The Elder Thaddeus Meets Edwin Friedman: What do they have to say to the latest clergy sexual abuse revelations?

We live in anxious times with all types of black and white thinking, herding, and other anxious behavior described by Rabbi Edwin Friedman in Failure of Nervein 1996 (he was writing on it when he died ini 1996, for the work is posthumous), although one should probably read his classic Generation to Generation first, for that focuses on the church/synagogue. However, if one reads Our Thoughts Determine Our Lives: The Life and Teachings of Elder Thaddeus of Vitovnica, one discovers that a lot of the ideas that Rabbi Friedman expresses in terms of Bowen Theory or, broadly speaking, psychology, the Orthodox spiritual tradition knew about for centuries, although they expressed them in their distinctive Christian terminology. I shall weave them together here against the background of the interim report of the grand jury in the Pennsylvania clergy sex abuse scandal that first hit the news three days ago, for I think that these wise men have a lot to say.

I first noticed the that the interim report was out when I saw a new bulletin flash on my Apple Watch. I did not bother to follow the bulletin, for I knew two things: first, that there would be a lot of highly anxious comment and reaction, and, second, that it would be a day or two before enough of the facts had been digested that one could formulate a calm, nonreactive response. It was not that I was not interested, although in many ways it was “more of the same” hitting a new area of the country – we had seen those issues crop up in Ireland, Boston, and numerous other places around North American and Europe – it was that I knew that we would not really know what the report said for some days and that it would take more days to think through the issues. But Pennsylvania was special to me. I had lived near Pittsburgh from 1976 to 1982. Two of our children were born there, and one is buried there. I had seen sexual abuse scandals hit the church there, although it was the Episcopal Church and the sexual abuse of vulnerable adults. I had been called back to Pittsburgh (my diocese of canonical residence as an Episcopal priest) in late 1995 for mandatory sexual abuse prevention training. Furthermore, my father had lived in Philadelphia for years, starting in 1921, so the eastern part of the state raised feelings for me as well. Yet in a sense this scandal was an advance over older ones. This time the news was about a grand jury investigation. That sounded good, for perhaps there would be some approximation of justice, even if there were no indictments yet, since it was an interim report. Still, this was not victims coming forward with allegations that had not been carefully examined or which were denied by Church leadership. This was a grand jury investigation with the relative safeguards and protections that such entails and the relative certainty that indictments and convictions would eventually come.

But these are anxious times – the last election cycle should have shown that in spades – and this interim report raised lots of anxiety, even if no one has been found guilty in open court yet, or even indicted. The news cycle demands immediate response, despite the fact that the report was long, detailed, and, I should think, a painful read (as a seminarian I know confirmed from his reading of the first 90 pages). It took reading, thinking, praying, consultation, and, I would hope, weeping. The Elder Thaddeus would focus on the praying and weeping, for one is not only weeping for the wounds of the abused, but also for the lost souls of the abusers (or, he would say, the demonic entrapment of those men). Yet the news cycle was demanding immediate statements and action, for in a week, perhaps in two or three days, there would be another emotional issue demanding anxious attention. So, the commentators made their anxious reports and people responded. Within an hour or so, perhaps minutes, of the first headlines on my watch Facebook posts started to flash up. A Scott Hahn post on another subject was interrupted by an anxious comment about how one could go to such a church. Comment was everywhere. What one noted was that it did not appear that anyone commenting had actually read the report, but rather they were relying on the news reports, perhaps their favorite news commentator. One also noted that the comments either had no solution, or else had no realistic solution. Within the church there were calls for lay rebellion against the bishops (a good American response to many things – toss the government out) or perhaps departure from the church or even the total investigation of the church by law enforcement personnel. Conservatives blamed it on homosexuals (although even the first news reports noted that there was heterosexual abuse, and, besides, pedophilia is different from homosexuality), and more liberal people were quick to blame lax bishops for a “coverup.” Of course, there were no appeals to history further back than the 1940’s, the earliest dates included in the interim report. There was no asking (that I saw) as to whether a particular course of action fit the canonical structure of the church, Catholic theology, or biblical teaching, within the church, or whether, in Protestant or Protestant-like calls to abandon the church (or atheist calls to abandon the faith) there was not an ignoring of the dirty laundry in their own basket (the rate of sexual abuse in evangelical churches and groups that work with youth such as the Boy Scouts is about the same as it is in the Catholic Church, at least according to any study I have read and my discussions with professional counselors). There were, of course, condemnations of the Vatican and bishops, including the USCCB, for not giving a quick response.

