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Contemporary Catholic Belief and Action


The mission of ARCC is to bring about substantive structural change within the Catholic Church by seeking to institutionalize a collegial understanding of church where decision making is shared and accountability is realized among Catholics of every kind and conditio n.
Once people start to believe change is possible, 
the drive to achieve it accelerates. 
                                          -   Patrick Sullivan, ARCC President

President's message Advent 2018

Patrick Sullivan, DPA

I have struggled mightily to decide what I should say this Advent season.  The church is facing one of its darkest moments in a long time. What does one say in the light of such controversy and division?  It is becoming increasingly clear that there have been so many people willing to look the other way from abuse. Permit me, then, to speak from a personal perspective, followed by one that is more professional.  Not that the two are actually separate from one another. I have found it problematic to distinguish our personal from our professional. We are only one person.

I was an abused child.  Sometimes, it is hard to say that.  I experienced terrible beatings, along with emotional and psychological abuse at the hands of my step-father.  I don't mean simple spankings. I mean broken ribs, concussions, and chipped teeth kind of beatings. It is incredibly troubling to realize that the very people who are charged with caring for you are the ones who are hurting you.  It took many years for me to come to grips with this reality. Looking back, it is equally disturbing that so many people were aware but did nothing about it. At that time, children were the property of their parents. Parents were free to discipline their children as they saw fit.  No one cared, not even good Catholics.

So I can relate to the victims of sexual abuse at the hands of priests and other adults who were charged with their care.  One point I feel needs to be made is that abuse is abuse. I believe we should look at what happened to these children as acts of violence.  Sometimes, I think we separate sexual abuse from other forms of abuse incorrectly. Both are a violent invasion of the child's being. To these children, what is added to their pain is the embarrassment associated with their sexuality.  We do not have a mature sense of our sexuality in many ways. We can speak of other acts of violence with openness and clarity. However, as soon as anything is associated with sex, we speak of it in cloaked terms and shame. Perhaps it would help if we discussed the abuse of these children as acts of violence and just left the sexual part out of it.  Then we could be very honest about what happened. Our discomfort with our sexuality may have been a significant factor in the cover up. Adults could not bring themselves to believe that the offending priests were sexual beings. Maybe, just maybe, there is too much focus on what happens below our waist. The children were hurt because their dignity as human beings was compromised.  They were used as objects for the pleasure of those who had power over them.

Now, the really hard part is before us.  The leadership in the church was complicit in the abuse.  Those who centered their lives on following the gospel fell far short.  They turned away just as they turned away from abuse in general. How could this have happened?  For this, I turn to my professional perspective.

Unlike my distinguished colleagues on the board, I am not a theologian.  The DPA after my name stands for Doctor of Public Administration. The separation between the two areas is not as large as one may think.  After all, the root word of administration is "minister." In my current position, I am responsible for teaching leadership practices. My take on the challenge is how it relates to leadership.  Two critical areas come to mind-authentic leadership and self-deception.

When we speak of authentic leadership, the starting point is to operate from one's values.  An authentic leader is aware of his/her values and acts out of those values. The first challenge is to be sufficiently aware of these values.  In teaching leadership principles, we focus on developing a greater self-awareness. Frequently, this can be an enormous challenge. It is not unusual for us to lose sight of who we are and what we value in our determination to be successful.  Through a process of teaching mindfulness, emotional intelligence, and a respect for the uniqueness of all human beings, we find that we become much better leaders. This is what can be most puzzling about what happened with the church leadership when it came to abuse.  One would assume that since their formation as priests focuses on following the gospel, especially relating to loving one another, that authentic leadership would naturally follow. Clearly, that is not always the case. My experience of priestly formation was not one that centered on the gospel.  I found there was much more emphasis on obedience to the hierarchy. In an odd way, that may explain part of the problem.

The other part is the phenomenon of self-deception.  I have been privileged to be certified through the Arbinger Institute to teach their concept of an Outward Mindset.  A core feature of this is the common occurrence of self-deception. Even though we have a sense of what the right thing to do is, we frequently do not honor that sense.  When that happens, it is typical that we engage in a process of justification. This justification protects an incredible need we have to be right. Ironically, the justification itself becomes more important than almost anything else.  When I betray my sense of what is right, I immediately move to seeing others as objects. I failed to do what I should because they are the problem. I can rationalize away almost any bad behavior this way. It doesn't take a great deal of imagination to see how this could play a role in what happened in church leadership.  When they were confronted with allegations of sexual abuse, they may have had a sense of what was right, i.e., report this to the authorities and protect the children. However, they did not honor this sense. Instead, they began a process of justification. This justification became more important than the children. In fact, because of this, the children became objects.  Once they were objects, it was relatively easy to see that protection of the institution became more important.

Now is the time for all of us to face up to this self-deception.  To be authentic leaders, we all must rid ourselves of the justifications we have developed over the years.  It is time for the People of God to heed the call of John the Baptist and repent. That means we can no longer stand by while children are being abused.  Part of our justification is that we are powerless. That is simply not true. We are empowered by the Holy Spirit to carry out the good news. The mission of ARCC includes:  " bring about substantive structural change within the Catholic Church by seeking to institutionalize a collegial understanding of church where decision making is shared and accountability is realized among Catholics of every kind and condition."  As we begin this New Year in the church, we should all commit to honoring this mission.

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