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Courage needed for complex, painful cure

The Catholic family is hurting as never before. It is facing two crises: the sex abuse scandal and a leadership meltdown.

Catholics everywhere are looking for accountability. Accountability is essential. People want answers. They are also looking for leadership. Instinctively, Catholics know the unprecedented problems facing their church go beyond sex abuse of children. The problems involve a host of organizational, cultural and sexual issues intricately related to church governance.

Dealing with the more public symptoms of the disease that has so damaged the church will require deliberate and quick steps to quell the immediate scandal and restore some order. Catholic patience and fidelity have been tested to the limit. Dramatic action is necessary if the church is to rescue, in the short term, what little credibility it has left.

The cure for the long haul, however, will be more complex and painful. If the church is to get to the roots of the disease and move toward real health and healing, church leaders will have to invite the examination of the clerical life and culture, an examination it has steadfastly resisted for years. The leadership of the church has to recognize that fixing this problem requires more than another plan or set of guidelines for dealing with sex abusers.

The Vatican’s perception that this is merely a problem of the United States or English-speaking cultures is incorrect. The bishops should place this problem in the broadest possible context. It is a problem resulting from historical and other forces that have helped to fashion a culture of secrecy, privilege, power and exclusion. This culture, wrapped in the aura of church tradition and official teaching, is now in danger of collapsing under the rot of its own corruption.

In the short term, the steps to be taken ought to meet the persistent demands that victims -- and this publication -- have been making for nearly two decades, as well as the demands that grow from the immediate scandal in Boston:

  • Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston must step down.

Vatican insistence that he remain demonstrates how out of touch church leaders are with the extent of damage already done by this scandal and the serious erosion that has occurred to Law’s authority. Documents released so far show a prelate who transferred dangerous priests from one assignment to another and whose lieutenants provided to another diocese a clean bill of health for a priest known to have been an abuser. Much of it was done well after any American bishop paying attention should have known that transferring abusers was a dangerous practice.

It will be impossible for Law to play any significant role in remedying the scandal.

Some may see it as unfair to single out Law, but he stands now as a symbol for much of the U.S. church -- mired in scandal, paralyzed as a leader, unable to function as a moral force in the wider culture.

His staying creates the impression that the church is still trying to stonewall and return to business as usual. Law is not the one to step in to deal with the crisis and bring order to the now wild swings of the scandal. Allegations are flowing in at a rate that makes it impossible to judge their merits. At the same time, priests once hidden are now being thrown to legal authorities without regard to any due process or systematic review within the church. The church in a matter of weeks has gone from cover-up to purge. It is a mess that is spinning out of control and at its epicenter is Law, who will find it increasingly difficult to discharge even the basic duties of his office.

  • Bishops in all dioceses should open all the files and invite prosecutors in to decide what allegations are substantiated or what cases are without merit or too old to pursue.
  • Dioceses should rethink legal strategies and publicly renounce tactics that attacked victims, required gag orders or engaged in countersuing victims. In some cases, dioceses might consider hiring new legal counsel committed to new ways of handling charges against priests.
  • The church should start sex abuse awareness and prevention programs in every school and hold “Abuse Prevention Sunday” in every parish. Sermons would focus on the need to talk with children regarding abuse and about the need for adults to always report suspected abuse to police.
  • Bishops should meet with the victims. Hear their stories. Apologize in person -- and leave off the part about it was only a few priests. The scandal is not as pervasive as the worst fears of some Catholics, but it is hardly as inconsequential as a few bad priests. The apology should be to the person present and it should be about his or her experience. How many priests is irrelevant. One is too many. More than a thousand priests abusing thousands of children constitutes, indeed, a deep scandal.
  • Decision-making processes and bodies should include laypeople, men and women, single and married. The bishops may not be able to change the rules of ordination without more serious deliberation but they can more quickly open up to laypeople processes for selecting bishops and making clerical appointments within their own dioceses. They should take advantage of the moment to insist, if Rome resists, that regaining any standing with ordinary Catholics will require setting up transparent operations that involve laity in meaningful ways in the governance of dioceses and parishes. It is hard to imagine that a mother or father sitting on a committee reviewing child abuse charges against a priest would act first to protect the institution or the accused priest. The outbreak of the scandal in Boston has radically altered the ecclesiastical landscape. Laypeople no longer will tolerate being excluded.