The fact is that the Vatican and the bishops, or at least some of them, were reading the report, consulting historical precedents, consulting with one another, and probably also asking what had or had not been done in this or that particular case. What is clear is that two days later the Vatican did make a statement and it was calm, not sensational, and empathic. Within three days more than one cardinal, including the president of the USCCB had made statements. Again, they were statements that showed calm deliberation. I did not see any quick fix solutions. There were calls for background psychological checks and the like on seminarians – but these are already in place and have been in place since something like 2002, the date of the earliest form of the Dallas Charter (later revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018). Now perhaps there are some dioceses that manage to get around the Charter and its call for mandatory sexual and physical abuse prevention and detection training (in my diocese one also must take an update module every quarter), background checks, and psychological evaluation. I was a vocations director for 3 years and what I saw was the Dallas Charter audit process being taken seriously, background checks being made for anyone in contact with children or youth (and a single felony conviction for anything meant a fail), and psychological evaluations that were read with some care. Furthermore, all of this was required by the seminary before admittance. In the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston the same is true for applicants for the permanent diaconate. They also do marriage evaluations and home visits. And let us be clear, if any diocese is getting around such requirements, there should indeed be appropriate discipline. But, as the Vatican statement noted, the reported abuse in the interim report of the grand jury ended about 2002. Horrible as all that stuff beforehand was (and for those still living, is), it sounds like Virtus training with its mandatory reporting requirements and the associated background checks actually worked in most cases. You will never reduce the incidence to zero in a fallen world, but it looks like the incidence was reduced significantly. The histrionic demands for change might better be focused on clearer implementation, although at times it gets a bit paranoid as it is. And such anxious enforcement is what one would expect in an age such as ours, and the anxious atmosphere is caught by the children, which means that in “solving” (as best one can) one problem we can create another, anxious, fearful children.

We should note that the Vatican (and the USCCB to the degree that it is involved in enforcement, although that is not its core canonical role) is in a bit of a bind. First, the cases mentioned in the interim report go back to 1940, and if a relatively new priest were 26 years old in 1950, he would be 94 today. A seven-year-old victim from 1950 would only be 75. The victim might well be living, but the perpetrator is less likely to be living. The bishop who mishandled a situation in 1975 would also likely be deceased today. In other words, of the 301 priests mentioned and the bishops who may have heard about the abuse, a good percentage would no longer be in active ministry and some would be deceased. They would be difficult to investigate and of course could not be prosecuted. Second, in those situations in which prosecution by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is possible, whether of perpetrators or of failure to report by the bishop (which I take it would be the bishop’s legal issue), the Catholic Church must keep its nose out (other than turning over requested documents and encouraging those who were not confessors to the accused to testify), for fear of prejudicing the case or being seen as interfering with the course of justice. This means waiting until indictments are handed down and prosecuted. I do not hear anyone recognizing that there are limitations on what can be done now by bishops or the Vatican. I am sure that anyone against whom a creditable accusation is brought will be immediately suspended from ministry and lose their faculties, as I have seen in other situations, but conclusive Church judgment would have to follow the final judgment of the courts. This is not the immediate response that is being clamored for.

Finally, when a relatively long historical period is involved, one has to realize that best practices and community standards change over time. I was a military chaplain in the US Army Reserve serving with regular units in Germany in the mid-1970’s. I did a lot of what I called, “Pre-divorce counseling,” i.e. counseling soldiers whose wives had left for the USA who really did not have many options. I used the best tools I available, in particular Rogerian techniques, but more than once I felt like I had had a morning of failures. In the late 1980’s and early 1990’s I did more training in counseling. It was then that I learned about family systems, among other things. I talked with my teacher about how guilty I felt in the light of my new knowledge about how I had treated those soldiers. “Peter,” the response was, “those tools did not exist back then. They were created in the mid-1980’s.” Likewise, what was best practice and wisest pastoral practice in the 1960’s or whenever might well be “coverup” or “failure to report” today. We know now that pedophiles are very likely to reoffend; we realize now that keeping abuse quiet so that the victim and their family not suffer “shame,” actually sticks the victim with ongoing inner shame. The awareness of these insights came at various times before, say 1990, but they did not come all at once and did not come all over. I did not hear of them in my counseling training in an evangelical seminary in the late 1960’s. Therefore, the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh, mandated by the Church Insurance Corporation, made me fly from Vancouver to Pittsburgh in 1995 to get updated. And I am sure that there were similar updates for Episcopal bishops. Once I was “updated,” I could be held responsible (although in my case I had picked up a good deal of the information half a decade earlier in counseling training). The long and short of this excursus is that to determine the culpability of a bishop or pastor in a “cover-up” one has to determine not just what was the law at the time (the law tends to lag behind psychological and pastoral knowledge), but what were the best practices of the time – even if now we know that they were absolutely flawed. A physician the bled a patient in 1780, resulting in a patient’s death, might be just doing his duty to the best of his knowledge. A physician who did that in 1980 would be guilty of malpractice and more. Obviously, the place in the historical development of the understanding of predation where a given event took place has to be looked at in determining moral culpability (legal culpability would be more interested in what the laws were at a given time).

