I first heard about sexual abuse allegations against composer David Hass from a Facebook friend in a post last week. “I haven’t heard much talk about this among progressive Catholics,” she wrote. “Maybe our hearts are too broken.”
Since the story first came to light, three of Haas’ victims have come forward, telling Soli Salgado for NCR about the ways they were groomed, forcibly kissed and relentlessly pursued by the lionized composer of well-known post-Vatican II hymns.
The news stunned the progressive Catholic world, whose liturgical soundtrack is filled with Haas’ tracks. His lyrics, so imbued with calls for love, justice and inclusion, earned him a place in the canon of luminaries of the Catholic reform movement.
Not surprisingly, the knee-jerk reaction has been to “cancel” Haas: remove his music from hymnals and stop playing his compositions at worship services. While those actions may be justifiable, my hope is that, rather than rush to eradicate him and move past yet another sad and ugly episode of “fallen Catholic hero,” we do not miss the opportunity to have a crucial conversation about what his alleged abuse reveals.
Since Pope Francis started to get serious about clergy sexual abuse about two years ago, many well-intentioned theologians, commentators and even some church leaders (including the pope himself) have pointed to clericalism as the root of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church. But the Haas story demonstrates that there is something even more systemic and more destructive at work in the patterns of abuse in the church.
The Haas revelations are eerily reminiscent of reports in February of this year that Jean Vanier, the venerated founder of the L’Arche community, had his own sordid history of abusing adult women. In my response to that story, I wrote:
In nearly every case of sexual abuse we have heard about in the church over the years — whether the situation is priests abusing children, or bishops raping nuns, or ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sexually coercing seminarians, or … Vanier sexually assaulting adult women — there is one common denominator: the patriarchal belief that a special class of spiritual men are entitled to use women, children and other vulnerable men for their sexual gratification.
Though Vanier’s patterns of abuse were more cultic and ritualistic than what Haas’ victims have described so far, what they share in common is that they were both laymen celebrated for their spiritual leadership. And, as such, they benefitted greatly from the church’s patriarchal structure.
But to really grasp how a situation like Vanier’s or Haas’ is possible, we have to go deeper and examine the theological underpinnings of this system of male superiority. We have to look at the church’s doctrine of gender complementarity: the belief that though men and women are equal in dignity, they have complementary roles in the church and the family. In this scheme, God designed men to lead and take initiative, and God created women to receive and submit to men.
These distinct roles entrench and sanctify gender inequality, and gender inequality is the root of all violence against women. This inequality is even more troubling in religious contexts because of the insistence that God is the author of a hierarchical theology in which women and children should be completely under the control of men.
This doctrine, of course, keeps religious power in the hands of men, who then support one another and cover for each other. And that creates a culture of devaluation and distrust of women — one in which men, particularly male clergy, treat women as disposable and their stories unworthy of belief. Rather than listen to abused women, men silence them or blame them for leading men into temptation.
Those are the conditions that made it possible for the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis to allow Haas to create a music camp for teenagers when they knew of at least one claim against him from 1987.
“My understanding is that it is an open secret in the church community — I just perhaps was never privy to that,” one victim told NCR about whispers around Haas. “But multiple people have said, we always suspected, we heard rumors, he had that reputation — something of that nature.”
Part of the doubt cast on Haas’ victims is rooted in our theological tradition that trains us to not believe adult women (or children, or adult males who were assaulted as children). But complementarity feeds another source of doubt about women victims, namely the Catholic penchant for male hero worship.
Haas seemed particularly adept at cultivating a sense of stature. As NCR reported, he gave his Music Ministry Alive program “the aura of prestige” and groomed students to desire his attention. One victim told NCR that her classmates hoped he would look at them when he sang his famous hymn “You Are Mine.”
All of our lives, Catholics have been fed the notion only men are worthy to be priests because God only wants men to be leaders. Regardless of how progressive some Catholics try to be, time and again, we find ourselves falling into and feeding the belief that men are singular and exceptional. Haas, it seems, not only knew this, he exploited it.
If there is any benefit to the revelations about Haas and Vanier, perhaps it will open up a conversation about the abuse of adult women by priests and other men in spiritual power. Though some church leaders, including Francis, regularly denounce violence against women, the reality is the church doctrine of gender inequality enables sexual violence against women.
The stories of Vanier and Haas show us that “clericalism” cannot be the rallying cry for what needs to change for our church to stop sexual abuse and its cover up. What needs to change is the institutional church’s consecration and elevation of male power. The hierarchy can create as many training programs, policies and procedures as they like, but until they address male dominance as the underlying cause of sexual abuse, the crisis has little hope of stopping.[Jamie L. Manson is an award-winning columnist at the National Catholic Reporter. Follow her on Twitter: @jamielmanson.]