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From Palaces to Courtrooms

Yesterday, Pope Francis released a motu proprio called “Vos estis lux mundi” [You are the light of the world”] offering new guidelines for leaders within the Catholic church on how to respond to clerical sexual abuse. 

In Vatican parlance, a motu proprio is an official statement from the Pope that lays out a situation and on which he then makes a papal decree. The motu proprio is the most hierarchical of all documents, since it is issued only in the name of the Pope.

“Vos estis lux mundi” deals with crimes of sexual abuse and, for most of the brief document, there is little to surprise anyone who understands the monarchy that we call the Roman Catholic church. And problems within a hierarchy can only propose hierarchical solutions, unless they want to threaten the system. We should not therefore be surprised that Pope Francis proposes escalating problems to higher authorities within the church as a key part of the solution.

Some are celebrating the answer of bringing the concern higher up in the chain of command but there is reason for caution on this front. We all know that John Paul II had been informed about the case against Marcial Maciel, a serial sexual abuser, and that he continued to publicly praise him.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna of Malta responded to a question about the myopia of escalating the matter internally. As covered in the National Catholic Reporter:

Asked about why the apostolic letter does not mandate the involvement of lay experts in abuse investigations undertaken by metropolitan archbishops, Scicluna noted that metropolitans can ask lay people for help, but said: “We’re a Catholic Church, we’re not a congregational church.”

The message here seems to be that Catholic male clerics do not really need lay people to resolve problems, but they can call on them, on the rare occasions they deem it advisable. Asking why lay people are not involved is tantamount to saying that you do not understand how power is distributed in the Catholic church.  

But what if a critical element of the cause of the abuse is somehow the hierarchical structure itself, which elevates some people to a god-like status that tells them they bear the indelible mark of Christ-like priestliness on their very souls? 

The truly groundbreaking piece of the motu propio, I would argue, is the last provision: 

Art. 19 – Compliance with state laws

These norms apply without prejudice to the rights and obligations established in each place by state laws, particularly those concerning any reporting obligations to the competent civil authorities.

Some commentators have already noted that reporting is not mandatory in all cases, but rather only in cases where the local government requires such reporting. But if it is the case that a local state does not require such reporting, that is a matter that can be addressed locally, offering at least a possible path toward greater accountability, which is why this article seems to break new ground.

Even as the rest of the motu proprio reinforces the sense that more patriarchy is the solution to the problem, the final article shows openness to a secular judicial process that does not elevate the accused to the inaccessible exalted heights of a clerical Olympus – a place beyond human accountability. No more, we can hope, will members of the clerical class, even bishops and Vatican officials working abroad, be permitted to hide behind clerical privilege that would forgive their sins while shielding them from being held accountable for their crimes in secular courts. 

Francis knows this may not work, that he may not have gone far enough. The new norms take effect on June 1, 2019 and are enacted for an “ad experimentum” period of three years. Yet this experiment has, in sometimes awkward waysalready started and the initial results give some cause for optimism that secular authorities may be able to help survivors find justice they could not find within the church.

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Daily Dispatch 4/15/2019


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Daily Dispatch

April 15, 2019


21 Savage Describes the Uncertainty of Immigrant Detention

Back in February when the world learned that rap artist 21 Savage had migrated to the United States as a child and that he was being detained by ICE, many of his fans were stunned. Organizers from groups such as Black Alliance for Just Immigration and Black Lives Matter banded together for the #Free21Savage campaign and he was ultimately released on bond.

Despite prior arrests that had put 21 Savage in jail, he described his ICE detention as a harrowing experience because of the uncertainty of the process. From an interview with Billboard:

He says that his ICE detention, which lasted for 10 days, was unlike anything he had ever experienced. “The worst thing was sitting in there not knowing what was going to happen, or when it’s going to happen,” he recalls. “Whenever I went to jail before, it was, ‘You’re being charged with this and going to court on this date.’ But immigration ain’t like that. You’re just being held.”

Some Creative Resistance: Where Are the Children?

Local organizers in the DC area are planning to put a national spotlight on the issues of child detention and family separation that have been highlighted as particularly egregious practices to use for immigration enforcement. From the announcement from this coalition of organizations in Howard County, Maryland calling itself Where Are the Children?

