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Scandal’s 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 church’s 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 NCR’s front page:

In cases throughout the nation, the Catholic church is facing scandals and being forced to pay millions of dollars in claims to families whose sons have been molested by Catholic priests.

These are serious and damaging matters that have victimized the young and innocent and fuel old suspicions against the Catholic church and a celibate clergy. But a related and broader scandal seemingly rests with local bishops and a national episcopal leadership that has, as yet, no set policy on how to respond to these cases.

All too often complaints against the priest involved are disregarded by the bishops or the priest is given the benefit of the doubt.

Frequently, local bishops exhibit little concern for the traumatic effects these molestations have on the boys and their families -- even though mental disturbances and, in one recent case, suicide, have followed such molestations.

Only legal threats and lawsuits seem capable of provoking some local bishops into taking firm actions against the priests. In some cases the priests, once identified for their offenses, have been moved to other parishes and again placed in positions of responsibility.

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:

Three years ago, we took notice of a relatively new phenomenon in society: growing numbers of aggrieved and frustrated parents who were going to court with charges their children had been sexually abused by Catholic priests. Looking into the matter, we learned of several dozen cases nationwide. As unsettling as these cases were, within them we often found something even more disturbing, a pattern of institutional cover-up. We found bishops far more focused on protecting the image of their diocese than on aiding the pedophilia victims. We found bishops who failed to remove known molesters from active church ministry and, instead, transferred them to locations where they continued their ways.

Again, we call upon the U.S. bishops to seize the initiative on this grave issue.

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.

A potentially crippling rift is growing between U.S. lay Catholics and their clergy, and the issues involve sex and authority in the church. If they are not acknowledged and examined, further divisions can only grow.

At one level, the issue causing much of the strain is human sexuality and increasingly divergent views concerning what constitutes a healthy Catholic sexual morality. At another level, the issue is more about power and who gets to define morality. These issues have become so tightly wrapped together that they have virtually merged into one. The result is tearing at the foundations of the church.

And still church leaders seemed to operate in denial.

Again, on Aug. 15, 1997, reflecting a wider exasperation among the laity, we wrote:

Twelve years have passed since NCR revealed to the wider world that some Catholic priests were betraying their priesthood in the most heinous way, by sexually abusing children.

One might reasonably expect that by now the scandal would have been subdued, that church leaders would have done everything necessary to rekindle the trust of the everyday Catholic and to reclaim the church and the priesthood for the pursuit of holiness.

Instead, we have had 12 years of bishops and others, with a few notable exceptions, doing what was minimally required, too often driven by legal and financial imperatives rather than by justifiable outrage at the violation of innocence and by heartfelt pastoral care for the victims.

Those among the hierarchy who are so ready to chase out loyal laity, who gasp in horror at the prospect of altar girls and lay eucharistic ministers, who sniggle endlessly over inclusive language and who assert their authority by requiring congregations to kneel during the consecration, ought to be spending their time chasing down the real assaults against the body of Christ.

It is long past time to abandon the silly and lame approaches used by the nation’s hierarchy in addressing this awful issue. The church is long ago discredited in its reasoning that the scandal involves but “a few bad apples.” It is time for church leaders to act as leaders and to stop hiding behind lawyers and further abusing good people who have already been victimized.

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 master’s degree and a doctorate in human development, and a master’s 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 it’s got nothing to do with anything problematic in our church. Doesn’t take a Ph.D. to figure that out.”

She’s correct, of course. It doesn’t 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