The Culture in Action – How Abuse is Covered Up

Author: Paul Cromidas
Date Published: 10/13/2008
Publication: Pokrov

In a recent news article about the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese settling a case of sexual misconduct by a priest, it was reported that two prominent clergymen, Metropolitan Gerasimos and the former Fr. Michael Pappas, knew about the situation and had said respectively that the matter was “not a subject of my immediate concern” and “I didn’t think it was my business”.

The case involved the San Francisco Metropolis, or diocese. The accused was Michael Rymer, now defrocked, and said to have AIDS. Metropolitan Gerasimos, now head of the Metropolis, apparently knew of the situation before he became a bishop. Michael Pappas has since been defrocked after admitting extra-marital relations. Pappas had also been a member of the archdiocese advisory committee on clergy sexual misconduct.

I submit that these examples typify what is referred to as the “culture of the organization” or, in other words, “how the system works”. It is common behavior in many organizations to cover-up wrong-doing because it is seen as “not my business”. With the revelations of the past few years, attention has been focused on church organizations and how they too have hidden misconduct, usually in the name of “not hurting the church”.

The Catholic Church, as a prime example, has a practice known as “Mental Reservation”. This allows a priest or bishop to use “misleading words to deceive another so long as a deliberate lie is not told.” When taking the Catholic Cardinal’s Oath, one promises to keep secret “the revelation of which could cause damage or dishonor to the Holy Church.”

The excellent 2006 book, “Sex, Priests and Secret Codes”, reports that “When one bishop was chided…for denying the existence of sexual abuse…he replied, ‘I only lie when I have to.’” I would say that this practice applies to the Orthodox Church and to other denominations as well. A bishop or clergyman is seldom penalized for hiding the truth, but we can take heart from a recent Episcopal case where a bishop was defrocked for concealing a priest’s misconduct. Perhaps this will be a precedent for more such defrocking. The 2006 book also tells us that cover-up of clergy sexual misconduct has been part of the culture since the days of the early church.

Laypeople also find themselves acting according to what is seen as acceptable behavior by the culture of the organization. If the understanding is that one does not report credible allegations of abuse by clergy, then one does not. In the Greek Orthodox culture, there is the concept of “dropi”, or shame, which one is expected to avoid in order not to hurt the church. That children may be molested as a result of this silence seems to be a secondary consideration.

In a well-known case, the plaintiffs’ lawsuit alleges that the priest’s misconduct was known from his seminary days, yet he was ordained. Then, while serving at a parish, it is alleged that his further misconduct was hidden by lay leaders who worked quietly to effect his transfer, and no damaging information was passed on to the next community. That these leaders would make the matter public or report it to the police was apparently unthinkable.

In a case of massive financial fraud in the Orthodox Church in America, a sister jurisdiction of the Greek archdiocese, it took some years before courageous laypeople and clergy finally spoke up. Up to that point, one was not supposed to question the hierarchs. That was the culture. But now, the matter has even been turned over to the District Attorney’s office.

Whether the church offense is of a sexual or financial nature, the layperson who dares to speak up risks being branded as a traitor in the parish or congregation.

The importance of the cultural factor was also validated in a 2007 book by a sociologist who “focuses on the function and culture of faith communities.” The book, titled “Spoils of the Kingdom – Clergy Misconduct and Religious Community”, is authored by Anson Shupe of the University of Indiana.

He holds that clergy misconduct “occurs in a systematic, or structured, context and is not merely the result of a ‘few bad apples in the barrel’, however discomforting that thought is to any religious apologists or believers.” He says that, typically, even when church leaders admit that there was abuse, they will say that the offender was a weak or sick personality and that whatever happened was not the fault of the church. The offender is often sent to a residential treatment center for evaluation, as though only he could have been responsible for what happened, and not the system or culture he was operating in.

It is difficult for both laypeople and clergy to acknowledge that the culture may have created the setting for abuse. In the San Francisco case cited above, the man had gone to the priest for spiritual counseling, and the lawsuit alleged that the abuse would not have taken place if the offender had not been a clergyman. In a further example of secrecy, the terms of the settlement in that case were sealed on a motion by the Metropolis.

Bishops have been known to excuse their inaction by saying that they are not allowed to interfere in the matters of another diocese or jurisdiction. I submit that it is high time for them and others to “interfere” in the interest of saving children from molestation.

Yes, it is time to think in new ways. Changing the culture of an organization is a difficult thing to do, especially when it is a hierarchical church. But, I believe that the effort must be undertaken. The laity and, hopefully, clergy will need to help change their church culture. This will mean speaking up when there are credible allegations of misconduct by reporting them to the proper governmental authorities. There is more than enough evidence that reporting them only to church authorities will result in a continuation of the cover-up culture.

(Mr. Cromidas, a retired social agency director, has been writing about the abuse issue for several years. He has been a parish council president in a Greek Orthodox parish and has served on the board of the Greater Dallas Council of Churches and the City of Dallas Commission on Health and Human Services.)