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 Volume 1.18  This View’s Guest Column June 10, 2002 

Law, Religion, and Media
    Susanna Cornett    

Friday night [May 17, 2002] the season finale of Law & Order SVU used as its main story line the current abusive Catholic priest imbroglio. In the episode, several young boys are abused while in Catholic school, and years later one of them commits a murder that leads to the revelation of the abuse. As the story unfolds, we follow a priest at first accused of the abuse, then later revealed to have been the one to whom the real abuser confessed his sin. Near the end, a Catholic police officer forces a decision on the priest: break the confessional seal in the hopes of preventing future abuse, or preserving his Catholic vows and in so doing protecting a child molester. We see the priest in tears, then we see him in a garden with the actual molester — a bishop in full robes. The officer accuses the bishop, who in essence admits his guilt by turning to the priest with his own accusation. He says (paraphrased), “You broke your seal. Do you know you could lose your soul?”

The priest replies, “I think I just saved it.”

I was very taken aback (although not surprised) at this conclusion. It reflects the mentality of the writers and producers, and typically the secular world as a whole: When religion and the secular view of human safety/health/happiness conflict, the human side always wins. While on the face of it, this makes sense, it spells danger for religionists and is something we need to address.

Yesterday [May 18, 2002] a Vatican City appeals court judge, Jesuit priest Gianfranco Ghirlanda, released an opinion which states, in partial summary, that a bishop reassigning a priest accused of abuse does not have to inform the new parish of the priest’s abusive history; that if additional abuse occurs, the assigning bishop bears neither moral nor legal responsibility for that; and that even requiring the abusive priest to undergo psychological evaluation is violating his right to privacy. That sounds pretty bad from a secular standpoint, and seems to support the “righteousness” of the Law & Order priest’s decision.

[I believe that “if additional abuse occurs, the assigning bishop bears neither moral nor legal responsibility” is a misunderstanding of Ghirlanda’s position, which (as far as I understand it) is that the bishop does not bear moral or legal responsibility unless he puts an offending priest into a situation where he offends again. ELC.]

In a vastly different situation, but also one involving an application of religious law in a way Westerners — and some Muslims — strongly denounce, a woman in Pakistan has been convicted of adultery and sentenced to death by stoning after admitting that she was raped by her brother-in-law. According to her, she was raped repeatedly over time until she became pregnant, which, since her husband was in prison, was proof of illicit sexual activity. Her accusation against her brother-in-law was taken as a confession of her guilt; he, on the other hand, was not even charged because four Muslim men of good standing (and all those conditions must inhere) must witness a rape for a Muslim man to be charged. The force behind it is Sharia, the Muslim religious and civil law, and the part dealing specifically with extramarital sex, Hudood. Efforts are underway to moderate or set aside Hudood, by progressives in the region.

Why juxtapose these two obviously unrelated situations? Because I don’t think they are unrelated, philosophically, and a misunderstanding of the connection between the two is where the danger for religionists lies.

Internationally, laws range from those based fully on religious teaching — Sharia, or its cousins — to the fully secular. The United States has something of a mixture; while its laws are not specifically tied to a particular church, many of its approaches are based on the Judeo-Christian tradition and the common law that evolved in societies with that tradition. As we move along the continuum from religious-as-civil mix to purely secular, the teachings of particular groups are increasingly removed from the codified law. The edicts of the religions in those more secular countries are not erased from society, but rather the adherents obey both religious and civil laws.

The problem comes when the two laws come into conflict. In our society, we have a tendency to allow religious beliefs to trump secular law when the impact could be seen as not detrimental to society as a whole – for instance, allowing exemptions to the military draft to those who conscientiously object for religious (and other) reasons, or not forcing an adult of good mind to get medical attention if he or she feels it is against his or her beliefs. However, our society has already decided that there are instances where social good trumps religious beliefs – as in the case of a child refused medical care by parents who believe medical treatment is religiously condemned. Courts have taken children away from parents in those situations, and ordered treatment. But other than cases where immediate harm is not just possible but likely, US society as a whole leaves churches alone in their religious practices. It’s one of our foundational Constitutional rights.

But the fight for the law of our country has become more starkly an issue of religion in the past few years, where those with what are termed “fundamentalist” beliefs pilloried when they even seek office (for example, John Ashcroft). And even before 9/11, the term “Taliban” began to be used to describe any conservatives who referred to their religious beliefs in discussing law or its enforcement. (I use conservative because I’ve yet to see Jimmy Carter or Joe Lieberman referred to as “Taliban”.) And what is the law the Taliban sought to impose? Sharia. While it is at present mostly hyperbole, the connection between Islamic Sharia and Christianity has been made and as with all demonizations (see “racist” and “homophobic” as applied to anyone who objects to affirmative action measures) it is likely to gain more purchase when it shows itself to have political impact.

But what does this have to do with the current Catholic church crisis?

Think back to the Law & Order example. I’ve read several posts discussing the priest’s seal, and why it is reasonable that they cannot be made to break it. The Law & Order writers/producers just expressed their view that righteousness in this case is to break a vow of silence made to God. Next, take a look at the articles about Ghirlanda’s edict — the headlines themselves are inflammatory. That’s the stark interpretation of the secular media, and it is universally condemning, implicitly if not explicitly. But, when viewed through the lens of someone with close knowledge of Catholic history and law — a journalist for the Catholic News Service — Ghirlanda’s analysis makes pretty good sense, within the confines of the Catholic canon, and provides much more protection for the faithful than a reading of the secular media would suggest.

