Holy Week, 2010: Giuseppe dalla Torre, chief legal official for the Vatican strikes a vehement defense of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. The Pope is a head of state, and under international law, dalla Torre opines, and thus cannot be sued in a civil action, namely, a child abuse case in Milwaukee. One of dozens, worldwide. For 30 years, Joseph Ratzinger ran the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.(CDF). The CDF was the Vatican’s enforcer, sniffing out heresies, violations of canon law, of doctrine, of folk who made waves. Ratzinger also investigated child abuse claims referred by local dioceses from the US, Europe, worldwide.
On Good Friday, 2010, Cardinals close ranks to debunk conspiracy stories about Ratzinger regarding abusive priests, or stifling victims or offering spiritual compensation rather than justice. The media, advocacy groups, trial lawyers become Pontius Pilate or Herod; Benedict XVI—and thus the Church itself—suffer the metaphorical persecution and scourging of Our Lord, this, his final week on Earth as a human man. While this “scandal” unfolds, I continue research on my latest book, a biography of the priest Patrick Healy, S.J, the son of a slave who passed for white—Irish to be exact—to become President of Georgetown University in 1868, in the bad ol’ days.
Holy Week, twenty years ago: Fr. George Augustus Stallings, a black priest, is excommunicated by the Church, jumps ship and starts his rogue Imani Temple in Washington, D.C. Even a younger, more immature me notices the trend. The traditional flock of Irish, Italians, Poles and old-line Maryland Catholic patricians look over their shoulders at the trickle of “new immigrants” from Central and South America. The trickle would swamp my parish, then the Diocese, within a few years.
At least those people were visible. “We were, and are, invisible,” William Soule of Columbia Maryland, and a member of my old parish tells me. “Most people don’t know we exist unless they think we’re like Sammy Sosa [Dominicans, or of other Latino/Hispanic/Brazilian extraction] or from Haiti!”
According to the National Black Catholic Congress, there are over 3 million black Catholics in the U.S. But whether the context is the specific international sex abuse scandal, or affairs of the Church generally in America and Rome, we are just as invisible in 2010 as we were in 1990. Fr. George Clements is as close to a black Catholic celebrity as there Bing Crosby was the Irish. Lou Gossett even played him on TV. “Everywhere I go around the country, black people come up to me and say, ‘I used to be Catholic.’ They say it in such a matter-of-fact way, without any regret or shame or guilt.” Clements continues: “We have to face it. The church is primarily a white, racist institution. That hasn’t changed.” If you know nothing of American History, then just watch the films Gangs of New York, or The Godfather or A Bronx Tale to taste the hostility of the “old” immigrants like Irish or Italians toward African-Americans. Patrick Healy was smart to remain “invisible” as a black man. Moreover, Catholicism was the creed of many slaveholders, particularly in Maryland and Louisiana. Many religious orders—even Healy’s Jesuits—owned plantations worked by slaves. Our struggle wasn’t that of a Kennedy or a Cuomo, and even in the horror of child sex abuse by clergy, and the Church’s response, we are different.
In 2009, a group called Black Advocates Universal Against Clergy Sexual Abuse filed a $98 million class action suit in federal court in Chicago on behalf of 46 black and three Latino plaintiffs. What makes this suit a metaphor for us, is that the allegations don’t directly involve cover-ups priests preying on black victims. Rather, the claim is that the Archdiocese of Chicago intimidated, ignored or gave puny settlements to these black victims. And how many people even know there are black victims? They are men and women in their forties and fifties now, to children barely in their teens. Given the unique stigmas which we impose regarding sex, machismo—imagine their suffering. In the Chicago case specifically, some perpetrators were white, some black. Yet the Church hierarchy, the enforcers, like the former Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, was all white. It’s manifest that their desire, racism aside, was to maintain the Church’s power, not in protecting the most vulnerable in the flock. This has been analyzed and examined, from the first breaking scandal stories over a decade ago, to Holy Week, 2010.
Many black Catholics perceive a nexus between the current abuse disparate treatment and the 2008 presidential primary and general election. This same Archdiocese of Chicago being sued for deeming black victims as invisible had just muzzled Fr. Michael Pfleger, pastor of St. Sabina (the congregation of my ex-wife and mother in law). “The institutional church does not have a clue how to relate to blacks and has no desire, does not put forth the effort and will not take the time to find a clue,” Pfleger, who is white, said long before the political rise of Barack Obama. Pfleger was an Obama partisan, claiming the now President was the only harbinger of social justice. Obama was the overwhelming favorite of his parish. But right-wing radio, blogs, TV pundits swung into action; the Church labeled Pfleger dangerous. Indeed it stated that it does not endorse candidates or positions. Of course that was, and is, a lie, for Bishops and even Cardinals have actively decried pro-choice candidates and sanctioned marches and protests; conservatives in the Church now rail against Catholics like Nancy Pelosi. When 50,000 nuns signed a letter in support of “Obamacare” they labeled Communists by Glenn Beck and reprimanded—unofficially, quietly—by their dioceses.
William Soule says the Pope, who was supposed to be about love and justice “like John Paul II,” should have stepped in and halted Pfleger’s pillorying in 2008, or inspired American Catholics to consider healthcare reform in 2010 in the name of caring. He didn’t. “Black Catholics noticed this. Don’t think we didn’t take it as a sign from Rome that some folk matter more than others.”
In the meantime, blacks in the Catholic establishment seem more concerned with abortion and gay marriage as dire threats, then sex abuse or social justice. Iconoclasts such as Fr. George Clements don’t receive such love and attention. There’s never a mention, as with Benedict XVI this week, of sexual abuse, and indeed Bishop Joseph Perry, former Chair of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops Committee on African-American Catholics, admits that the perception of racism and indeed, of holding abuse of black victims on an even lower priority than white victims, is powerful. He offers no solution, however.
Today I haul down Easter decorations for another year and my face collects the Spring warmth. Yet I something’s remains a little chilled inside me. Latinos in the Los Angeles celebrate the elevation, blessed by Benedict XVI, of Jose Gomez as Cardinal. Gomez says he will deal with current abuse suits openly. But all I pray is that the, and other Church shepherds, will merely open their eye to us, their invisible flock.