Monday, February 25, 2013

Scotland's Cardinal Out: Abuse and Power

With less than three days remaining in his papacy, Pope Benedict XVI accepted the resignation of Cardinal Keith O'Brien after allegations of sexual abuse dating back to the 1980's were made public. Some of the cardinal's critics see these accusastions as delightfully ironic, as O'Brien has been an outspoken critic of gay marriage, labeling it a "grotesque subversion." Why ironic? The accusers include three priests and a former priest.

Cardinal O'Brien will not be attending the conclave that will choose Benedict XVI's sucessor. 

Given recent rumors about a "gay lobby" in the Vatican, these accusations cannot but feed these beliefs. That said, I think the problem resides deeper than the level of sexual orientation. As paraphrased in the New York Times, the accuser who left the priesthood did so because he was unable to reconcile himself to the idea of spending a lifetime under Cardinal O'Brien's authority. 

The issue rests less on sexual orientation than it does on power. We have become culturally conditioned to regard "sexual abuse" as something exclusive to children and perpetrated by men. Think, though, for a moment of how broad sexual abuse actually is:
  • Degrading fraternity rituals where "brothers" force pledges to engage in various behaviors, many in various states of undress
  • Sexually explicit pictures taken at Guantanamo Bay
  • Team hazing rituals. Girls made to run around the field in undergarments or humiliated by other players; boys assaulted in locker rooms by teammates
  • Teachers seducing students
We could look at various cases and multiply this out ad nauseam. I would be willing to argue - after countless seminars and programs on sex abuse and its prevention - that the family resemblance that unites almost every issue of sexual abuse is the abuse of power. Whether it be abuse by clergy or  teacher, Scout leader or coach, friends or teammates, the issue comes down to the exploitative misuse of power. 

As a society, I think we need to examine the way we frame the aforementioned issues. Too often, I fear, we dismiss vast instances of sexual abuse by saying, "Well, boys will be boys" or "That's how you build team spirit" or "That's how I got into the fraternity/club/team." It's as though a group mentality excuses exploitation. 

As a culture, we're quick to demonize the Catholic Church for its failure to respond adequately to abuse of power by certain members of its clergy. The Church is called the "old boys club" and "corrupt." I will never deny that the Church faces enormous problems. Nevertheless, I should think our own society needs to consider how we think about sexual abuse and come to realize that the "protect your own" mentality that has ravaged the Catholic Church is one we participate in all too often. When we excuse atrocious acts of sexual violence by giving it sanction as "boys will be boys" or "it's just an initiation ritual" we only add to the abuse of power that destroys so many lives.