Beyond a Doubt

In the beginning of the movie Doubt (2008), the priest gives a sermon on that topic, saying that people can unite in doubt as much as they unite in certainty.  The main character, a nun who is the principal of the Catholic school, has great doubts about the moral standing of that priest and the appropriateness of his relationship with a particular boy in the school.  In fact, she has certainty in her doubt.  The young nun in the convent gets swept into these same doubts, though she’s far less certain.  Extrapolating from small clues, and yet without any proof, the principal builds a case against him and ultimately forces him to resign his position. However, the bishop simply moves him to another parish … ironically, a parish and school with higher standing.

The audience is drawn into this tension between certainty and doubt.  Did he or didn’t he?  Just as the audience becomes more doubtful about the priest and more certain of both his guilt and that the principal is justified in her actions, the boy’s mother casts doubt yet again.  Is what the principal doing about the priest really the right thing if it harms the child as well?  For many, if not most in the audience, this perspective comes as a shock.  It is not a question they … I … have thought about before, especially given the priest sex abuse scandal that has shaken the Catholic Church to the core.

The audience is rocked again at the end of the movie when the principal breaks down crying, saying “I have doubts.”  Does this mean that she really did wonder whether or not the priest was abusing the child despite her outward certainty?  Or is she bemoaning the fact that, by doubting the character of even those whom she was taught to respect, she is left with nothing but a very dark view of the world?

This powerful movie, the moral questions it raises, and the doubts it instills lingered in my mind long after I watched it for the first and even second time.  As a social psychologist, I can’t help but be struck by the interactional dynamics at play and this has inspired my current research endeavor: to examine the Catholic sex abuse scandal through the lens of Erving Goffman’s work on stigma. He examines how individuals manage their identities when spoiled as a result of, among other things, “defects in character” or deviant behavior. Given the power of labels, the mere accusation of guilt is enough to condemn the accused, permanently damaging her or his image. But what happens when an entire organization like the Catholic Church is stigmatized. How do the dynamics change?

Today, we know that many Catholic priests have sexually abused adolescents and children. This is well documented; but even without evidence and documentation, hearsay can destroy a reputation.  It doesn’t require actual guilt.  In other words, when it comes to the social identity of the priest—his image in the eyes of others—his guilt or innocence is immaterial.  Even if, in a court of law, a person is acquitted of a crime, people are left with uncertainty regarding innocence or guilt:  “Are they really innocent, or did they simply get away with it because the case wasn’t proven beyond a doubt?”  We the observers are united in our doubts regarding this person’s moral standing and, like the principal in the movie, we can be certain in this belief.

The movie Doubt (2008) and the Pulitzer and Tony-winning play upon which it is based (2004) are works of fiction, but they burst into popular culture at a time when the Catholic Church has has come under fire by the priest sex abuse scandal and its cover-up by bishops and other Church leaders. Many date this scandal to 2002 when records (including depositions and personnel files) in the case of Father Geoghan were released after The Boston Globe successfully challenged a judge’s confidentiality order. However, sexual abuse by priests goes back decades—possibly centuries—being reported in the media as far back as 1985. If such abuse dates so far back in time, how is it that this scandal has emerged to such prominence only in the past decade? The answer lies it the power of the Church to keep secrets: an organization has many more resources at its disposal than an individual to maintain its image. At the same time, however, this power of secrecy was trumped by the power of doubt, doubts spread through rumors from a few people “in the know.” Let’s trace how this can happen.

The vast majority of cases of sexual abuse—like rape—go unreported. Within the context of the Catholic Church, it was particularly difficult to come forward given that Catholics, particularly prior to the 1960s, were so well socialized into a culture that highlights the moral authority of the Church as well as the high respect due to priests and the Church hierarchy. In those few instances when a case actually went to court, all those involved had to abide by confidentiality agreements and the records were sealed. Such damage control was used to protect the reputation of the institutional Church and even the reputation of the offending priest, who was typically moved to another parish where the abuse continued.

So, there were secrets at many levels. Individual priests kept secrets. Many of the victims kept it a secret. Sometimes the secret was between the victim, his or her family, the priest, and the bishop. Sometimes others were involved. Ultimately, the Church had to “enlist” the support of many individuals to protect its public reputation: therapists, support staff, lawyers, judges, jurors, and so on. There were many “small” secrets which together created a “big secret” for the Church. Because of the nature of secrets, however, there was no broad sense among the victims, their loved ones, and outside observers that these cases of abuse fell into a much larger social pattern that extended internationally.

However, with many secrets came whisperings and rumors. Seeds of “doubt” were sown. The sheer number of people who knew something made secrecy very difficult, highlighting the complexity of maintaining organizational secrecy. Word began to spread, though largely in hushed tones, and the spread of these rumors brought to light more cases, making it increasingly difficult to keep The Big Secret as victims began to find safety in numbers. The tipping point came with the release of the Geoghan files. That case unleashed a flood of victims and media coverage exploded onto the national and then international stage. There was a rapid escalation in the scandal as these two processes—victims talking and later publicly coming forward and the corresponding rise in news coverage—supported and reinforced one another.

The image of the Catholic Church has been stigmatized as a result of its response (or lack of response beyond Herculean efforts to hide The Big Secret) to the sex abuse that occurred within its ranks. The moral authority of the institution has been cast into doubt. Again, as observed by the “offending” priest in the opening scene of the movie by that name, people can easily be united in doubt. Personally, I am no longer a practicing Catholic.  I have had my own doubts about the institutional Church since my years in college and these doubts have been reinforced as the sex abuse scandal has unfolded.  Was I shocked?  Not that sex abuse occurred and not that it was hidden away as much as possible.  What shocked me was the extent of the problem.

The reputation of the Church has suffered a tremendous blow and the response of the Church to the scandal has only made it worse. Given the immensity of the institution, it is unavoidably clumsy in managing the stigma it now faces.  Even individuals face a daunting task in managing a stigma, but individuals are far more adept at responding “in the moment” than is an organization.  This scandal has been brewing for decades. Doubts go back just as far.  Healing is likely to extend as far, if not further, into the future.  Like the principal in the movie Doubt, entire generations of Catholics and non-Catholics alike will have doubts about the Church and it’s moral authority for years to come.

About James Vela-McConnell

Professor Vela-McConnell has been teaching at Augsburg College since the fall of 1997. Tenured and promoted in 2003, he achieved the rank of Professor in 2012 and in the same year was honored with the Distinguished Contributions to Teaching and Learning Award for Excellence in Mentoring and Scholarship from the Augsburg College Center for Teaching and Learning and the Office of the Dean. Professor Vela-McConnell’s areas of specialization include social psychology, social inequality, and qualitative research methodology & feminist epistemology. Additional areas of interest include violence, social problems, social cohesion, sociology of friendships, and mental illness.
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