In the longer view, the task is more difficult and requires Catholic bishops to confront the deep denial that has allowed this problem to fester for so long.

Whatever the pope and the cardinals talk about in Rome, it must first be acknowledged that those who have so badly handled this crisis are, for the most part, this pope’s appointees. It is unfair to paint all bishops with the same brush, but it is not unreasonable to say that a strong-willed pope such as John Paul II, over the span of a 23-year reign, will get what he wants. What he wanted and got were bishops who would not question authority and would raise no questions about the rules governing ordination or about sexual matters such as birth control or homosexuality. The result, so glaringly evident in this time of crisis, is a group of men who don’t know how to act or lead in the absence of orders from Rome.

Part of the legacy of this papacy will be the generally lackluster quality of bishops installed around the world. The point is perhaps best dramatized by what they spent their time on. In the United States, while this scandal was bubbling just beneath the surface, our bishops spent endless hours over many years making sure that no unnecessary feminine pronoun tainted our prayers at Mass. They spent many more hours making sure they had the machinery to come down on any theologian who might ask an unsanctioned question. They engaged in exercises to prove their loyalty to Rome while sapping the national conference of its vitality and strength.

They have staked out a revisionist agenda, following the rules, and the whims of the Roman curia, as if they were revealed truth. In the doing, many have alienated themselves from their priests, their people and the wider culture. They have, in many ways, followed an agenda into irrelevance.

Under pressure of the scandal, some bishops are using such words as transparency and accountability. But the way they have conducted business in the past is a universe away from those concepts. At this time, they have no means for crossing that universe. And it will remain impossible to cross that distance without help from the outside.

The bishops should call upon psychologists, psychiatrists, criminologists and others who deal in human and institutional behavior and ask these experts, clergy and lay alike, to study the priesthood in the United States and to report their findings to the wider community. Such a move would mean that bishops would have to surrender considerable control to allow an alien process. But the results could make an enormous contribution to the future health of the church by presenting a model for addressing similar problems worldwide.

Agreeing to a study of this nature would be a first giant step back to credibility. It would require courage. It would mean a standoff with some of the central themes of this 23-year papacy.

Finally, the crisis raises serious questions related to a wide range of church pronouncements on sexual issues. Some may consider that raising those issues in the context of this scandal is exploiting a tragic situation to advance an unrelated agenda. The teachings on sexuality, however, are deeply entwined in the strands of history that led to the creation of the clergy structure governing the church today.

The church’s teachings on sexuality, in fact, date back to the early church fathers and not to Jesus, who said little or nothing about sex. The teachings can be traced to the Greeks, among them the Stoics, who taught that the flesh and pleasure were evil. It was from the Greeks that Western Civilization, the Roman Catholic church included, developed dualistic thought, separating the good soul and the evil flesh. For centuries, the church fathers barely tolerated sexual intercourse and only because it was required to continue the species. In this climate, celibacy became an ideal, an escape from evil. It was seen as the preferred path to holiness. The married life was a lower path. These unbalanced teachings linger in the church. They have led to an unhealthy separation of clergy from laity, especially women, viewed for centuries as lesser beings.

Restoring health to the clergy and to the wider church will require reopening church-wide discussions on human sexuality. Such discussions will challenge the church’s current hierarchical authority structures; they will not come soon or without considerable self-reflection by those who currently make up the church’s leadership. But such discussions must occur if the church is to regain its bearings and its credibility.

The issues that have surfaced as a result of the scandal are many and complex. Restored health can only follow discernment and years of recovery. The tasks are daunting. There is no other choice, however, but to face the future, laity and clergy together, openly and honestly and faithfully. The sacramental church we love and support is at stake.

National Catholic Reporter, April 26, 2002