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Church in Crisis

Tragedy may unlock brakes on reform


Doc Scullen, the pastor of Holy Name Church, was bigger than life. Knowing each parishioner by name, he exuded all the charisma and charm of movie priests Bing Crosby and Barry Fitzgerald. Although I was just a boy when the great man died, it was clear from my parents and others that no one was more respected and trusted in the old Newburg section of Cleveland than this wise priest.

I discovered after my own ordination to the priesthood that I stood on the shoulders of men like Doc Scullen. They were the pastors that earned the respect and trust that we young priests were humbled to see extended to us before we had earned it in the least.

I wonder these days about the legacy we priests are leaving to those who come after us. We have our own Doc Scullens in our midst, but I fear there are far too few of them--and far too many priests who have done more harm than good.

We priests have such a great opportunity to do good. And clearly, most of us do. But a relatively small though significant percentage of us have succeeded in undermining the trust and respect we inherited from the priests that went before us. And it pains us terribly. We see now that while we have opportunities to do good, we also have unprecedented opportunities to do harm, even grave harm. As one young priest put it, “Now I am a priest, with a boundless capacity for thwarting good and for turning wine into water.”

We priests are now watching in silence and sadness the watering down of the priesthood, at least the watering down of the trust and respect we once enjoyed. And we wonder how in God’s name we will ever regain it, how we will ever earn it.

I suspect many of us, lay folks and priests alike, believe that good will eventually surface from the present clergy abuse scandal that is rocking our church from coast to coast. But the scope of the present crisis has us unnerved. We sense that this round of abuse stories is different -- that the face of the priesthood is being profoundly changed.

But it will only change for the better if church leaders make the pastoral care and healing of the victims of clergy abuse their primary concern. That will require a new openness on the part of the institutional church, almost a kind of conversion. It is clearly time for significant changes in institutional policy.

The laity, I suspect, will no longer tolerate being treated like children. They expect and deserve comprehensive reports from church officials on how their contributions are being used to further the mission of the church. They need and deserve to be informed about priests who have had credible allegations brought against them for various kinds of misbehavior, not only sexual transgressions. And they need and deserve to see more lay women and men in church leadership roles.

Maybe it takes the likes of our present tragedy to unlock the brakes put on church reform. We see now, even as many parishes flourish as vital centers of community and worship, that the priesthood is in trouble. A first step would be to simply admit it. And then to start listening -- to priests and laity alike.

As I write this, Holy Thursday is but a week away. It would honor our sacramental tradition and itself be a moment of healing to see bishops washing the feet of their brothers and sisters wounded by the assaults of clergy abuse. Doc Scullen, I’m sure, would approve.

Fr. Donald Cozzens is a resident scholar at The Institute for Ecumenical and Cultural Research, St. John’s University, Collegeville, Minn. He is the author of The Changing Face of the Priesthood (Liturgical Press, 2000).

National Catholic Reporter, April 5, 2002