a former seminarian, clergy abuse survivor, and ex-Catholic I represent an awkward but risky heretic in the minds of the friars. However misconceived, skewered, or poisoned this rationale assumes, such thinking comes with the scorched territory that the Franciscans themselves set fire to. As an outsider I’m hardly alone. Dissenting voices that ask for understanding and justice are perceived as threats to their authority. Plaintive cries for help are like a foreign language to a fraternal organization designed to be exclusive. To say the Franciscans aren’t paying attention is to be especially kind to them. Betrayals of trust, dismissals of friendships, and desertions of values have revealed such a litany of hypocrisies within their order that those who once held this religious sect in high regard no longer expect anything from the Franciscans, let alone the belief that they might actually do the right thing at any given time.
More than most survivors, I can understand how painful it is for the Franciscans to be reminded, now and again, of the terrible abuses that were perpetrated against young boys in their care. But when friars act with callous disregard for the truth, they must be called out and held accountable. The Franciscans are not the victims of these horrible crimes as a number of them would like us to believe they are. They are the perpetrators, accomplices, and enablers. The systemic fallout of this crisis has allowed a weird sub-culture to exist within the clergy that makes it acceptable to deny abuse. One need look no further than the sheer madness that exists at Saints Simon and Jude church in Huntington Beach to realize how insidious this is. It doesn’t matter how many parishioners report being emotionally and psychologically assaulted by their pastor. If that pastor denies there’s a problem—which he does—than whose to say he’s wrong? Apparently, no one. Including his own superiors.
Denying abuse is the new abuse. And possessing knowledge of abusive behavior and remaining silent is simply more abusive behavior. It’s inexcusable when people are subjected to cruel and humiliating behavior in their home or workplace. But when a Catholic priest uses the church and the power of his office as a personal battering ram against his flock, he compounds the trauma he’s already caused by spiritually abusing those he vowed to protect. These perverse betrayals by a religious guardian are calculated acts of thievery.
Like a Poison in the System
On August 15, a week after my column (“Like A Welcome Flood’) detailed Franciscan pastor Daniel Barica’s repeated efforts to bully and divide his congregation, I sent a letter to the provincials and other leaders of the six Franciscan provinces in the United States, as well as to their superior, Michael Perry, the Franciscan minister general in Rome. In it, I outlined and documented the allegations and grievances against Barica, and concluded by imploring these men of God to intervene and help the parishioners of Saints Simon and Jude:
“ In an era of heightened behavioral awareness, abuse of any kind by any friar in any province simply cannot be tolerated or condoned. Friars who have protected Barica are complicit in the harm he has caused. If you, as fellow friars, possess any influence, individually or collectively, I urge you to move the leadership of the Province of St. Barbara to act for the greater good of everyone at SSJ and to end the tyranny of this one friar. ”
That was more than two months ago. Since then, not a single Franciscan has responded. Twenty elected leaders in the order of Saint Francis, including the head of all the Franciscans in the world, have chosen to remain quiet on this urgent issue. One reason might be that the messenger is an unpleasant reminder of their past crimes. But a more likely explanation is that the friars are practitioners of a code of silence that has come to define their fraternity in times of crisis. This collective hush, a perverted honor among priests, is like a poison in the system they’ve grown to resist. Particularly disappointing to me is the non-responsiveness of one of these friars, a provincial now himself, who had formerly professed to be a friend of mine. At one time we were very close, sharing personal stories and opening not only our hearts but also our closets to reveal a few skeletons. How odd it now feels to be ghosted by this man.
A Clearer and Darker Picture
Earlier this year I began reading and studying three essential source materials related to the Franciscans and the Catholic church: the Rule and General Constitutions of the Order of Friars Minor, the Omnibus of the Sources for the Life of St. Francis, and the Code of Canon Law. It wasn’t long before I felt equally enlightened and alarmed. As I started to get a much clearer and, in many cases, darker picture of what it really means to be a member of a select men’s club, I became more aware of how ritual and secrecy have extended back a lot further than the founding of a simple, religious order.
Men who join the friars and either remain as brothers or go on to become ordained priests, have multiple allegiances and obligations. Upon taking final vows, the oath of fealty (or loyalty) professed to church, order, and one’s fellow friars makes Harry Potter and his wizard friends look like amateur magicians at a child’s birthday party. Every religious order has its codes and mysteries and the Franciscans are bound by theirs. Friars are protected by the cover of their order, its rule, and canon law. They are obligated to one another under every imaginable circumstance. Publicly, they are forbidden from speaking ill about, or against, any of their brothers regardless of what they know, what they’ve seen, or what others have told them.