Where does Edwin Friedman come into this discussion? The above was written to, first, lay out a bit of history and then explore the complexities of the issue. The point was to slow down the processing, lower the emotional level, and give control over to the thinking brain versus the limbic system. Only as this happens can we get out of the cycle of anxiety and reaction in which we live.

What I see in the statements [which you can download here] by Daniel Cardinal DiNardo, president of the USCCB, who was a young priest in Pittsburgh back in the 1970’s, and Cardinal Burke speaking for the Holy See, and also those of Cardinals Dolan and O’Malley, shows the effect of dialing down emotion and doing more analytical thinking. That included indicating where the Church could have done better, what the Church has done with respect to three clergy named in the interim report who were ordained in New York, and what the Church plans to do in the near and longer-term future, which, interestingly, includes using lay experts to help in setting up confidential reporting structures and producing independence from a bishop against whom complaints might be lodged. The emotional tone is sadness. The diction is clear and logical. The documents are clear about when what can be done – there are no promises of Nirvana in the immediate future, but of step-by-step progress.

I think that Elder Thaddeus would agree with Friedman’s concerns, if he could understand the language. The Elder Thaddeus’ language is that of prayer. As we become agitated we become fascinated by the details of the situation, even voyeuristic. We have lost focus on God and are giving, in his terms, the demons an entrance through our noetic mind. The use of the Jesus Prayer will help defeat the demons and return out focus to God and enable us to meet our duties in the situation with calmness, peace, and divine grace. The Elder Thaddeus lived through both World War II and Tito’s communist rule, so he has some credibility when it comes to calmness, peace, and divine presence in the midst of turmoil.

More importantly, what can we do that would facilitate a genuinely Christian response?

First, as Edwin Friedman would say, we need to be less anxious people ourselves. If we are living in fear and anxiety we can never function as a healing presence. The Elder Thaddeus would say that our anxiety and anger are giving the demons a channel into our mind. Our disturbed thinking will affect others through the spiritual world. We have to deal with this problem through prayer, including asking for God delivering grace. Then we will be able to pray in peace and tears for both the victims and the perpetrators. Rather than judging the perpetrators or being angry, we should be asking, “What are/were they thinking?” We realize that they have been taken victim themselves through their lack of watchfulness and are trapped in the chains of the devil. Whereas some would speak of addictions, the Elder Thaddeus sees the spiritual forces behind the addictions. In other words, he has reversed the foregrounding and backgrounding of the Epistle of James (James focuses on the human, but then in Jas 3 and 4 he points to the demonic behind it).

But that means asking where the demons are taking us captive. That means asking where our responsibility lies. For instance, the use of pornography is rampant in at least the North American Church. But when you participate in this, you are participating in the abuse of the men and women involved (and even if they are themselves profiting, they are at the same time being abused, caught in a web of evil). What are you doing to stop this? Is appropriate blocking software installed if this is even a bit of a problem for one or if your devices can be accessed by minors? Is it clear that your household has a zero-tolerance policy? And can you explain why to your children, if you have them? My point is that while we are not in a position to do anything about those “really bad guys” out there, we may well be enabling by being involved in a culture of sexual laxity. It is no accident, I suspect, that this scandal came to light at the 50thanniversary of Humana Vitae. Widely ignored by some Catholics and misunderstood by others, this document does point to the heart of a healthy sexuality. And that is the trick – stressing the positive so that the negative seems less attractive or at least shows up for what it is. The demons are doing pretty well in getting the focus off Humana Vitae. Other examples of this type could surely be found.

