To say one thing and mean its opposite is a special skill of the politician. No other creature is as practiced at leaving a certain impression without actually having said anything, and leaving plenty of room for deniability – and, of course, the kind of “clarification” that effectively becomes obfuscation.
When politicians are caught in misdeeds, they give non-apologies that sound contrite but that, upon closer examination, neither admit what was done nor express regret for it. Politicians do not make mistakes; rather, “mistakes were made.” The passive voice leaves the identity of the mistake-doer a mystery.
Likewise, politicians do not apologize for any actions. Instead, they apologize for “the hurt that these actions may have caused.” It is for the sadness and anger engendered that the politician is sorry, because they hurt his public image. He is not sorry for what he has done, for he will not even admit to that; he is sorry he got caught, and that people are now mad at him. And to save face, the politician often blames the scandal on a conspiracy by his ideological opponents to discredit him.
The ultimate evasive maneuver is for the politician to announce, “I take full responsibility for this,” and then proceed to fire a few staffers, but remain in office himself.
The summum bonum of the pure politician is self-preservation. His job is not to serve the public good or to accomplish policy objectives. His goal is to stay in office. His aim is to hold on to power.
I have thought of these phenomena often in the last few months as bishops, not just in the United States but around the world, have found themselves accused of various crimes and failings. To name just a few (this is far from being a uniquely American phenomenon):
- recent reports from the Netherlands and Germany show decades of many bishops covering up abuse by thousands of priests;
- a horrific story of systemic abuse at a school for the deaf in Argentina is emerging;
- and, to have several kinds of clerical malfeasance distilled into one person, Cardinal Maradiaga in Honduras faces allegations of financial impropriety, of covering up for his auxiliary who has resigned after his pattern of homosexual behavior was exposed, and of allowing a culture of sexual corruption to take hold in the nation’s seminary.
And similar events could be listed from Chile to Ireland to Australia and places in between.
As these bishops respond, a familiar pattern emerges. Their statements are constructed in much the same way an embattled senator’s might be (and no wonder, as they are likely using the same PR firms). “Mistakes were made,” “we strive to do better,” and all of that.
They rarely mention sin or repentance – and when they do usually only in passing. If there is any call for conversion, it is aimed at the whole Church and is overshadowed by promises for better policies and procedures, as if pieces of paper in binders in the human resources office could substitute for wisdom, courage, and right judgment.
Some bishops’ attempts to preserve themselves in the face of scrutiny have now become infamous. Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s initial response to the Pennsylvania grand jury report that called into question his handling of some cases when he was bishop of Pittsburgh was to use Church resources to construct a website solely dedicated to putting forth positive PR material on his record dealing with clerical abuse. After an angry outcry, the website was taken down within a day.
And after suggesting he would try to hang on, despite being nearly three years past the mandatory retirement age anyway, the Cardinal has traveled to Rome several times, reportedly to request that the Holy Father accept his resignation.
Bishop Richard Malone of Buffalo, on the other hand, has adopted a different tactic. Despite admitting that his handling of abuse claims had “fallen short,” he refused to consider resigning, stating that “the shepherd does not desert the flock at a difficult time.” But the sheep do not tend to follow a shepherd who allows the wolves to pick them off.
A few prelates have stood out for their integrity. The entire episcopate of Chile offered their resignations after an apostolic visitation revealed systematic covering up of abuse. And just recently, a retired auxiliary bishop in the United States admitted to failing to report a case of abuse nearly forty years ago (and announced that he would, therefore, step away from public ministry).
But by and large, the instinct to save your own skin has prevailed.
Though in the past bishops may have exercised considerable temporal power, today they no longer wield much influence in the political realm. This should be all to the good, since – at least in theory – it frees them to act less like lords, less like politicians or public officials, and more like shepherds or spiritual fathers.
Jesus said that his apostles were to lead His followers by serving, not dominating them, to follow His example of putting others first and of self-sacrifice. Yet too many apostolic successors have showed a political rather than a pastoral instinct, eager to save themselves rather than the souls in their care.
Bishops who have covered up crimes or engaged in crimes themselves (assuming their consciences are not deadened by sin) could find some peace if they were to follow Our Lord’s self-denial and resign their offices for the sake of justice. They’ve lost their way trying to hang on to their own power and prestige.
Perhaps they need reminding that only those who lose themselves will find themselves.
*Image: The First Shall Be Last by James J. Tissot, c. 1890 [Brooklyn Museum]