On the face of it — as presented by the secular media — the edicts from the Vatican in the form of this article by Ghirlanda seem to go against US law and certainly cross the line between acceptable and unacceptable religious deviation from law as it has been practically applied in the US. In essence, the media portray this as saying the church is protecting its priests and its reputation first, and the children can lump it because church canon trumps secular law in any instance where the two collide. That’s not really the truth of Ghirlanda’s article, but in my experience few journalists writing on religious issues have a sense for the religious nuance that is revealed in the Catholic News article. I think it is only the vastness of the Catholic reach and the concern for offense to powerful people that has prevented the media so far from comparing it to Sharia. If a split becomes more evident between conservative and progressive elements in the US Catholic church, then I anticipate that comparison will soon follow for those who take a more conservative stance.

[As far as I know, Ghirlanda’s opinion is his alone; though he may be influential, or representative of a certain school of opinions, his statements are not official, let alone authoritative. ELC.]

I struggle to separate my own religious viewpoint from this analysis of the broader impact of the Catholic church’s response to their crisis. I’m not Catholic, and I have major theological differences with Catholic teachings. But, while I disagree with the theology, I can and do support the Catholic church’s legal right to practice their faith as they see fit. The need I see now is for another dialogue in this society about the lines we draw around the practice of faith, and an acknowledgement from the Catholic church that the way it handles this crisis can damage every faith practiced in the US if it does address just its internal sensibilities and not the broader legal implications of its decisions.

The Catholic church is the largest centrally controlled religion in the word, to my knowledge — other faiths may have more adherents, but they are not bound so tightly to a central governing body as the Catholic church is to the Vatican. (In fact, concern about ties to the Vatican were a feature in JFK’s presidential race, couched in a manner similar to the coverage of John Ashcroft during his confirmation and after.) Thus, the Catholic church has the unenviable task of making decisions that meet the needs of its adherents in a free country such as the United States while not creating problems in other countries with different contexts. In addition, there is a desire to stay with the tradition of the church, to adhere closely to the canon when addressing problems, which is what the article by Ghirlanda is meant to do. In the response so far, there is a tone that says, we were here before you, we speak for God, this is the way it has to be. There is a certain immutability about it, almost a disdain for the rule of law in the United States as it relates to the canon of the church.

But it seems to me that this “holding to the canon” is not all that is going on in the highest levels of decision-making for the church. There are also political realities within the church hierarchy itself, as well as financial considerations (one part of Ghirlanda’s article seems to address the concern of false claims against the church, a valid issue, but in protecting against false claims there appears to be shorter shrift than necessary given to the possibility of genuine claims). The church has vast holdings, which could be jeopardized by widespread revelation of genuine sexual abuse. The same revelations would also diminish donations and threaten the intense bond between the faithful and the leadership. So the church’s approach to this cannot be seen as wholly without earthly considerations. The question is, where do the spiritual concerns end and the earthly concerns take precedence?

This is an important question, because what the Catholic church does will either strengthen or weaken the freedom of religion in the United States. I don’t think it will remain the same, regardless of the church’s decision. If the church chooses to take a hard line that is generally perceived (among the non-Catholics, and likely amongst some Catholics as well) as a move that leaves children at risk for the purpose of preserving the Catholic hierarchy and holdings, there will be a backlash, a further splitting between the religious and the non-religious, a hardening of intolerance already gaining greater voice. If, conversely, the Catholic church not only institutes measures to actively root out abusers within its priestly ranks but also conducts a public relations campaign saying “There was wrong, we’re fixing it, and this is what it looks like” that is understandable to those for whom religion is a foreign language, then it will strengthen the understanding that because religions will police themselves as moral entities, it is not necessary for the government to intervene to protect the populace from the religionists.

I see the impact of a hard-line Catholic response being a shift toward imposing secular law in instances where it conflicts with religious beliefs. For example, the congregation where I attend does not have women ministers as a matter of doctrine. That, of course, violates anti-discrimination laws, but since it is a question of religious practice the laws do not apply. I can foresee a time when a woman wanting to preach at a church like mine sues the leaders of the congregation for not giving her equal consideration, and is allowed civil judgment against it. Likewise, tax exempt status could be threatened for such activities that violate secular law.

The freedom of religion in this country is at a crossroad; our foot is already turned toward the more secular path. The Catholic church will choose whether we go more quickly and decisively in that direction. The wrong choice will damage not only the Catholic faith, but all others, eventually. The ones sitting in judgment on whether the choice is the right one are the same people who see everything right with a priest breaking his vow to God. If the Catholic church wants to preserve that vow, then it must police itself convincingly, in a way that puts righteousness and protection of innocence first — not money, or image, or organizational politics. And it must not allow any comparisons to the abusive nature of Sharia to be in any way valid, as would be the case if it sets up its canon as civil as well as religious law by not affording children the protections US law provides, and resisting the efforts of the US government to step in to provide them. It is always wrong to allow abuse to hide behind the name of God, whether it is Catholicism or Islam that does it.

This country stands to lose a part of its soul. The Catholic church can help save it — or lose it.

cut on the bias
May 19, 2002

© Susanna Cornett 2002. Used with permission.

    Webpage © ELC 2002    

 Volume 1.18 This View’s Guest Column June 10, 2002 

The View from the Core, and all original material, © E. L. Core 2002. All rights reserved.

Cor ad cor loquitur J. H. Newman — “Heart speaks to heart”