Bernard Law’s Legacy: A MeToo Moment for Catholics

What do Rupert Murdoch and Bernard Law have in common? They were both dismissive of actual human suffering. They both “allowed abusive predators” to use the workplace as a ready source of prey. Make no mistake, both are villains. There are not many heroes in the Catholic abuse crisis but Fr. Tom Doyle is a hero. He referred to the predatory behavior as “soul murder” because those priests used their role as spiritual figures to entrap their victims. Tamara Holder makes an analogous charge about Murdoch. “He ruined my life,” she said.

Tamara Holder, late of Fox Television, described how she was assaulted at work on Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources. She gave very detailed descriptions of both the assault and the long-term damage. Men who should have been her professional colleagues used her as their drug of choice: power over others.

Her detailed description both staggered and inspired me. Her words ring like a bell; we should strike that bell over and over for several decades. Fr. Thomas Doyle first alerted the American bishops about the widespread and systemic use of the priesthood as a cover for sexual predation in 1985.

The alarm was silenced; the bell was muffled. Now we must ring it as an alert. But Tamara Holder’s stark description made me long for another sound from that bell. It should clang; the tone should clank and annoy. Its sound should disturb.

In the workplace, and a Catholic parish, (or school, or unversity) is a work place too, power is given to be exercised for the sake of the work. Too often power is not used for the work. Certainly when Bernard Law was approached by highly competent Catholics who stood ready to repair the damage first to the victims and then to the institution, he used his power similarly. He, in the person of an assistant, (of course concerned lay people were not worthy of the Cardinal’s time) told them that they had nothing to contribute. Full stop.

These brave people went on to form The Voice of the Faithful which has been working ever since to support victims of abuse and priests of integrity. Their long-term effort includes working for structural change in the Catholic Church. They could have helped the Church reform from the inside. Instead, the Cardinal protected his own power and forced them into the position of outsiders. Outsiders. Every single founding member of VOTF is a practicing Catholic; every one was active in the work of the Church from many professional directions.

Ms. Holder has a lot to say to the Catholic Church. There is a deep current of dis-valuing the competence of women in the Church. If we concentrate on ordination, we miss the larger damage. There is work that needs doing and the institution itself prevents thousands of competent people from that work. It prevents them by preferring less qualified and often unqualified people do the work. It prevents them by failing to professionalize the parishes and schools so that there are stable positions with appropriate salaries. In other words, the Church needs to act like a workplace.

A woman with a Master’s degree in theology told me she overhead some students hanging around a campus ministry office talking about the “cute young priest” who was new to the staff. When they asked him why he decided to become a priest he flippantly told them that the diocese offered to pay his student loans if he went to seminary. I have a doctorate in Catholic theology. I have been working in Catholic institutions since 1976. I will be paying my student loans until I pass from this earth. (Just to be clear, these are not undergrad loans; I paid for my undergraduate education working as a telephone operator. My loans paid for childcare while I was in advanced studies. The ordained men in my program were fully funded. Many of them spent the summers in Rome while I spent the summers working at a deli.)

Notice what this young priest did not say: anything about the Church or its service to Jesus’ Gospel. So what qualified him? His gender and his willingness to refrain from sexual expression. How do either of those features intersect with the professional needs of the Church? What skills does he bring to the work?

Catholics have a lot to learn from Ms. Holder and the MeToo movement. It is time for another movement.

How about an “It’sAboutTheWork” movement directed at all Catholic institutions? It is long past time where this historically effective institution directed all its resources towards professionalizing all its work. It is long past the time of the seminary as the resource for Catholic professionals.

I said Holder inspired me. She inspired me to be as explicit about my own work and how I was robbed of that work. Thousands of Catholic women have been diminished each in their own way. Here is my signal moment. It is by no means the only time my work was dis-valued. I offer this as my teeny talisman to the brave Tamara Holder.

After the first department meeting when I was a newly hired assistant professor, a full professor, who was also a priest, positioned me against the wall in the hallway of the main classroom building of a Jesuit university. He aimed his finger like a weapon at my face and said, “You will bring Catholic theology back to this university over my dead body.” That happened in 2001. I was a junior faculty member; I had earned my doctorate at what was then the best theology program in the English speaking world. I wanted to do the work of critically reflecting upon the presence of God inside the great Catholic intellectual tradition and here was a Jesuit, full professor threatening me. I was a skilled, well-trained professional. No matter. A powerful person did not want my work. And just like Fox Televsion, when I sought institutional help, the institution protected the abuser and banished the victim.

The institutional Church still has yet to reckon with its worst crisis since the Reformation. Yes, it is about villainous and often pathological predatory crimes. But it is also about the work.

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