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Monday, April 12, 2010

Scapegoating and scandals

I just read what was to me a pretty disturbing post at America magazine's blog by Austen Ivereigh - Abuse coverage reveals scapegoat mechanism. The latest in the defense of the pope and Vatican on the subject of the handling of the sex abuse problem, it brings theology into the discussion by applying the scapegoat theory of René Girard. Guess who's the scapegoat.

I thought I'd try to explain why I think this is so wrong-headed, though this issue has become so polarized I doubt anyone will bother to read what I write, aside from those already agreeing with my stance. Still, I think and therefore I blog :) so here are a couple of bits from Mr. Ivereigh's post with which I disagree. First, he writes .....

the coverage [of the abuse and cover-up] has now moved into a new, irrational phase. The media have merged with the mob. They are not standing outside the crowd, coolly examining the facts. They are standing in locus vulgi.

Yes, there will be some examples of bad or sloppy journalism, but to quote Fr. James Martin SJ from his past post It's Not About the Media ...

[...] to blame the messenger for this current wave of stories about sexual abuse is, I believe, to miss the point. .... Without the coverage by The Boston Globe in 2002 of the sexual abuse by priests, the Catholic Church in United States would not have confronted the scourge of sexual abuse on a nationwide basis and instituted mandatory guidelines .... Nor is it surprising that the media are now focused on the news from Ireland and Germany, or even on the Vatican's response to individual cases in the past. It is not simply the question of sexual abuse, which occurs in every institution that deals with children. (And occurs most often in families.) Rather it is, as Paul Moses, a Catholic who has worked in the secular press, pointed out on dotCommonweal, a question of whether past cover-ups have occurred. Covering coverups is what the media does, no matter what the institution. "When a scandal of this proportion is uncovered," Moses writes, "journalists will naturally want to see how far it goes--the basis for the latest round of stories." ......

In 1992, Cardinal Bernard Law, archbishop of Boston, said, "By all means we call down the power of God on the media, particularly the Globe." It was a public excoriation for the paper's relentless criticisms of the church's handling of abuse cases. In a sense, the power of God did come down on the Boston Globe: it became an unwitting instrument through which the church was forced to face--for the first time on a nationwide, mandatory, system-wide basis--the crimes of its priests and the sins of the bishops who had shuttled them from parish to parish in decades past. So I thank God for the secular media, which, in its own biased and sometimes inaccurate way, forced the church in this country to change for the better.

Fr. Martin wrote that post a couple of weeks ago and one might argue that the media, as Mr. Ivereigh writes, has entered a "new irrational phase" but I would make another point here. This whole "frenzy" of "gossip" is not about the media trying to scapegoat the Vatican or the pope, it's about frustration ..... frustration because even after reputable documentation of abuse cover-ups, and after what most people would say are reasonably raised questions about connections between the cover-ups and the hierarchy of the church, including the pope, the Vatican will not address the issue. Yes, they say sex abuse is a bad thing, and yes, they say that they are sorry that some priests have abused some kids. What they do not say is that the cover-ups are bad too, that the bishops (like Brady, like Law, and perhaps even like Ratzinger) who did the cover-ups will be held accountable, and they do not say that they will fix the system that made those cover-ups de rigueur.

The second thing about Mr. Ivereigh's post ..... I like René Girard as much as the next person, but when he writes (as quoted in the post) that the modern scandal excites ...

"a feverish desire to differentiate between the guilty and the innocent, to allot responsibilities, to unmask the guilty secret without fear or favour and to distribute punishment. The person who is scandalised wants to bring the affair out into the open; he has a burning desire to see the scandal in the clear light of day and pillory the guilty party …. Scandal always calls for demystification, and demystification, far from putting an end to scandal, propagates and universalises it … There must be scandal to demystify and the demystification reinforces the scandal it claims to combat. The more passions rise, the more the difference between those on opposite sides tends to be abolished."

.... I think he's forgetting something. Religious scandals, even modern ones, are considered scandalous for a reason - they're stumbling blocks that make it harder for the little ones to believe God is good and loves them, and as Jesus is said to have said, "Anyone who scandalizes even one of these little ones ......" Until the Vatican understands that it is not the victim and that blaming everyone else for what's happened will not make the problem go away, this modern scandal will only continue to grow.