When a Failure to Assume Leadership Becomes Toxic

In numerous different circumstances spanning the globe — from the halls of the Vatican in Rome, to Berlin, to the White House right here in our very own United States — it seems that concrete, sensible, and decisive leadership has been conspicuously absent from the domestic arena when it comes to solving problems that usually don’t have easily found or quick-fix solutions. The question arises: how long can this undesirable status-quo be maintained without stoking the ire of all those who look to their leaders (whether they be civil or spiritual) for guidance in difficult times? How long can the hard questions be avoided? How long will it be before the systems and catalysts that have given rise to these pressing issues are tackled head on; before they either disintegrate or are forcibly altered (even potentially obliterated) by disenfranchised individuals who have been yearning and looking to these institutions for leadership?

As the Vatican sponsored “Year for Priests” within the Catholic Church has drawn to a conclusion, the world has witnessed a period which was supposed to be an opportunity set aside to exalt and celebrate the glories and gifts of the celibate, uniquely male priesthood. Instead it has turned into a year which has been wrought with horrible, stomach-turning revelations of clerical abuse on a massive scale — spanning the European continent in countries such as Ireland, Belgium, and the Pope’s own Germany all the way to cases in Latin America.

As each new heinous crime came to light the Vatican entrenched itself further and further and became ever more on the defensive. Even as certain acts seemed to directly implicate the then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger, during his tenure as the leader of the archdiocese of Munich and Freising, the Vatican offered nothing to explicitly explain how or if the future Pope was directly connected to these incidents. Eventually, even the Pope’s own brother, Fr. Georg Ratzinger, admitted candidly to having corporeally punished students when he was the director of the Domspatzen (the boys choir of the Regensburg Cathedral).

It then came to light that the priest who had abused children while Joseph Ratzinger led the archdiocese of Munich and Freising had been transferred several times to various parishes. After having undergone “psychological evaluation” he was deemed fit to return to his former ministry, and his new assignments dealt directly with ministry to youths and minors! The Vatican explanation for this was that the chancellor of the archdiocese at the time had approved and authorized these motions without the involvement of the then-Archbishop Ratzinger.

Given the time and climate of the Church this is not that hard to affirm as potentially being true. The abuse of children was something that was not only not talked about when the facts were known, it was something that wasn’t even acknowledged as happening when the truth became apparent. This was mostly because of the nasty details of these heinous acts which were committed against underaged children and the fact that they were of a grave sexual nature. It was well before the point when leaders of the Catholic Church were even comfortable talking about sexuality as a normal human experience, much less implicating, acknowledging, and cracking down on their own who were pedophiles — using their sexual urges in a depraved and demoralized fashion. So it is very possible that Ratzinger may not have even known of these cases, potentially because of their very debauchery.

However, it is also possible that Archbishop Ratzinger may have known, and done what seemed best to him at the time with the advice and the facts that he was given. Traces of this misguided approach in the future-Pope’s style of handling these cases became more readily available when he was appointed head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith ( or “CDF,” the main entity responsible for theological and doctrinal declarations from the Vatican, formerly known in the past as the Inquisition). 

One notable example is the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy. From 1950-1974 Fr. Murphy worked at a school for deaf boys in Wisconsin. As time went on, reports were revealed that show that Fr. Murphy molested as many as 200 boys during his period spent at the school. When these actions of his had been discovered he was never officially disciplined or reprimanded for them but was simply transferred to another diocese in the state —as we have seen was standard practice at the time— and was allowed to carry out his ministry there unencumbered, yet again, involving youths and children.

