Scandals cure lies in tackling deeper issues
We are passing through another dark moment of modern American Catholic history -- the sexual abuse scandals. The secular media has fastened its teeth into the issue and escalated it into a national discussion. Those stories concentrate essentially on the surface issues of sexual crime and legal punishment.
In the face of this media onslaught, apologies notwithstanding, the U.S. Catholic bishops as leaders and as a group appear frozen, immobile, devoid of insights into actions that might restore a rapidly eroding trust and credibility -- and salvage the churchs soul.
It did not have to be this way. The warning signs have been there for years. The bishops have had almost two decades to take steps to reach out to families and individuals who complained and to sequester or oust abuser priests.
This publication, for example, wrote its first story on the pedophilia phenomenon in 1983. Nearly 17 years ago, on June 7, 1985, with priest sex abuse cases taken up in the legal system across the nation and as we witnessed unsettling patterns of cover-up and denial by church officials, we wrote the following on NCRs front page:
Victims were coming forward to us with their pain. We were not the only ones speaking out. But we were a Catholic voice with a national platform. Despite sustained protests that bringing these cases to light was causing great scandal, NCR continued to report the sex abuse cases. As we saw it then and see it now, the cause of the scandal was not the reporting; it was the failure of the church leadership to respond to the gravity of the charges and their patterns of denial so evident then, so evident today.
In our Jan. 8, 1988, issue we pleaded again for the bishops to act:
By the early 1990s, victims groups were organizing -- and disaffection was spreading. The U.S. bishops were talking about guidelines for responses, but policy statements continued to be viewed as out of line. Settlements continue to be made with huge sums threatening bankruptcies in dioceses. And still the church leadership was incapable of tackling the spreading scandal.
In our Nov. 13, 1992, issue we reported the following grave threat.
And still church leaders seemed to operate in denial.
Again, on Aug. 15, 1997, reflecting a wider exasperation among the laity, we wrote:
Today U.S. bishops seem to have gotten part of the message -- in the short run. Victims of clerical sex abuse -- whatever the form -- now become the central concern and responses to them apparently are more characterized by Christian compassion than by the previous institutional obfuscation. No tolerance policies for pedophilia acts are being forced upon the bishops as a national standard.
The needs are many and mounting. Certainly outside experts need to be called in to work with church leaders, to study the sex abuse problem and the priesthood. To illustrate that the work is being done, the bishops must pledge themselves to share publicly the results of those studies and to implement suggested changes.
To deal with more than the symptoms of the crisis, however, the bishops will have to confront two issues, inextricably bound up in the current scandal, that they have been reluctant or afraid to face: ordination and sexual morality. The first calls for a broad reevaluation of Catholic teaching on who may be ordained. NCR has received dozens and dozens of letters on these topics. One mother and grandmother, who has a masters degree and a doctorate in human development, and a masters in family therapy, wrote of her son who felt he had a vocation to the priesthood but not a vocation to celibacy. He was somewhat put off by an openly gay priest and concerned about working with homosexual priests all along the way. In our discussions, it was also clear that marriage was not something he wanted to forego. It was the celibacy issue, and he realized he could not live the rest of his life without a life partner. He now has a great wife and three wonderful children and is planning to leave teaching and go into a Methodist seminary, and his wife is his staunch and loving support. It grieves me that everyone dances around the celibacy issue, claiming that its got nothing to do with anything problematic in our church. Doesnt take a Ph.D. to figure that out.
Shes correct, of course. It doesnt take a Ph.D., and celibacy is a main issue in ordination. This preoccupation with celibacy is an indicator, too, that the Catholic teaching on sexual morality is too frequently held hostage by teachers whose own sexual identity is based on a partial and unfulfilled understanding of what sexual intimacy actually is and actually means in life.
The needs of the Catholic people for the Eucharist in an increasingly priest-short church requires a new approach to ordination. The needs of the Catholic people for an enlightened, grown-up, mature approach to sexuality, based on the lived experience of the faithful, requires a fresh approach to the teaching.
To tackle both may take a church council. If that council ever materializes, there should be as many married and single laypeople present as there are bishops. Otherwise, the seeds of the weeds that have produced this present bramble-filled thicket will flourish to ensnare the church for another half century or more.
National Catholic Reporter, March 22, 2002