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Men in Robes

 Or, “Exactly what were you expecting?”

The Catholic Church is self-destructing nicely, thank you. The Pope and his partners in clerical clumsiness are flailing about as the charges pile up. More and more nations and U.S. states are initiating investigations into church malfeasance on the issue of sexual abuse. It turns out that an alarming percentage of the priesthood has been either sexually assaulting children or covering up for those pedophiles.

To which I say, “Exactly what were you expecting?” The Catholic Church has celibate clergy, a priest shortage that makes each robed individual vital, a history of insularity, second class status for women, and a doctrine of papal infallibility that sheds its aura on every priest. The thing that both emerges from these factors and binds them together is the idea that the robe never really comes off. The priest is anointed, special, separate, and above. A priest has personal authority and an embodied sanctity. A brief review of history will remind us that human beings generally don’t behave well when handed this kind of social power.

This was driven home to me again when I read about the head of the Shambhala organization, a Tibetan Buddhist group with 165 centers around the world. Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche has stepped away from his leadership position after a number of allegations surfaced about his sexual misbehavior. These ranged from infidelity to rape.

Sakyong, by the way, is a word akin to “king.” Mipham inherited the leadership of the group from his father, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, who founded the organization. Mipham’s photograph is still displayed in a place of honor in the various centers. (A friend familiar with Shambhala’s history opined that Chogyam “would have been MeTooed if it had been around back then.”)

When I first visited a Shambhala center, Karme Choling in Barnet Vermont, I was intrigued by two doors on the front of the main building. One was a normal exterior door. About 20 feet to the right of it was a highly decorated door. It had bright paint and complicated trim work. There was a note on it. The note said that the fancy door was only for the use of the Sakyong. (I was telling a friend of mine about this recently and we both simultaneously exclaimed, “Fuck THAT!”) So here was a beautiful, perfectly good door left unused 99.99999% of the time, waiting for the appearance of the king.

Exactly what were they expecting? It is completely unsurprising to me that he was a sexual predator. I look at the door as a symbol from two angles. One, what would deference like this do to someone’s personality? Two, what psychologically normal man would accept the idea of his own personal fancy door? If I was leading some organization and people offered me my own personal door that is never used in my absence I’d find it preposterous and embarrassing. Most people would.

Beyond these examples, what I see is that the more charismatic the preacher, the more that the church gains its identity from an individual, the greater the incidence of crime, both sexual and financial. The evangelical movement and the mega-churches with their mega-pastors have been in the news as well.

I am so sick of men in robes. Put a robe and a funny hat on a guy and people line up to bow down. The stories I have heard about priests, pastors, masters, gurus, senseis, and shamans abusing their power have filled me with a natural suspicion of men in robes.

Now we are watching the spectacle of Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court hearings. He was a clerk for Judge Alex Kozinski, who resigned after allegations surfaced that he had spent his career sexually harassing female employees. Judge Kozinski served on the federal bench in the 9th Circuit and was a reliable conduit for clerkships with the Supreme Court. His approval could mean a huge boost to a young lawyer’s career. His personal approval. Kavanaugh himself has acted as a “feeder” of clerks to the recently retired Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy. A couple of Yale professors were known to have advised female law school grads that Kavanaugh preferred a particular “model” look.

In contrast to the gurus, there is my own father. He was a judge for a couple of decades. He spent his workday wearing a robe. While he wore it, people were deferential. They stood up when he entered the courtroom and spoke to him in respectful tones. Here’s the important part, though; at the end of the day he took the robe off, hung it in a closet, and returned to being a regular guy. He was a husband, a father, a friend, just like all the other men in the neighborhood.

His power at work was significant. He changed the course of people’s lives. Even so, he worked within a body of laws. These laws were not in his power to change. The ordinary people within his jurisdiction, through their legislators, had the power to change the rules that guided and restrained his actions. For that matter, a clerkship with him was not the golden ticket to success. His power did not reside within him, personally, and that’s the key.

We hate bureaucracy. We like it when people can cut through the complexity and get things done. Mostly we don’t understand the law. Still, it’s the price we pay for a (moderately) just and (moderately) stable society. A mafia boss would be really convenient to have around, if he’s on your side. Likewise a dictator or any strongman. But, being such, they tend to be on their own side. Complex, pain in the ass laws and agonizingly slow bureaucratic processes stand between us and tyranny.

It is human nature to exalt a spiritual leader. It’s basic psychology. It is necessary and proper, therefore, to build accountability into any religion. Religious leaders need to be accountable to public rules and public scrutiny, and those rules need to be established and changed by the laity. What’s more, humility needs to be built in. Religious leaders should use the ordinary door, sit at the same table, and get in line with everyone else. Otherwise, what exactly do you expect?

(Note to readers: I always like these essays to be spread around. Right click on the title of the post, hit "Copy link location" and paste the link into a Facebook post or a tweet or whatever. I'll be most grateful)

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