Eventually, in 1996, the Archbishop of Milwaukee wrote to then-Cardinal Ratzinger, in his position as prefect of the CDF, seeking to have Fr. Murphy defrocked after allegations of his clerical impropriety and abuse had become so scandalous that they could no longer be ignored. Permission was given by the CDF to begin an ecclesiastical trial among the bishops of Wisconsin that could have potentially led to Fr. Murphy being expelled from the priesthood. Yet all of this changed when Cardinal Ratzinger received a letter from Fr. Murphy himself in 1998 in which he begged that the diocesan trial against him be reconsidered because of suffering “poor health”, the fact that he was 72 at the time, and firmly insisting that he had “repented of any past transgressions.” He closed the letter by stating, “I simply want to live out the time that I have left in the dignity of my priesthood”  After this, the diocesan trial process was suspended and no other formal motions against the priest by the ecclesiastical authorities within the Church were pursued. Fr. Murphy would die later that year and be buried with all the rites and dignities proper to that of a priest.

It was probably this final portion of Fr. Murphy’s letter that struck the most sympathetic cord with Joseph Ratzinger. To him the priesthood is a theological reality and a dignity so great that it cannot be shirked off –lackadaisically– by the whims of this temporal world, but is a sanctified and higher calling that one carries for life. It seems that this ideological bias clouded the future-Pope’s judgment so much that he felt compelled to drop the case against Fr. Murphy, even though he had abused scores of innocent minors.

As time went on however, it does appear that Joseph Ratzinger did gradually adopt a more realistic, stringent and just approach to the situation at hand. At some point he must have realized the true scale and scope of this crisis as well as the fact that these instances of pedophilia were not just the missteps of a few bad apples in the priesthood that could simply be brushed under the rug and forgotten. He had the chance to demonstrate this renewed attitude once he had been elected Bishop of Rome following the death of Pope John Paul II.

In 2008 Pope Benedict XVI ordered the Mexican Fr. Marcial Maciel (a favorite of the late John Paul II) —founder of a conservative and prestigious religious order of priests christened “The Legionaries of Christ”–to a life of “prayer and penance” at a monastery after it was discovered that he had molested numerous minors over the course of his priestly ministry as well as even fathering children by several different women. This year, an investigation of the Legionaries of Christ was also made known to the public by the Vatican.

Yet, even with Benedict XVI’s forthright and welcomed handling of the priestly sex-abuse crisis there is an element that he refuses to allow to be brought to the table for discussion in evaluating the whole picture of this detestable phenomenon — that of the question of priestly celibacy and the role that it plays as a potential catalyst for breeding unhealthy sexual repression among men within the priesthood. Many psychologists have said that this culture of institutionalized, mandated celibacy could very well give rise to unhealthy expressions of one’s sexuality among persons who have never had any other experiences in which to cultivate a normal understanding of this very intimate and crucial facet of their personalities. In the wake of this deplorable scandal even prelates among the higher echelons of the Church’s hierarchy –most notably the bishops of Austria– have called for a reevaluation of this rule (which does not have its origins in Sacred Scripture or in the will of Jesus Christ, but is a medieval invention of a pope from the twelfth century).

Yet the Pope has remained unwavering in his firm belief that clerical celibacy is a “gift” rather than a detriment to members of the priesthood. Initially, it took several months for Benedict XVI to even address the crisis directly — which emanated shock waves throughout the world sending the message that Pope Benedict really didn’t care or understand the scale of the problem at hand.

In every instance in which he did, the Pontiff never really acknowledged that the clerical system that has become the status quo over the centuries could have been the very thing that precipitated the trends that caused this dilemma. Instead, Pope Benedict said this in his most recent comments on the sexual-abuse crisis during a recent celebration of Holy Mass with 15,00o priests from around the world on the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, “It was to be expected that this new radiance of the priesthood would not be pleasing to the ‘enemy’, he would have rather preferred to see it disappear, so that God would ultimately be driven from the world. And so it happened that in this very year of joy for the sacrament of the priesthood, the sins of priests came to light — particularly the abuse of little ones “

It is of course true that the sins of human beings and the very real influence of evil in the world have most definitely played a large role in this atrocity that has afflicted the Catholic Church. Yet the Pope’s comments almost seem to downplay the free, voluntary cognisance with which all those priests operated who perpetrated these actions. Their actions are indeed gravely sinful, but can these acts be reduced simply to the sins of individuals or should the Church –and its leaders– as a whole take responsibility for them when the culture and environment within it could have given rise to such undesirable conditions?

