Sex abuse scandal has once again hit the worldwide media. The culprit - no surprise here - Catholic Church priests.
Though Pope Benedict XVI has chastised Irish bishops for irreverent errors of judgment regarding the handling of multiple cases where priests sexually abused innocent youngsters, and bishops from Switzerland to Denmark to Austria have condemned such conduct while urging victims to file criminal complaints, this is a sad story that keeps repeating itself. Uproar is apparent from every part of the globe with many insisting there is a continuing pattern of cover-up by Catholic Church hierarchy and the Vatican as well.
Certainly this author, based on recent experiences, is not surprised that "cover-up" is a part of the equation. While it is easy to focus generally on Catholic Church malfeasance in a general sense, or to even pinpoint the widespread sexual abuse, close examination of how the church protects its sinners is exposed when one considers a single incident, this one involving one of the most famous Catholic monks in history, the gifted wordsmith and author Thomas Merton. Examining what has occurred within the church and the International Thomas Merton Society regarding Merton's transgressions, including the use of censorship to blot out his most blatant conduct, provides a snapshot into what is wrong with the Catholic Church and its defenders as the first decade of the 21st century nears its end.
For those unaware of who Merton is, something this author shared until I attended San Francisco Theological Seminary, learned of Merton, and then wrote a recent book about him titled Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free, he was the author of more than seventy books including the bestseller, The Seven Storey Mountain (SSM), New Seeds of Contemplation, Wisdom of the Desert, and No Man Is An Island. Dutch author Henry Nouwen called Merton "the greatest spiritual writer of the twentieth century."
Covering up Merton's pre-monastic past was the first order of business when the Church decided he was to be a poster boy for the Catholic way of life. SSM, released in late 1948, and touted as a true account of his life story, was anything but, since Catholic sensors had scissored away such diabolical conduct as being a drunkard, a womanizer, fathering an illegitimate child, participating in a mock crucifixion, committing adultery and being a draft dodger. Despite the book being less than the truth, no one within the Church has demanded its recall, or required that a disclaimer be included causing modern day readers to be hoodwinked, or perhaps more truthfully, lied to, regarding the book content.
If this wasn't bad enough, the powers that be in the Merton Legacy Trust, many of them members of the ITMS, decided censorship should prevail again when Merton's private journals were published in the mid-1990s. Apparently attorneys for the publisher decided some portions of Merton's own words had to be excised, and no one objected. Readers were never told of the censorship, and thus the seven volumes were released to the unsuspecting, all of whom believed the journals were a complete record of Merton's own words. When this author had the audacity to disclose these indiscretions in his book, and to probe deeper than anyone had ever dared regarding Merton's forbidden love affair with a student nurse half his age, another bit of conduct suppressed by the Catholic Church and alleged Merton image protectors, condemnation occurred on all sides from those within the ITMS. They called me "anti-Catholic," and the publication, "a bad book" with a "lurid title." Ugly postings on internet book sites followed with the hope that those who read them would discard any thought of reading a book so "salacious" in detail. This occurred despite reviews and comments to the contrary by such Mertonists as Robert Inchausti, editor of the The Pocket Merton. He called the book, "beautifully written and a real tribute to Merton."
Attacks on the book, something Merton himself would have condemned since he was an advocate of openness and inclusion regarding every point of view about religion and spirituality, and none, are indicative of a sour mindset packed with denial. Protecting the image of the church remains, whether it is covering up sexual abuse, clamping down on dissent, requiring celibacy on a selected basis, or perpetuating the image of public figures like Merton as being saintly in nature. Secrecy and denial still exist, causing concern as to whether incidents of sexual or mental abuse such as the ones recently uncovered continue since few safeguards are in place to prevent re-occurrence. In effect, a code of silence operatives beneath the surface of all the pomp and circumstance of the Catholic religion.
Lack of candor, together with secrecy, are the bywords in what author Russell Shaw, no relation, calls "clerical elitism," triggering a belief among bishops and priests that they are "intrinsically superior to the other members of the church and deserve automatic deference." Shaw traces this disease back to days before Vatican I on through Vatican II, where openness and honesty were replaced with deception and cover-up, resulting in scandals caused by the church's "attempting to control access to truth." Nowhere is this more evident, Shaw believes, "than in the sexual predations of priests that caused the dam of secrecy to break." This was due, Shaw wrote, "to the church's placing priests on pedestals," causing an atmosphere similar to the one where portions of Merton's autobiography were censored in what may be characterized as a rather usual course of doing business, "never give it a second thought-type of mindset." Forget the truth since censorship was necessary to keep Merton's pre-monastic "dirty laundry" a secret, a thought process similar to forgetting the truth when it comes to priests sexually abusing little boys and girls.
Until the Catholic Church wakes up and sheds its attitude of denial, more incidents of abuse will occur. Pope Benedict has the opportunity right now to start a cleansing process that may rid his Church of the stink that seeps into every parish throughout the world? Will he be courageous and act with authority, or simply attempt to sweep this latest scandal under the rug?
Mark Shaw is the author of Beneath the Mask of Holiness: Thomas Merton and the Forbidden Love Affair that Set Him Free. His website is www.markshawbooks.net.