Raymond Schroth reviews PBS’s Frontline, airing tonight’s feature on sex abuse and cover-up in the Fairbanks diocese of northern Alaska.
If the story has a heroine it is Elsie Boudreau, a victim determined to bring justice to the village. She hired a lawyer and confronted the bishop, Donald Kettler, who was installed in 2002. According to Boudreau, Kettler heard her story, but “didn’t get it.” So she and the lawyer assembled dozens of victims to pour out their tales to one another, and filed a class action suit against the church. In the most heart-rending scenes the victims, many of their lives in shambles, now 40 years after the traumatic events, break into tears as they share their pain.
It takes the bishop eight years to accept responsibility. The court orders him to visit every church and every village, meet with all the victims and personally apologize to each. As the film ends Bishop Kettler, fully vested, stands at a liturgy in the ramshackle church, only a few dozen natives present for the ceremony, and tells each one as they approach in line how sorry he feels and marks each forehead with oil in the sign of the cross.
The antigospel at work, at the hands of the clergy:
The village of St Michael is clustered around an early 20th century wooden church, population 360 Alaskan native people, nearly all Catholics— until recent years, when nearly all have left the church.
Nearly all have left the Church. That’s quite an accomplishment, even considering it would be a work of titanic spiritual heroism to bring them all back.
What I think are necessary:
Bishops, really. The office is ancient, sacramental, and when it works, the Church is enriched spiritually and guided properly.
Lawyers. There should be consequences to immoral and illegal behavior. That Christ will judge at the Last doesn’t abrogate human responsibility for investigating wrongdoing and pressing for legal restitution.
Allies and advocates for abuse survivors. As the reviewer says, they are the heroes.
Apologies. When will we see high profile bishops man up? You go to the victims, uncoerced by the law. You listen. You apologize unconditionally. And you offer significant gestures of moral and ritual leadership. You don’t whine. You don’t make excuses. You don’t compare clergy to school teachers and scout leaders, for heaven’s sake. You don’t deflect the blame to others. You admit your canonical responsibility and you act like a Shepherd, tending to a broken and wounded flock.
Some new ministry in the Church. I think advocates like SNAP are here to stay, but I don’t necessarily see their work as broad enough to fit the need I sense. They hassle and confront bishops. It would be nice if that wasn’t necessary, but too many guys at the top “don’t get it.”
It’s clear the bishops lack the clarity and understanding to take the lead. Somehow, some group could step in with some new movement dedicated to healing, reconciliation, and peacemaking. If the bishops are unwilling or unable to reform and renew, it seems somebody is going to have to do it for them.
The alternative is the spread of the antigospel. As gravely sinful conspiracies are brought more to light in Pennsylvania and Alaska, somebody’s going to have to find a response. Airport conversations with the Jovial One just aren’t going to convince.