The Pope implying that “the Devil” influenced these priests and was the main cause behind their actions misses the big picture and fails to answer the commanding question at hand when it comes to solving this crisis within the Catholic Church. Thus, it must be asked, as well-intentioned as he may be — is Pope Benedict really intending to wholeheartedly prevent further occasions of abuse when he refuses to ask whether the clerical system, rather than solely the sins of individuals, is to blame for the crisis?  Is this really confronting this monumental catastrophe head on and taking all factors into account –even ones that may seem hard to come to terms with and accept–appropriately and with objectivity? Is Pope Benedict truly exercising genuine leadership on this issue?

Here in the United States, it has been two months since we learned of the disastrous oil rig spill in the Gulf Coast region of our nation. Eleven lives have needlessly been lost, and thousands more have been thrust into a state of uncertainty — with the scope and effects of this disaster threatening to end the very livelihood of thousands of fishermen, entrepreneurs, and scores of other individuals who make their livings on the resources found and protected in these waters.

We have watched the CEO of British Petroleum, Tony Hayward, half heartedly profess to sincerely have been affected by this tragedy and pledge all of his support to righting what has been wronged to the families of the victims who perished in the explosion of the oil rig. Yet, candidly he says that he, “wants his life back” — while the family members of the victims of the spill and the deceased themselves have no way of even exercising the option to restore their lives to the way it had been two months ago. When questioned by Congress on his role in this crisis he refuses to answer any questions as if he is somehow detached from all responsibility because he is the CEO and had no idea of how it occurred. Doesn’t the very fact that you are in charge of a company mean that you should have some idea of how and what makes it run?

In cases such as these, the American people have naturally turned to the President to find capable and ready leadership in dealing with this disaster. Ironically, the nation has unfortunately been at a loss for this commodity in several respects.

From the very beginning of this disaster the President did not really go about dealing with this problem in an objective manner. We can assume that this has come as a result of decisions made by President Obama personally or from suggestions that he has received from his advisors (some of them who have been accused more than once of undermining his agenda and credibility in office by their actions). Still, even after all of the containment efforts have been employed and are now underway –essentially– there has been no effective and indefinite end to the plumes of oil (now estimated to possibly number hundreds of barrels each day) that continue flowing into the Gulf of Mexico.

All the while, the Obama administration has insisted that they have had a firm grip on everything that has transpired in the Gulf during the past few months. The President –and his other advisors– try to bolster this claim by dropping the names of important individuals who have been involved with helping to organize efforts to contain the spill. Dr. Stephen Chu, the Secretary of Energy –and Nobel Prize winner– is the one most often mentioned, in this attempt to allay the frustration and rage of the American people. Still, it seems that the combined brilliance of Dr. Chu and the minds of British Petroleum have not figured out how to put an end to this toxic stream that continues to infest, and ultimately, terminate all of God’s creation which has thrived for so long in the Gulf.

The Pope and President Obama seem to have much the same problem when it comes to putting up with the status quo. If something you’ve tried over and over again has not worked why not try something new, revolutionary and innovative?

This past week, the former Governor of Alaska, Sarah Palin, suggested that the President enlist the help of the Dutch –who have tested experience with dykes, dams, and a whole assortment of water-related mechanisms. To me –and I’m sure to countless other individuals– this solution seemed like a no-brainer from the very beginning. If British Petroleum is not doing what they’ve said they were going to do, and had no clear plan of what to do in the event of a disaster of such scope in the first place –why continue taking advice from and enlisting their support as the main source of trying to put an end to this spill if they don’t have the technology available? Why not bring in outside help from elsewhere, from some other entities who are equipped to tackle –and truly control, and stop– this stream of death from pouring into the Gulf day after day?