Please join us on International Children’s Day, June 9, 2019  to oppose this injustice.

National Mall in Washington, D.C. between 12th and 14th Streets

We will display hundreds of pajamas hung on clotheslines to represent the separated children. Each pajama is a stark reminder of forcibly separated families and parents spending nights away from their children.

Americans must remember that our government continues to divide families and
forcibly detain children.

The pajama display will be available to other groups wishing to raise awareness in their communities.

Nothing New Under the Sun: Native American Family Separation

As much as family separation shocks the conscience, it cannot be forgotten that this policy of taking children from their parents has been used repeatedly by the U.S. government as a way of controlling populations of people it failed to treat as full and equal members of society.

The National Native American Boarding School Coalition recently announced that it is undertaking a study of how child removal affected Native communities in the United States. From a release on Indian Country Today:

Between 1879 and the 1960s, tens of thousands of American Indian and Alaskan Native children were forced to attend boarding school against their parents’ and tribes’ wishes. The goal of these schools was to eliminate the “Indian problem” that the United States had to its westward expansion by removing all traces of tribal existence — language, culture, spiritual traditions, communal and family ties, etc. and replacing them with European Christian ideals of civilization, religion, and culture.

Moreover, while we might like to believe that this practice has ended, it persists in practice:

Although the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was designed to address this form of cultural genocide, Native families continue to face very high levels of child removal. For example, in Alaska, where Native children make up 20 percent of the general child population, they represent 50.9 percent of children in Foster Care.

To read more on this study or if you know someone who might be able to participate in the survey, check out the National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition.

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Sex, Violence, and…Movies on Airplanes?

Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI has shared his perspective on the sexual abuse crisis in the Church, offering an analysis of what he states to be the root causes. The full text of this piece is available in English translation here.

While there will no doubt be in-depth commentary on the theological and doctrinal content of this analysis, I wish to offer only a few preliminary comments on a passage in the opening section of the document, in which a connection is established between the sexual revolution and sexual violence:

Among the freedoms that the Revolution of 1968 sought to fight for was this all-out sexual freedom, one which no longer conceded any norms.

The mental collapse was also linked to a propensity for violence. That is why sex films were no longer allowed on airplanes because violence would break out among the small community of passengers. And since the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression, school principals also made attempts at introducing school uniforms with a view to facilitating a climate of learning.

Part of the physiognomy of the Revolution of ‘68 was that pedophilia was then also diagnosed as allowed and appropriate.

The first statement here is partially true. 1968 was a year of revolutions and one of the demands of many groups was for greater sexual liberation. This of course was largely rooted in a call for gender equality and for an end to the weaponization of sex and sexuality in maintaining a strict separation of opportunity for people based on rigid gender norms. But going from challenging norms used to justify centuries of oppression to stating that this new regime “no longer conceded any norms” seems a statement that would demand some justification.

It would be reasonable to assume that the next paragraph would cite such evidence, but instead the argument proceeds to its next step. “The mental collapse was linked to a propensity for violence.” To buttress this claim, we are told that “sex films were no longer allowed on planes because violence would break out.”

Well, this is alarming. I remember a similar public health threat on planes being addressed in the United States some years ago. In my youth, smoking was allowed on flights on U.S. carriers. One can readily find news articles starting dating back to 1988, when the federal ban on smoking on most flights was implemented. Indeed, flight attendants still remind us on every flight that no smoking is allowed on the plane. 

So what about “sex movies” on planes? This surely would have captured some news coverage and stirred debate. Lacking German language skills and pressed for time, I limited myself to English sources as I sought out some documentary evidence. (Feel free to conduct your own search as well, but be advised that you may learn more than you bargained for about the “mile-high club,” a topic unrelated to the matter at hand.)

The first promising lead I found was the New York Times piece “In Flight Movies Update Content and Equipment,” published on April 27, 1982. What I learned is that the initially hesitant airlines gradually loosened their strictures on sex-related content, but that some level of censorship did occur. Yet there was no mention of any relationship, causal or otherwise, between exposure to sexual content and violent actions on flights. 

