Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Business as Usual

Isn't forgiveness wonderful?

Germany’s newspapers are covering the story today (here, here, and here, for example) of the rehabilitation of Walter Mixa, the former bishop of Augsburg who was removed from office by the pope in May 2010 for having beaten orphan kids and for having been involved in some shady financial deals at the orphanage where he worked in Schrobenhausen, in Bavaria.  Since this was church business, no actual charges were filed, and Mixa was never tried for crimes.  It was all handled within the church.   

One has to note, however, that Mixa’s colleagues fell away from him as from a sinking ship when five former Schrobenhausen residents came forward with charges they had been abused.  Later a sixth came forward.  Then a seventh and an eighth.   That alone, without a fair trial, is no legal proof of guilt, of course, but then the Pope himself removed Mixa from office, rather than stand behind him, and prescribed a “period of silence” in which Mixa was presumedly expected to meditate on his failings.  The financial problems, using money designated for the orphanage for things in ways it was not intended to be used, including thousands of marks spent on wine, and thousands more on art objects, Mixa explained away as sloppy accounting on his part.  Oh, and to help the orphans appreciate fine art. 

Today it was announced that he would be assigned a new job.  The German papers have it as  “Mitglied (member of) des Päpstlichen Rates für die Seelsorge im Krankendienst.”   I believe the word should be “Pastoral,” not “Seelsorge,” although they both mean “caring for souls,” so we won’t quibble.  The Latin is the Pontificium Consilium pro Valetudinis Administris, and the infelicitous English version is (Member of) the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care.  According to their web page, their task is to “spread, explain and defend the teachings of the Church on health issues and favor its involvement in health care practice.” 

What exactly Mixa’s duties will be is unclear.  The job involves flying from his home in Gunzenheim, where he lived before assuming his duties as bishop of Augsburg and returned to for the silent time, to Rome several times a year to sit in on committee meetings.   Among his expertise in the field of health and medicine are his many trips as official spiritual advisor to groups making pilgrimages to Lourdes.
When things got thick two years ago, Mixa submitted his resignation, took it back, and then submitted it again.  The pope assigned him to a “time of silence and a period of healing.”   Additionally, an investigating committee found the charges credible, although Mixa himself continues to contest them to this day.  Also, the German Bishops Conference confirmed there were reports of alcohol problems and problems of bullying younger clerics.

Although the official period of “silence and healing” was declared over in the fall of last year, this appointment is being viewed as a kind of official reinstatement.  One forgives, and Mixa is now back at work.   Like many clerics mixed up in scandals before him, Mixa now proceeds to a new job in Rome, where he can be close to the pope and do his bit to “defend the teachings of the Church on health issues.”  One notes in passing that not only has he not cottoned to wrongdoing in the past, he has also never, to my knowledge, retracted his comparison of abortion to the Holocaust.

The skeptic in me wants to give this guy a break.  In an age when priestly abusers are coming out of the woodwork left, right and center, and with a clear memory of the witchhunt that took place in California some years ago when childcare people were falsely accused of child abuse in a witchhunt reminiscent of the Salem witch trials, one wants to be extremely careful not to accuse this man falsely.

And that’s a real challenge for me, and I’ll tell you why.  When I was in the first grade, in 1946, the school principal came into class one day, laid a classmate of mine down on a desk (we were all of six years old at the time, remember) and beat her quite hard with a barber strap.  In public.  For the entire assembled first-grade class to see.  The principal’s name was Errico, and I will never forget her.  Nor will I forget my feelings at the time, which I have retained in vivid memory.  “Those kids from the orphanage are dirty.  No wonder they’re getting a beating.”

There was nobody to stand up to Mrs. Errico.  Not Miss DeMars, our teacher.  None of us six-year-olds, obviously.  And evidently no parent was going to come flying into the room as her protector.  Years later I began putting myself into the mind of that child, wondering what it was like not to have a mother and father to come to my rescue when a person in authority chose to beat me and humiliate me publicly, and left me to slink away in shame, back to my bunk in the orphanage.  The fear of coming to school the next day.  The bullying that would be added to the crime.

I remember vividly how the memory of that incident rushed into my mind when I read that it was orphans that Mixa, the local priest, was accused of beating.  Not regular kids with mothers and fathers.

I don’t want to accuse this man I have never met, whose comings and goings I know about mainly from reading the Süddeutsche Zeitung, a paper known for going after the child abusers in the church – the German equivalent of the Boston Globe.  But it’s hard for me to shake the memory of those beatings.  Which he admitted to, after all, sort of.  "I may have cuffed them about the ears."

Finger pointers did come out of the woodwork as well, and he was accused of sexual abuse at one point.  But that turned out to be without substance.    The district attorney of Ingolstadt said so.

It was the “zeitgeist,” a lot of people said.  Not at all unusual to beat children in those days.  People did it all the time.  Just ask Mrs. Errico.  And if they happened to be orphans with no adult protectors to speak of, well they still made good examples for keeping the rest of the kids in line.

The Roman Catholic Church reels with inner strife over its very definition.  One group, “We Are Church,” founded only fifteen years ago, has grown now and has adherents in 25 countries, and additional groups in over 50, according to its website:  They and others within the church have been working to further the goals of Vatican II of bringing the church into the modern world.   (Check out Bill Lindsey’s blog  if you want a good overview of groups and individuals working on this project.)

In Rome, however, it is apparently business as usual.  Women in the church?  Yes, in their proper place, not in any decision-making capacity of note.  Gays in the church?  Of course, if you admit you are fundamentally disordered and make a vow of celibacy (and thus be gay no more). 

Bishops with a drinking problem, a history of bullying and playing loose with finances?  What, you also said abortion was like the Holocaust?

Step his way, sir.  We have a job on a papal commission for you.  No experience necessary, although involvement with miracles will be considered helpful.

Business as usual.

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