Another piece of advice on this is to turn off the TV. You do not need it. When the various public media are doing their job, they are reflecting our anxieties back on us, amplifying them. Edwin Friedman discusses this in Failure of Nerve. No, you do not need to be informed. That is a lie unless you are in the news business or are required to prepare a digest for your boss. For most of us a headline or written weekly digest is enough, and even that is not necessary all of the time. If you see a discussion on Facebook, skip it. And do that especially if it has a video attached. While I disagree with parts of his analysis, Marshall McLuhan did point out that some media immerse us in them and others require us to work to supply part of the content. When you see a commentator on TV talking breathlessly or with great graveness about a situation, perhaps with pictures being flashed up from times to time, you are getting his or her emotions as well as whatever analysis they give. You are getting visual cues, including body language, and audio clues, including voice tone. You are also getting emotive words. “This is terrible.” “This is intolerable.” Etc. Your anxiety level raises. You feel you must do something. But you are functioning out of your emotions, not out of your intellect. You do not yet have all the facts. In fact, one of the insidious parts of modern society is the denial that there are facts: if I like it, it is true, and if I do not like it, it is “fake news.” But that is a statement of like and dislike, for no checkable facts have been adduced. If I applied that type of reasoning to scripture, it would have as many holes in it as Jefferson’s Bible. So, watch out for media that involves all of our senses and can end run our thinking to get directly our feelings. Generally, print is better than visual media, and print with footnotes giving sources is the best. But do not drop your guard. Footnotes can give an appearance of authority without being accurate unless one actually reads them and checks the documents they refer to. Also look for emotive trigger words in print. I have seen pamphlets for radical groups (the radical right in this case) that were quite misleading and very emotive. Chick Comics is another example that comes to mind. So, limit media, use a print article that you can analyze (And ask what evidence did he/she give for that statement?), and avoid TV period. We have a TV in our apartment, but only used it for TV during Hurricane Harvey, and then turned it off after a bit for it was just keeping us stirred up. Basically, we use it to play videos by Bishop Robert Barron or Metropolitan Kallistos of Diokleia, among others. We have free TV on our AT&T devices, 30 channels worth. I doubt I ever use it. I have the package because it gives us unlimited high-speed data and also works in Canada. I do not have the time for the other noise, nor do I want to go through the effort needed in quieting my emotions after listening to some commentator. I do not want to be part of the problem by living in a stirred-up state.

Second, sexual abuse is a boundary violation. Usually it is more about control than about sex. Always it removes boundaries. What are we doing in our sphere to preserve boundaries and not cross beyond people’s comfort zones? If we can break one boundary in the name of Jesus, we open the person to the breaking of more boundaries. Let me give some examples of limits and then of ways that limits are crossed. I am Virtus trained. I know that I can give side hugs, but not front hugs. I know that I can high five a child, but not touch their rear end. And the list goes on from there. I also know that I should not touch anyone unless they agree to it (or in an emergency, I suppose I might grab a person who was falling without asking permission). So if I am praying for someone, I ask, “May I lay my hand on you . . . ?” I indicate the place I want to lay my hand unless it is obvious (such as the top of the head in the rite of the anointing of the sick). I do not touch unless I am given informed consent, so to speak. I am creating a culture in which the person knows, whatever culture they are from, that their personal boundaries will be respected. Our Christian communities have not always been that careful. We do that as a group (“Everyone hold hands and lift them up!”) and we do it individually, for I have seen people who assumed they could lay hands on a person, perhaps many hands, without taking either their physical condition or their comfort into account. I am glad that John Wimber made it clear in the Vineyard movement that one asked before laying hands anywhere. And I wish that before people said, “Let’s join hands” or the like, they made it clear that those uncomfortable should feel free to participate in their own way. I once brought a man to a charismatic meeting in an ecumenical setting. The man was from a culture in which people did not touch. At one point in the meeting the leader instructed all to join hands and lift them up. When a woman beside him took his hand that did just that, the man walked out of the meeting and never returned to a charismatic meeting until the day of his death. That was a boundary violation. Not chargeable abuse, but a step in that direction. And especially since it was a woman, the man probably felt unfaithful to his wife. I doubt it crossed his consciousness, but he may also have felt sexually stimulated. It was abuse and experienced as abuse. I cringe when such things are encouraged in charismatic circles with the implications that one is not open to the Spirit without such. The German charismatic movement I knew did not need this to be open to the Spirit (and I saw a lot of Spirit there). Furthermore, the spirit that one opens a person to in this way may not be Holy Spirit. Are our communities, prayer groups, or personal behavior grooming people for sexual abuse – totally without our intending to? Do people leave feeling abused?

I might add that kneeling, standing, and sitting, even prostrating, are different in that they are non-contact and individual. But I personally often preface a liturgy (if newcomers are there) or (in the Episcopal Church where it was licit) added to the liturgy, permission to do otherwise. Rather than “meekly kneeling upon your knees,” I might say, “meekly kneeling as you are able.” But this is being appropriately inclusive. It becomes abusive if in your heart you judge someone who does not kneel or take some other posture you think that they should. They sense this judgment and feel the peer pressure. That is what the Elder Thaddeus would say.

