Monday, October 26, 2009

In which once again I make myself popular, this time in my own Diocese

The current status and legal position of the Diocese of Wilmington, at least in my mind, is ... conflicted.

For those reading outside Delaware, the Diocese sought Chapter 11 protection this week from the 142 child molestation victims in 131 lawsuits, who stand to be conceivably awarded up to $500 million in total damages from a Diocese that has assets of only about $50-100 million.

Of course, the laity might be forgiven (so to speak) for failing to understand that Diocese is a distinct corporate entity from all of its parishes and schools, none of which are parties to these suits. Yet in the strange world of interlocking relationships, the churches and the Diocese split collections, the Diocese provides additional funding to the schools, and--naturally--the Diocese approves and moves around all the priests and other religious folk assigned to each of these completely financially independent organizations.

It's kind of like the case where your doctor also maintains a lab in his building; you usually don't realize that the moment you step across the threshold to meet the smiling woman with the needle that you have stepped into a completely different business, and will receive a completely separate bill.

So I guess it was my naive temperment that did not realize that when Bishop Francis (or, before him, Bishop Saltarelli) visited Resurrection Parish, that we were not only greeting a spiritual leader, but hosting the CEO of another arm of our loosely relation industry sector [the religion industry].

There is something vaguely--no, wait, make that obscenely--wrong about religious entities standing by the Separation of Church and State when it is convenient, but then using every business law they can get their hands on to avoid taxation and individual liability for negligent or criminal acts.

So how am I conflicted?

Resurrection is one of the smaller parishes in the Diocese [we may be the smallest; I have never checked], and yet we provide holiday meals and presents for dozens of families; we run a food bank that doesn't turn anybody away hungry; we sent relief supplies to the Gulf Coast after Katrina; we partner with independent coffee growers in Ecuador or somewhere. At Resurrection it has not been the nuances of Christian theology that my children have learned over the years, but the necessity of giving from their substance to the community; the responsibility of becoming servants as well as entrepreneurs.

There are poor children who would have gone to very good Catholic schools on scholarship that--in another year or so--will not find that money available. There are projects that Catholic Charities will not be able to complete. There are things that will not get done that had been planned to make some folks' lives not just better, but survivable.

And yet...

The evidence suggests that senior officials in the Diocese of Wilmington knew what was going on to defenseless children all those years ago and did worse than nothing. They covered it up. Bishop Saltarelli, whom I have admired on this blog more than once, does not always appear to have operated in the open spirit I would have thought the situation demanded. [Although it is important not to take the accusations of the plaintiffs' counsel as, uh, gospel, because they are being potentially well-paid not for objective statements but to paint their opponents in as poor a light as possible.]

So on the one hand we have the everyday and sometimes astounding good that the assembled entities that think of themselves as part of the Diocese of Wilmington [despite how the auditors draw the lines] have done and need to continue to do....

On the other we have the everyday and far too astounding evil that the entrusted--ordained!--leadership of that Diocese allowed to happen and then failed to deal with as they should have....

On the one hand long-suffering victims of childhood abuse who can never be made whole....

On the other the children, the poor, and the elderly who desperately need that helping hand....

Where do I come down on this?

Here: the balance of God between the Old and New Testaments is often philosophically and/or theologically presented as the balance between Justice and Mercy.

Justice demands that these victim's voices be heard, that their violators [along with their enablers] be called out into the light of day, and that if it takes every last penny belonging to the Diocese of Wilmington they must receive the only redress our courts can give them.

Even if the Diocese had unlimited financial resources, it would not be enough.

The rest of us must avoid the temptation to see these victims as our competitors for the Diocesan resources we would like to use for our children, for the poor. We have to accept that we--in a corporate sense--suffered the leaders who made these poor decisions to remain in positions of power for years. We have to accept that the redemption of our Faith, our Church, and even our Diocese requires us to worry more that those abused children will have their day to face their abusers, than about the financial hardships our churches will face.

We have to admit that what is causing the financial crisis is not anything those children did, but what our leaders did, and that we all share a responsibility to help make those children as whole again as possible.

Then we have to pick up the tools that are left to us, redouble our efforts not to let the good works--at least the most absolutely necessary--go undone. We're going to have to make some hard choices about what would be nice to do and good to do, as opposed to what we need to do. We're going to have to open our hearts and our wallets quite a bit deeper in a tough time to become the Church and the Christians we aspire to be.

We're going to have to be humble and pentitent when people refer to the Church as the Pedophile Protection Society, and recognize that we share in some measure of the human weaknesses that led us to this pass.

But we absolutely have to remember that our first obligation is to those 141 children who were harmed in our Diocese.

If a cathedral has to be sold to pay off that debt ... so be it. There were house-churches in early Christianity, and there can be again.

It is not a lovely position I hold; it is certainly [if the snatches of conversation I heard on Sunday are any indication] not going to be a popular one.

But it is--at least today--the only one that I find consistent with the teachings of the Gospels: we must attend to those who have been hurt before we can go back to attending those who need to be helped.


Delaware Watch said...

Your position is laudable, Steve. But this entire sad saga illustrates yet another reason we can't rely exclusively on charities to meet human needs. You just never know when these charities will be diverted by needing to clean up their messes.

Waldo said...

What are you complaining about? In Maine they are shutting down parish churches and selling off the properties while shoveling sacksful of cash into opposing marriage equality.

Anonymous said...

Maybe the first church we can sell is Resurrection. That piece of real estate would fetch a pretty penny. And since the lawyers keep telling us it's not about the money, we can pay each victim $100,000. The lawyers get nothing except the apologies and transparency their clients keep telling us this is all about.

I have no problem with these folks asking for records to be made public, apologies, meetings with the bishop and some kind of reasonable financial settlement. But they should at least be honest as well. If it's not about the money, why not shave a few zeroes off those lawsuits so shelters can remain open and more kids get the opportunity to attend Catholic schools?