On January 18, 2017, The Economist published a piece looking at the question “Should films on planes be censored?” examining what kind of content is generally eschewed on in-flight entertainment offerings (e.g., plane crashes) and also pointed out that social norms vary significantly from one country to another. More relevant to the investigation at-hand is that this column made no mention of any historical evidence of violence on airplanes being related to in-flight entertainment. It seems curious that neither of these two journalistic pieces mentions any correlation between violence and in-flight movies. Absent any evidence, it seems advisable to doubt this claim.

The next sentence continues with the same lack of evidence. A controversial assertion – “the clothing of that time equally provoked aggression” – is presented as a brute fact. Given the way in which clothing is commonly cited to dismiss male responsibility in acts of sexual violence committed against women, there are disturbing implications in this sentence about school children: that the way these students dressed was inviting acts of sexual aggression against them, and that uniforms might be used to “facilitate a climate of learning”.

If there were any doubt about this implication, consider what comes before and after it. References to the “Revolution of ‘68” book-end this bizarre passage about in-flight movies and school uniforms. The closing sentence quoted above suggests that the values of that revolution “diagnosed pedophilia as allowed and appropriate” but, once again, no documentary evidence is cited, probably because it does not exist.

The rest of the letter does nothing to exonerate or clarify this irresponsible passage from the opening section. Indeed, when it feels we are about to get an answer to the really critical question of what went wrong to allow a crisis of sexual abuse of children, we get something else instead.

Why did pedophilia reach such proportions? Ultimately, the reason is the absence of God. We Christians and priests also prefer not to talk about God, because this speech does not seem to be practical. After the upheaval of the Second World War, we in Germany had still expressly placed our Constitution under the responsibility to God as a guiding principle. Half a century later, it was no longer possible to include responsibility to God as a guiding principle in the European constitution. God is regarded as the party concern of a small group and can no longer stand as the guiding principle for the community as a whole. 

This letter really is not about sexual abuse at all. It is about Benedict’s disenchantment with a secular world independent of the Christendom of yesteryear. 

Yet only in a secular world, where the clerics responsible for abuse are not revered and elevated, will justice for survivors be possible. In such a world, where science and evidence inform good policy, and due process is managed by independent authorities, perhaps we can also articulate the relationship between sexual violence and power in a more intellectually honest way. And the work of unraveling power that does violence through flawed human institutions – including the visible church – is at the heart of our calling as people of faith. 

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The Disdain of a Formidable Neighbor: The U.S. in Guantanamo

Cuban intellectual José Martí lived in the United States for a number of years, giving him a broad perspective from which to consider U.S. relations with Cuba and, by extension, Latin America. In his frequently cited essay, “Nuestra America,” Martí – whose Cuban homeland was still part of the Spanish Empire – worried about a threat that was much closer than Europe.

Pero otro peligro corre, acaso, nuestra América, que no le viene de sí, sino de la diferencia de orígenes, métodos e intereses entre los dos factores continentales, y es la hora próxima en que se le acerque demandando relaciones íntimas, un pueblo emprendedor y pujante que la desconoce y la desdeña. […]

El deber urgente de nuestra América es enseñarse como es, una en alma e intento, vencedora veloz de un pasado sofocante, manchada sólo con sangre de abono que arranca a las manos la pelea con las ruinas, y la de las venas que nos dejaron picadas nuestros dueños. El desdén del vecino formidable, que no la conoce, es el peligro mayor de nuestra América.

[But our America may also face another danger, which does not come from within it, but from the differing origins, methods, and interests of the continent’s two factions. The hour is near when she will be approached by an enterprising and forceful nation that will demand intimate relations with her, though it does not know her and disdains her.[…]

Therefore the urgent duty of our America is to show herself as she is, united in soul and intent, fast overcoming the crushing weight of her past, and stained only with the fertilizing blood shed by hands that do battle against ruins, or by veins opened by our former masters. The disdain of the formidable neighbor who does not know her is the greatest danger that faces our America.]

