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We can repair the sanctuary

The Catholic church is, among many things, a refuge for the troubled soul, a place of comfort and security from which good people reach out to help others. When that sense of sanctuary is ripped away, when the place that is supposed to protect becomes a place of danger, the sense of betrayal can be overwhelming.

The turmoil of the betrayed is certainly evident in the rush of responses that has followed in the wake of the reports of nuns being sexually abused by priests. Some have expressed indignation that anyone would publicize such a scandal. Because the reports concentrated on conditions in the African church, some accuse those who compiled the reports and this paper of being anti-African and of buying into stereotypes and old ugly prejudices.

Still others, victims among them, have written expressing gratitude and relief that the story finally became public (NCR, March 16 and 30, April 6 and 13).

The anger is understandable in light of the world’s general neglect of Africa, except in times of crisis or scandal, a neglect in which we are all complicit.

We have heard from some women religious and priests in their home countries who encourage more reporting but are fearful of reprisals; others are dealing with the effects of abuse and are not ready to go public.

Though we don’t hope to convince in a few words those upset at the publication of the reports or skeptical of our motivation, our primary concern is to shed light on a condition that has been reported on and documented by loyal church workers. The reports were compiled by persons closely connected to the situation. The nuns and priest who sounded the alarm among leadership councils and theologians did so with no intent to harm or shame. They had nothing to gain from reporting on the abuse they saw. They felt compelled to do so. They did not seek publicity for their efforts. Indeed,many are angry that their reports, intended to remain confidential, have become public.

Yet as reports of abuse in the United States and Europe have shown, such incidents don’t get dealt with in any substantive way until the wider community is notified. As long as the circumstances remain hidden, the abuse goes on, the number of victims grows, and the abusers are shuffled from assignment to assignment. They might never receive help or be held accountable.

We know that it is impossible to do this kind of story without causing hurt to honorable men and women. We know that many priests feel assaulted by the reports of the scandal and that African priests, particularly, feel hurt and stigmatized.

We fully understand the heroics needed to be Catholic publicly in many parts of Africa and other parts of the world. Priests, nuns, laypeople are laying their lives on the line.

If the experience in the United States is any indicator, however, the perception that most priests are guilty eventually gives way to the realization that, while an ugly problem must be faced, by far the majority of priests live dedicated and holy lives.

In the aftermath of the reports of sexual abuse of nuns by priests, difficult questions remain: What do we do? To whom do we look for answers? Where is the path to healing?

Sexual abuse by clergy -- whether it be in the United States involving mostly children or in other countries where nuns are victims -- is symptomatic of deeper problems that need to be addressed. It is essential that in some way open discussion and honest talk begin about the intersection of power, sexuality and secrecy in the church.

As a story in the last issue pointed out, some have already made recommendations having to do with formation and education of men and women religious.

Another essential element in any serious attempt to deal with the problem of sexual abuse is accountability. It is significant and laudable that the Vatican confirmed the reports of abuse. What is necessary now is some mechanism for ascertaining the dimensions of the problems and for letting the religious communities and the church at large know that the issues are being discussed. It is clear from the reports that while Africa was highlighted because those who compiled the information were most familiar with the circumstances on that continent, other places are also mentioned. The Vatican presumably knows where else such abuse has occurred. The church should be informed of the extent of the problem and what is being done to deal with it.

The very reason that the abuse can seem so horrible -- that it occurred among men and women leaders in this community that calls itself the people of God -- is the reason for persisting in hope.

If the wider world knows our scandals, it can also know the extent of our forgiveness and healing. It can know the comfort of our prayers. We can repair the sanctuary, but it will require boldness and candor.

National Catholic Reporter, April 20, 2001