This goes beyond the sanctity of the confessional. California is one of only 28 states that currently include members of the clergy among those professionals specifically mandated by law to report known or suspected instances of child abuse or neglect. But there’s an important caveat that provides added cover to the clergy under the “clergy-penitent privilege.” According to California Penal Code § 11166(d), this privilege means:
“…a communication intended to be in confidence—including, but not limited to, a sacramental confession—made to a clergy member who in the course of the discipline or practice of his or her church, denomination, or organization is authorized or accustomed to hear those communications and…has a duty to keep those communications secret.”
The key phrase to note here is: "—including, but not limited to, a sacramental confession—". In other words, virtually any church-related communication, conversation, or confession can conceivably claim “clergy-penitent privilege” as defined in the statute. This would appear to be in lock step with the Franciscans’ rule and with church precepts.
All for One and One for All
In 1993, after an independent inquiry determined that 11 friars at St. Anthony's Seminary in Santa Barbara had molested dozens of boys over the course of more than 20 years (of which I was one of those boys), the friars refused to release a list of all the names of the alleged perpetrators in their order, basing their argument on a claim of solidarity with the accused. Their decision made it clear that protecting their own brothers took precedent over the safety of the greater community. It was a twisted interpretation of “all for one and one for all” with roots in canonical law.
[ NOTE: With the help of court-released documents and other survivor resources, a comprehensive list of alleged Franciscan perpetrators is currently being compiled by SafeNet. The friars still remain opposed to transparency on this issue and have no intention of releasing a list of their own. ]
Canon law not only encourages church leaders to engage in secrecy for the purpose of preventing church scandals, but it actually requires them to do so. In a 2015 review of Kiersan Tapsell’s groundbreaking work, Potiphar’s Wife: The Vatican’s Secret and Child Sexual Abuse, Thomas Doyle, a Dominican priest, canon lawyer, and longtime advocate for victims of church abuse, explains church law as “a confusing and contradictory array of canonical regulations.” According to Doyle, “canon law is a legal system in service to a monarchy. By its very nature, the primary goal is to protect the monarchs. There is no separation of power in the Catholic church, hence no checks and balances.” Doyle goes on to say that canon law “demonstrates that the church’s legal system has not only been a hindrance to justice for the victims, but an enabler to the perpetrators.”
When one tosses the dubious concept of “mental reservation” into this unsavory brew, the truth sinks deeper into a bubbling caldron. Catholic moral theology actually permits a member of the clergy, stuck between an obligation to keep a secret and a duty to tell the truth, to use misleading words to deceive another as long as a deliberate lie is not told. Since the definition of a deliberate lie entails conscious effort, it has been argued by some in the church that “mental reservation” can be employed to deny information to anyone judged not to have a right to the truth.
The Final Nail in the Cross
On October 4, the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the six Franciscan Ministers Provincial of the United States issued a joint statement, A Franciscan Plea for the Soul of America, in response to the current challenges facing our country. On the surface, the announcement is a virtuous effort that begs to promote and uphold the values of human dignity and justice—something most of us expect to hear from the Franciscans. But underneath, it has a cynical twist. From what we now know, and in view of all the attempts to get the Franciscans to listen, to help them understand, and to aid them in accepting responsibility, their duplicitous message is a hard slap in the face for those who’ve heard their own pleas for help ignored by the Franciscans.
It’s mind-boggling to think that the Franciscans who drafted and released this statement didn’t fathom the harm it would do to their already damaged credibility. Are they that indifferent to public perception? More than anything else, their declaration demonstrates the order’s clear detachment from its own reality and ideals. What the Franciscans purport to stand for is marked by, and in stark contrast to, their abject silence and inaction. In the face of real suffering taking place at Saints Simon and Jude, and in the midst of their own insular world, they end up making every friar an accomplice.
Discussing the failings of the Franciscans is not something I take pleasure in. With my friends in the Catholic laity it’s often delicate and difficult, especially with the more conservative churchgoers who view the friars through an adoring but almost medieval lens. Blinded by devotion, they frequently defend the order in spite of the truth. The survivor I spoke with earlier this month related the arguments he sometimes had with Catholics during the course of his long recovery. “If I spoke badly about the Franciscans,” he explained, “Catholics would accuse me of attacking their faith. I actually envied their faith. I wished I had some.”
The final nail in the cross for the Franciscans is not just their hypocrisy on display for all to see in a beautifully crafted statement. If it were, many of us would simply shrug our shoulders and shuffle off to the next roadside attraction. Near the core of this testimony is a sad reflection of a religious order’s struggle with its own self (and selfish) interest. It’s a dismal reminder of the difficulty and irony of following the teachings of St. Francis. At the heart of the matter is a profound moral conundrum: how to justify not doing the right thing and still call yourself a Franciscan.