Contrasting “our America” with the other America looming to the north, Martí feared U.S. influence would rival that of Spain. Martí himself died in an armed uprising against Spain in 1895 but his words would prove prophetic. While the United States publicly supported Cuban independence, the resulting Spanish-American War led to the imposition of a new imperial authority over the formerly “Spanish” Caribbean and the Philippines. Unlike Puerto Rico, Cuba was not subjected to outright colonialism but forced to agree to the Platt Amendment, allowing the United States to interfere directly in the affairs of the island. Soon after, the United States negotiated very favorable terms for the use of Guantanamo Bay as a continuing naval presence in the Caribbean. Cuba tolerated the U.S. presence on the island and, for several decades, little changed.

With the Cuban Revolution, came the demand for the U.S. to leave Guantanamo, but for 60 years now there has been no international legal forum with the force to vacate the lease and require the U.S. to leave. The United States continues to send lease payments to Cuba (since 1974 an absurd $4,000 a year) – though not a single payment has been deposited by Cuba’s government since 1959.

Incarceration in Guantanamo

Following a military coup in 1991, a large number of Haitian refugees took to the sea to escape the violence and seek asylum in the United States. Tens of thousands of Haitians were provided what was called “safe haven” in Guantanamo Bay while they were being screened for asylum. This practice, essentially detaining potential asylum seekers in large camps, was initiated in the administration of George H.W. Bush, paused briefly, then was resumed in the Clinton administration. Indeed, the limited capacity at Guantanamo Bay, where Clinton stated that 14,000 Haitians were interned, was a contributing factor to the decision to reinstate Aristide in the presidency of Haiti. At nearly the same time, the Clinton administration began to detain Cubans who wished to immigrate as well – also in Guantanamo –although this policy was relatively brief and impacted somewhat fewer persons. The detention practice was declared unconstitutional by a Federal District Court in 1993 (the ruling later vacated) – the last Haitian detainees left Guantanamo in 1995.

For a few years, Guantanamo was not known to be holding any detainees, but this door would not stay closed for long. On January 11, 2002, George W. Bush re-established the detention camp at Guantanamo Bay, this time to house a population who were being described as “enemy combatants” in the “War on Terror.” The people in Guantanamo now are detained indefinitely, without trial, and many of the detainees have been tortured. Today these men – for they are all men – are 40 in number and a few have been charged and convicted but only in the Guantanamo Military Commission system, a tribunal of dubious legality. Indeed, the Supreme Court has sided with detainees in all four cases that arrived to the highest court. One of Obama’s first executive orders when he became president was a commitment to close the Guantanamo detention camp. He failed. One of Trump’s first executive orders was a commitment to keep Guantanamo open, indefinitely. 

January 11, 2019 marks 17 years since this detention center was established as part of the War on Terror but this is only the latest episode in the long story of U.S. imperial tactics in this place. In 2005, a group of concerned activists traveled to Cuba to attempt to visit the Guantanamo Bay detention facility and this trip gave birth to Witness Against Torture (WAT). Since 2007, WAT has been organizing actions in Washington, D.C. and around the nation leading up to the January 11 anniversary. In solidarity with the hunger strikes that have been started and maintained by detainees in Guantanamo and elsewhere to protest unjust treatment and living conditions, participants fast all week as a sign of their commitment to close down Guantanamo. This year, I have joined their number. Yet we know that our collective hunger pains are only a small reminder of the suffering of those held captive by our government in a foreign land. 

Taking our calls for justice one step further, once the closure of the detention center is finally complete, it is doubtless long past time to return full sovereignty of Cuba to its own people and vacate this base. Indeed, if we are serious about wanting to reduce the root causes of migration, we might revisit some aspects of U.S. foreign policy rather than build more spaces to hold humans captive.

In closing, I would like to leave you with a few lines from the Versos sencillos, also by Martí. These words have been immortalized in the classic Cuban song “Guantanamera,” a title referring to a woman from the Guantanamo region of Cuba, and they speak of a deep longing for an idyllic Guantanamo of the past, a land the poetic voice loves as his home. 

Con los pobres de la tierra
Quiero yo mi suerte echar:
El arroyo de la sierra
Me complace más que el mar.

[With the poor of the earth,
I cast my lot:
The mountain stream pleases me
More than the sea.]

 

 

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