Pedofile Priests, ISKCON, and Sentimentalized Compassion
A Catholic blog caught my eye this morning: http://www.irishcatholic.ie/site/content/tony-walsh-cha...
The writer suggests that the scandals in the Irish church could be partially attributed to the fact that Catholic priests were dealt with as ‘victims of their impulses’ and therefore deserving compassionate treatment. For this reason none of them were handed over to civil authorities.
Compassion is an extremely important quality, especially for those involved in cultivating a more spiritual life. And it’s true that, in general, we all tend to judge each other harshly, and with prejudice, so the general instruction for all aspiring spiritualists of any religious tradition might be: ‘Be more compassionate – and don’t judge others prematurely.’
But the ancient Greeks said that even virtues, when overly applied (and in the wrong circumstances) can become vices, and do a lot of harm. Compassion is one of the virtues, and its a great virtue; indeed, the great Pandava, Maharaja Yudhisthira, said that applied compassion – mercy – is the king of all the virtues. However, there is a time for compassionate action to become transformed to measures of discipline, so that a person may ultimately improve themselves, and that others may be protected. Not everyone in a group or society can be the recipient of compassion at all times and in all circumstances. Any society – even one based primarily on compassionate dealings – can only properly function when there is justice and discipline. If there is no discipline then continued compassion itself will serve to unbalance that society.
Srila Prabhupada tells the true story of a young man who was never disciplined throughout his childhood and who grew up a quite wayward fellow. He fell into bad company, was arrested by the police for a serious crime, and was about to be sentenced to a term in prison. He was asked if he had anything further to say, and motioned that he would like to speak to his aunt who had raised him. When he leaned over to whisper in her ear, instead of speaking to her he bit off a piece of her ear lobe. As she screamed and the blood ran down her cheek, he called out: “That’s for never disciplining me when I was a child! Now look at the result of your kindness!”
A Catholic priest applies God’s compassionate nature in his dealings with others, and particularly in the Rite of Reconciliation, where the confessions of the supplicant must be dealt with by his representation of the divine compassion of God. Its natural that within the very social institution of compassionate priesthood, that the dealing between priests should reflect the nature of the service they extend to others.
But there does come a time for discipline; which is only compassion applied in a different way. Forgiveness must be there, but that is never a substitute in any society for social discipline.
The whole affair becomes further complicated and problematic due to a Christian theological point which is often used to explain bad behaviour in the lives of otherwise good people: ‘evil influences’. Whether the individual actually believes in the Devil – and many priests these days do not – the notion that bad behaviour arises from forces external to the person can easily turn a perpetrator into a ‘victim’ of outside evil influences. Evil then becomes objectified and externalized.
For the Vaishnavas it is theologically impossible, in the ultimate sense, to talk of a Devil. We don’t have one, at least one that makes it his duty to force good people to commit evil deeds. External influences – yes; and demonic universal forces – yes. But ultimately the responsibility for the action lies with the actor. And the karma-phala - the fruit of actions – will accrue to the actor. Vaishnava theology puts any blame fairly and squarely with the individual, with the family, friends and mental disposition a product of former actions.
ISKCON has seen evil committed within its ranks, and unfortunately is no stranger to the pestilence of paedophile priests. And we, also like the Catholic Church, did not respond to the problem fast enough or in the appropriate way. We also tended to treat our priestly perpetrators as the ‘victims’ and preferred that their rectification be made in private, before God, without the involvement of civil authority. We, like the Catholic Church, could not countenance the embarrassment that the very people put on Earth to represent the Godhead were guilty of such heinous actions. We concluded that any localized incident of child abuse was a temporary aberration that could never – would never – possibly occur again. So nobody talked about it – and nobody saw certain patterns emerging. We will be paying for the consequences of those errors for years to come.
But we don’t have a Devil to blame, so how did we have so much compassion for our own priests that went astray? One reason might be that we are not entirely free from the sentimentalization of western society that has been growing for some decades now. It is quite fashionable in our ‘post-modern’ world to describe someone who resorts to criminal behaviour as a ‘victim’ of their upbringing; or of the educational system; or of their poor mental health; or that they were ‘victimized’ by falling into the wrong company at a crucial point in their life. Now all they need is love and understanding – and compassion – to reverse the process. It makes for everyone in western society understanding themselves as being a victim of someone or something else; and that there is always somebody to blame for their inadequacies.
Our theological loophole – the one that is most often misunderstood and regularly misused – is the verse in the Bhagavad-gita (9.30) where Shri Krishna says that: “Even if one commits the most abominable action, if he is engaged in devotional service he is to be considered saintly….” In his purport to this verse, Srila Prabhupada quotes a verse from the Nrsimha Purana (bhagavati ca harav ananya-ceta..) which explains that just as the spots on the moon do not impede the moonlight, similarly occasional accidental falls from the path of a saintly character do not make a devotee abominable.
But I have also personally sat before Srila Prabhupada when he used a comparable illustration in another way. He was perturbed by an illegality committed by his disciples and wanted to convey to us that we should not break the law in the name of Krishna. He said that if you have a white sheet with some black spots on it, everyone will look at the spots; and that if an ordinary man does something wrong then people may not talk, but that if a man who is supposed to be saintly does something wrong – then everyone will notice and talk about it.
So Bhagavad-gita 9.30 does not mean that a devotee of Krishna can do no wrong. In anticipation of our misuse of this verse Srila Prabhupada concludes: “…No one should take advantage of this verse and commit nonsense and think that he is still a devotee…”
ISKCON is a Society, but it is not separate from society in general. We have our internal rules but we do not have a process of law which runs separate from civil law. We don’t have our Vaishnava equivalent of the Islamic sharia. We are a branch of society, not something apart. If a devotee breaks the law then he must accept the consequences, the same as any member of society. God will forgive him, of course, but along with that state of grace may come social disgrace – and that’s good for the soul too.