Third, honor and support your leaders. If you do not like your leaders, leave that to God. St Augustine dealt with the issue of unworthy leaders in his discussions about the Donatists. St. Francis certainly dealt with unworthy leaders, not by criticizing them, but by showing deep humility. David had every reason to do Saul in, for Saul was unrighteous seeking his life (“stand your ground”), but instead he would not touch “God’s anointed.” Likewise, when Elijah was told that there were 7,000 who had not bowed the knee to Ba’al, he was not told to organize them to overthrow Ahab. If I cannot understand why a bishop did this or that, I say to God, “Father, I do not understand this, but I leave the situation in your hands. You are the judge of all the earth, not me. Show me how to live in peace and humility in the situation.” If charges are brought against a bishop, I pray, “Father, I pray that it is not so, but if these charges are true, may you bring about your type of justice your way.” Then I leave it. God is the judge, and I am not. That is what James says (Jas 4:12). If I were appointed to a commission to that had the responsibility of discipline, then that would be another issue. But praised be to God, I am not and am very very unlikely ever to be. I want to find something to respect in every leader; maybe, then, God will find something to respect in me.

I might add that I have worked in a small Chancery. I have seen what a bishop does. I did not always understand all he did or does (after all, he does not have any occasion or requirement to explain everything to me), but I did understand that I could not do the job better than he, that I could not do the job at all. I wonder why there are people out there who seem to think that they could? Thanks be to God that as a married priest I will never be a bishop!

Fourth, this is the time to raise your giving. And I am serious about that. On the one hand, your pastor and bishop need funding to go smoothly while they could be distracted by the issues of abuse, especially if you are in a diocese directly affected. On the other hand, they need extra funds to deal with the situation. Every diocese has a VAC, a Victim Assistance Coordinator. (My wife was a VAC for a year or two.) If there is a situation of abuse, whether by clergy or by a lay person working for the church, including volunteers, the first thing that is done is that the legal authorities are informed, the second is that the diocese is informed, and when the diocese is informed the VAC springs into action, doing what they are trained to do and hoped they never would do. The VAC contacts the victim and offers help. Now the VAC may well be a trained counselor themselves, but what they offer is usually not their counseling (since they are an agent of the diocese) but that of a trained professional independent of the diocese. However, the diocese pays. There may be other expenses due to the abuse (what if the victim goes into deep depression and cannot work?), other professionals needed (perhaps the abuse created a situation that needs medical treatment), and all that is arranged for. Furthermore, even if the diocese did everything “according to the book,” the diocese may still be held liable and end up paying damages. Therefore, regardless of whether or not the bishop accepts the offer, an offer such as, “Bishop, a group of us realize that there are expenses involved in connection with the Safe Environment office/ office of the VAC, whatever happens in the end concerning this case. Can we help you raise funds or raise funds ourselves to support these remedial activities without burdening the diocese or sapping the DSF? We would want to do it in such a way that people know that the DSF still deserves their support, that this is over and above. And we want to do it in such a way that it is double-blind, that the diocesan officials, much less the victims, will not know who is contributing and those contributing will only know that the funds are going towards expenses connected with the general situation.” The Bishop may feel he must turn the offer down, but I suspect that even if he did that, he would in private thank God in joy and thanksgiving for the support his people in a time of loneliness and criticism.

There are other issues that could be covered and other things that could be said. But I wanted to show that situations such as this could and should be met with a less-anxious, thinking response/ with a response the comes from the peace of God and is rooted in prayer and love-in-action.

I know of Edwin Friedman’s work because I have done post-graduate study at an institute that he founded and have taught what I learned. I know the Elder Thaddeus’ teaching because for some reason I happened to have purchased his book months ago, simply due to its title, and happened to have finished reading it this week. It was a happy coincidence.

Rabbi Friedman, thank you for showing us the way to a more thinking, more differentiated response.

Elder Thaddeus, thank you for showing us the teaching of the Holy Fathers. If you are indeed where I expect you are, pray for us.



About Peter H. Davids

I am a retired Director of Clergy Formation for the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, a retired professor, and an active Catholic priest (and former Episcopal priest for 34 years), writer, and editor. As a priest available to parishes in the Diocese of Austin, and the resident priest for the Austin Byzantine Catholic Community. I am also a husband, father, and grandfather. My main job at present is Chaplain to the Dominican Sisters of Mary Mother of the Eucharist in Our Lady of Guadalupe Priory in Georgetown, Texas
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