Monday, July 19, 2010

Joseph P. Chinnici: When Values Collide: The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse, and the Challenges of Leadership

When Values Collide:
The Catholic Church, Sexual Abuse,
and the Challenges of Leadership
Joseph P. Chinnici
Orbis Books: Maryknoll, NY
$25.00 236 pp., paperback
ISBN: 978-1-5075-873-7

On November 29, 1993, in Santa Barbara, California, the Provincial Minister of the Franciscan Friars (OFM) of the Province of St. Barbara, stood before a room filled with media representatives as well as some “fifty victims, parents, and concerned parishioners” to release a study report revealing that “eleven (Franciscan) friars had abused thirty-four students at St. Anthony Seminary from the period 1964-1987.”

That signal event marked a particularly Franciscan moment in the unfolding of the clerical sexual abuse scandal and concomitant institutional crisis that has rocked the Catholic Church in the United States over the past two decades. It is estimated that between 1950 and 2002, more than 10,000 victim/survivors have come forward. More than 4,000 priests and male religious have had allegations of abuse made against them. The total cost of settlements to date is estimated to be about $3 billion. The cost to the lives of victim/ survivors, their families, friends, and loved ones in terms of pain, suffering, and humiliation is inestimable.

The Franciscan Provincial Minister who stood before the world to announce and acknowledge the serious misconduct of some of our confreres was Father Joseph P. Chinnici, ofm, the author of this book. Today, some seventeen years later, Chinnici offers an extraordinary account and penetrating analysis of the events in which he himself was a primary participant and player. More than that, as a highly regarded historian and observor of the Catholic Church in the United States, he also offers something of equal, if not even greater importance: a call to create new “pathways”of dialogue out of the crisis in order to effect lasting healing and reconciliation. In doing so, the author taps deep into the wellspring of Franciscan spirituality for inspiration and direction by referencing the lives and writings of Sts. Francis of Assisi and Bonaventure (with relevant material from St. Augustine of Hippo).

This is a dense, difficult, demanding, and even exhausting book— but one which, at the same time, provides rich rewards for the reader who is willing to engage the subject matter and stick with it. Be prepared to take your time; this is not easy or light reading.

The entire issue of sexual abuse by clergy has been so highly charged emotionally and polarizing socially and institutionally, that voices of reason and reconciliation have been reduced to whispers and largely ignored in public discourse. Chinnici breaks new ground in this neglected area, charting a course that is both intellectually rigorous and ethically demanding. One hopes that this work will help to usher in a new period of calm discussion and dialogue as a counter to the sensationalism that has dominated treatment of the issue.

Chinnici’s introductory remarks provide a helpful aerial overview of the territory to be explored. Initial chapters provide a summary of the development of the sexual abuse scandal in both the American Church as a whole as well as in the particular case of the Province of St. Barbara. From there, the author moves into the broader field of interpretation. “The sexual abuse scandal can be healed only through the cultivation of trust, affection, mutual exchange, and the preservation of people’s individual dignity, ” he asserts. He argues that “a fundamental consequence of the abuse crisis has been the loss of a shared ethical space of reciprocal exchange between people.”

To help recover that shared ethical space, Chinnici refers to both Francis and Bonaventure for guidance and inspiration in a search for new avenues of communication and healing. The Franciscan value of “fraternitas”— the acknowledgment of the essential brother/sisterhood of all creation—he observes, was an important factor in breaking the deadlock of protracted social conflict between individuals and groups in medieval Italy. “Francis’s task was medicinal, one of soothing the relationships between people so that more peace could reign in the society and the Church.” (p.104). In a similar mode, Chinnici examines the concept of the Order of Love proposed by St. Bonaventure, which is “encapsulated in the Great Commandment (of Jesus)… a freely given bestowal of gifts and a bond of trust between people.” Both Francis and Bonaventure avoid the perils of a direct assault upon societal norms. Rather, they urge the more patient approach of convincing all parties to recognize and embrace those essentially transcendant values which serve to modify relationships. The Gospel imperative of love, mutual care and promotion trumps the struggle for power and domination.

Fine, but what does any of this have to do with a way out of the personal/ institutional impasse presented by the contemporary sexual abuse crisis? “A key means of healing this wound,” Chinnici asserts, “ is the discovery of a framework for faith that releases our energies to love again.” A uniquely Franciscan contribution toward the charting of that pathway “is not discovered through intellectual parsing but through companionship, humility, dispossession, lamentation, and the practice of pietas (the virtue by which one recognizes, in true humility and reverence, God’s primacy in all things-ed.).” The author is reaching deep into the Franciscan story both to recall and to remind us that this movement is essentially a penitential one. We need to recognize both our own fragility and woundedness: “Life’s center of gravity needed to become not the perfection of Christendom but the following of Christ and the embrace of his presence in his disfigured body on earth, the Church.” (p.178). In support of this argument, he provides a particularly powerful reflection on the conversion of Francis himself— in which the saint moved in his own life from an attitude of utter disdain to the recognition of the “sweetness” of his full embrace of the lepers.

Chinnici does not offer quick or facile solutions to what is, at heart, not simply the cumulative effect of private behavior-- individual wrongdoing writ large-- but rather, what he considers to be the profound breakdown of a fundamental sense of community. “The Church will be challenged… to create a consistent communal ethic of repentance, humility, … respect for a common human dignity dictated by the terms ‘brother’ and ‘sister’, obedience to the order of love, and the daily practice of pietas.” In other words, genuine reform both necessitates and impels a process of deep and ongoing personal conversion as well as meaningful institutional change.

In his concluding chapter, Chinicci writes that “the sexual abuse of minors in the Church has begun to fade from the height of its institutional charge….” Sadly, the unfolding of events in Ireland and western Europe this past spring and summer would tend to indicate otherwise. The scandals are not going away. If anything, they continue to point to the woeful inadequacy of personal and institutional responses to wrongdoing that are still essentially reactive and self-protective. Chinnici concludes by challenging us “to re-member the scandal, and by this re-membering, insert into our public discourse and life a Gospel vision of God’s goodness and who we are called to be together.” The call to conversion remains and is more compelling than ever. Chinnici’s work gives one hope that this call may, finally, be heeded.

Read this book.

POSTSCRIPT: Several of the events described in this book have been part of my own lived experience as a Franciscan friar. On the day of Father Chinnici’s public revelation of evidence of sexual misconduct, I was in the postulancy (entry) program of the Province of St. Barbara. The ongoing process of fraternal healing, reconciliation, and restitution has coincided with my formation as a friar ever since. The journey has been a long and painful one for all of us, but I believe we have emerged as a stronger, more united brotherhood as a result.—ct.