Danneels tapes (3): the lesson
Cardinal Danneels's spokesman, Toon Osaer, has posted a statement by the Cardinal's lawyer in the comboxes below my previous post. The statement sheds some important light on how Danneels saw the meeting with the abuse victim, his uncle, the bishop, who abused him, and their relatives. Leaving aside his advocate's defence points, he offers some important contextual facts:
1. that in early April Bishop Vangheluwe of Bruges calls the Cardinal to confess that 20 years earlier, from 1973 to 1986, he had sexually abused his nephew, and that the abuse had continued until he (by then a bishop) had been confronted by his brother. Danneels was obviously shocked. The lawyer does not say what Danneels said to the bishop on this occasion or subsequently, only that he could "barely respond". But he does make clear that Danneels and Vangheluwe are close -- which is presumably why the bishop turned to him.
2. On 8 April the bishop approaches him at a meeting for the elderly which is honouring Danneels, who stood down as Archbishop of Brussels in January. He asks him to mediate later that day in a meeting of his family; Danneels, unprepared, tries to postpone but the family are en route, and he agrees. The meeting is held at 3pm that day.
3. The cardinal assumes that his role is to help bring about reconciliation and healing in the family, who do not wish for publicity or scandal. (The family has known about the abuse for 24 years and has stayed quiet.) This expectation was not shared by the bishop's nephew, who is approaching Danneels as the bishop's "employer". Danneels offers to put him in touch with the current Archbishop of Brussels, or for the bishop to resign, but the nephew doesn't take up those offers, leaving it up to Danneels, saying only that "for today" he wanted the bishop to confess in front of the family. Danneels invites the bishop to do so, who confesses and begs forgiveness for the first time in 24 years.
4. The conversation turns into a "painful family dispute" which is not reflected in the published transcript (the meeting was secretly recorded by the nephew). The meeting ends with Danneels suggesting a time for reflection and a further meeting. But that does not happen because, a few days later, the bishop resigns, confessing publicly to the abuse.
It is easy to understand why Danneels believed he was exercising a pastoral role: the fact that the family don't want a public scandal, the bishop confessing to his family after 24 years, the heightened emotions, the confusion over what should be done. Context is all. Danneels is, at this point, the retired archbishop; it would fall to his successor to act on the knowledge that one of his bishops had an abusive past. But he believes that the family doesn't want him to report the matter to Archbishop Leonard. It is confusing, and emotional.
Danneels's attorney is right to say that "it is not the role of a mediator in a confidential discussion to inform or alert any third party and since anyhow, no legal recourse or remedies were still available, neither from a canon law nor from a civil law perspective." For action to be taken, the victim must ask for it; to Danneels, it appeared that the victim did not want recourse to the law, canonical or civil. He therefore focussed on the possibility of forgiveness.
All this is reasonable, and understandable. But it is clear from the transcript that the victim does, in fact, want his uncle to be punished in some way -- he is just not sure how, or what is best. That is why he keeps putting the responsibility back onto Danneels. In effect, he is saying: "do something".
And that is where the Cardinal fails -- at least morally -- to help the victim find that justice, which is why his attorney's insistence that he acted in a "morally irreproachable" way does not persuade. "I only want to report it", says the nephew. Danneels' offer to arrange a meeting with Archbishop Leonard -- which the victim does not take up (although he doesn't reject it either) -- is much less than Danneels saying that he himself would report the matter to his successor (which would trigger action).
The Cardinal does not offer to do this because he is in pastoral mode, focussing on healing and reconciliation, which he believes the family wants. But he has fatally misread the victim's anger, which desires punishment of some sort; he wants redress. The nephew does not know how, or what, should be done, and he resents being asked to take responsibility for that decision; he is giving the Cardinal moral responsibility for the action that the victim inchoately wants to be taken. The Cardinal does not take that responsibility.
Danneels had good reasons for not doing so. He may have detected in the inchoateness of the nephew's response an emotional confusion which signalled to him, as a pastor, that more discussion needed to take place, and for calm to supervene, before that action could be decided upon. As the attorney points out, "the solutions proposed by the Cardinal are potentially substantially more effective than their alternatives". The fact that the nephew had been abused would be made public; the bishop would resign under a cloud of scandal; the family's tragedy would be raked over by the press; the police would investigate -- these would, presumably, be horrific ordeals for anyone, and it is understandable that the Cardinal read from the meeting that this was not the path the victim and his family wanted to take. So he suggested another meeting.
Most commenters have seen in this only a bishop covering up for another bishop out of institutional omertà. That is far too simplistic. The failure on Danneels's part arises from confusion about his role. He believes he is mediating in a family dispute which the family desires to keep private; but the victim is asking him to take responsibility and to act, on behalf of the Church as an institution.
That misreading, humanly speaking, is understandable. But it is also a consequence of a certain deafness on Danneels's part, an incapacity to empathise with a victim's anger and desire for justice. He was right to offer that path of forgiveness; he was right to believe that the healing of the heart, made possible by the grace offered to us by Jesus Christ, would be the best outcome of all for everyone. But as a bishop of the Church, he also needed to offer to be the victim's advocate, to assist him in his desire for justice, by offering to take the matter to Archbishop Leonard. In this sense, he is not acting as an impartial mediator; he is pressuring the victim, in effect, not to take action, by making it look difficult to do so. Even if he believes -- as surely he does -- that forgiveness, rather than justice, is best for the family, he is not in a position to seek to impose that path.
There is a painful lesson here for the contemporary Catholic Church, and that is to understand the way the wind has changed. A bishop who learns of a case of clerical sex abuse nowadays has to act to secure justice for the victim -- if that is what the victim desires. The responsibility, in other words, lies with the Church to turn to the law, even when this may not be in the best interests of the victim or his family. In a sense there is no longer a legitimate private, pastoral sphere where abuse is concerned, except in those cases where the victim makes clear his desire that he does not want action taken. In all other circumstances, knowledge must automatically trigger action.
Many bishops and priests deplore this, and for good reasons. The abuse crisis has made the private, pastoral path all but impossible. Where the victim desires action, however inchoately, there is only one path a bishop can now take: to report it, and to stay well clear of any attempt at pastoral action until after justice has taken its course. The wind has shifted. The ground has chilled. And those who, like the retired Archbishop of Mechelen-Brussels, fail to see it, pay a heavy price.