It is the failure to conceive of alternative solutions such as these that has stoked the ire of the American people. Everyone knows and believes that President Obama is sincere in trying to do all that he can to put an end to this tragedy and deliver justice to all those who have been wronged by this disaster. Yet, the integrity and credibility of his actions are rightly questioned when he continues to employ the same failed approach that has —as of yet— not successfully stopped the spill or significantly mitigated its continued, deadly, effects that continue to wreak havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. Is the President exercising the leadership for which he solemnly swore he would almost two years ago? Leadership is not simply listening to advice and making decisions on the information that has been presented before you. It is also having the courage and determination to see beyond the present situation, and conceive of ever new directions and methods necessary to tackle the cause at hand.

Across the Atlantic, the usually mighty nation of Germany is going through its own batch of bleak times. The oft-celebrated –first ever female chancellor–Angela Merkel has now come under intense criticism, from those within her own Christian Democrats center-right party as well as from members of the opposition in the German legislature, for measures she has taken to try to reel in her country’s recent budget deficit. 

Merkel accomplished this through a controversial 80 billion euro austerity package –which combined budget cuts as well as tax hikes in certain areas– that would come to fruition over the next four years. Mass protests and public outrage has arisen throughout Germany because the package is composed of mostly devastating cuts in federal jobs as well as trimming benefits for the unemployed (sound familiar?).  The once popular Merkel is now facing her most unpopular season yet as the leader of Europe’s strongest economy.

Polls have shown that 79% of the German public disapproves of the chancellor’s most recent austerity measures. In addition to the vocal outrage to these most recent initiatives, Merkel’s party suffered a major setback after it lost its majority in the Bundestrat (Germany’s parliament) during regional elections last month — probably as a result of the deeply unpopular fiscal policies the chancellor was beginning to champion.

The question here is: of course a country’s deficit must be reduced in a rational and reasonable way when its fiscal independence is threatened due to debt, inflation, or other economic perils — but are terminating people’s sources of employment as well as other institutions that provide social welfare to those who are less fortunate the right approach to going about this solution?

Yes, social programs can be expensive, and it is tempting to simply see them as being the source of all of a nation’s economic woes because of the seeming weight that they level on the respective country’s economy. But what about countries such as Brazil, Canada, and China? All three have a nationalized, single-payer healthcare system and none are currently undergoing recessions –in fact, Brazil and China were the only nations to almost completely avoid a recession during the recent economic downturn. Could the fact that all of these nations’ economies have some sort of regulatory measures which have become standard over the years be part of why they have avoided a recession?

Is it really exercising leadership when choices are made that save one’s respective country money but will serve to destroy the lives of countless individuals for years to come? Is it true leadership to find quick, obvious cuts at the expense of the lives of others? Isn’t leadership not only about exercising rational judgment but also about enacting and carrying out the dispensation of justice?

Leadership in any capacity –whether it be spiritual or temporal– is always a daunting task to carry out effectively. Yet, just because one has been placed in a position of leadership does not mean that they can simply take that position for granted. Leadership is not preserving the status quo, nor is it the stubborn refusal to be receptive and considerate of new possibilities in light of ever-changing realities, and it certainly isn’t exercising decisions at the expense of those who have no voice in the matter. Leadership is an appointed task which is ultimately meant to be of service to the people. Whenever they are not being listened to, protected, and respected to the utmost degree — this unique and fundamental task for the good of a well-maintained society has failed to be executed genuinely and prudently.


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About Phillip Clark

Phillip Clark is a social justice visionary, writer, and paralegal in Baltimore, Maryland. He is a contributing author to "Hyrsteria: A Zine of Social Difference" by Tanya Garcia and Valeria Molinari Interests include politics, theology, civil/human rights, social justice, LGBT rights, international relations, and history.

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