e-mail us

Church in Crisis

As Peter said: ‘Repent, be baptized’

The following was an Easter homily delivered by Fr. Bob Oldershaw, pastor of St. Nicholas Church in Evanston, Ill.

I want to speak with you today about clerical sexual misconduct with minors. The constant flood of reports about the church, priests and bishops tells us of sin, failure, betrayal of trust, a reckless ineptitude and a disregard for truth and justice.

How can we not be affected? How can we not be absorbed in powerful anger, grief and sadness? How can we not be “cut to the heart” by this profoundly troubling scandal, like the people in Jerusalem blistered by Peter’s preaching? Can our question be any different than theirs? What must we do?

First, we must look at the wounded body of Christ of which we are all members, the Christ who “himself bore our sins in his body on the cross so that, free from sins, we might live for righteousness.” This body is wounded by sin and evil.

When we look at clerical sexual abuse we are looking into the jaws of sin and evil. There is the broken trust of priests and bishops with individual victims. There are the attempts of some bishops to cover up their crimes in order to protect their image instead of addressing the reality of evil in their midst. There is the sin of reassigning abusive priests to other parishes where they could again violate children. This sin, whether it happened 10 months ago or 30 years ago, whether it is the abuse itself or the attempt to deny, avoid or camouflage it, is fundamentally about the use and misuse of power.

This was understood in a letter I received this week from a parish member. She wrote: “Most, if not all the problems surrounding clerical misconduct both with children and women religious, stem from related systemic aspects of the church -- an abuse of power and the complicity of the all-male priesthood in protecting and serving that power.” These are harsh words but we need to hear them.

This abuse of power is not only a sin. It is a crime. The abuse itself that has physically, psychologically and spiritually damaged hundreds, perhaps thousands, of children and their families, and the failure on the part of church leadership to report credible allegations to public authorities is criminal. No one is above the law, especially when it comes to the protection of children. Being beyond the statute of limitations or where reporting is not mandated makes it no less criminal.

It is a psychological aberration in most instances. Most abusers are in the grip of a crippling, compulsive disorder that is marked by denial and self-delusion. Current research indicates that pedophilia, the sexual abuse of prepubescent children, is treatable but not curable. Ephebophilia, the attraction to adolescents, appears to be both treatable and curable. This was not clearly understood 20 years ago. It may not be fully understood even today. But in no case should a person who has been so-called “cured” be in a situation with either prepubescent or adolescent children. None of this exonerates either the abuser or the church. Over the years, young people have been hurt and scarred forever. The denial and self-delusion not only marked the abuser but branded the church’s leadership.

The most common abusers

Clerical misconduct with minors is not restricted to Catholic priests. It is a subset of a much larger and pervasive problem of child victimization found in every religious community, in every profession and mostly in the family. The Christian Science Monitor reports that most congregations hit by sexual abuse are Protestant, and abusers are church volunteers. Psychologists tell us that the profile of a pedophile is a white, middle-aged, married male. This would challenge assumptions that sexual abuse of minors is necessarily related to either celibacy or homosexuality. None of this data mitigates the terrible evil and often irreparable damage done by priest abusers who, held to a high standard, violated a sacred trust bestowed on them through ordination.

It has been suggested that this has been blown out of proportion by the media who have given the impression that a large number of priests have been preying on minors. The scandal may be misunderstood at times, but that does not mean it is overblown. One priest abuser is one too many. And, as the CEO of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights said last week: “It is a lie to say that the media created the problem. We created the problem. It is not Catholic bashing to report on it.”

What must we do? Peter responded: “Repent and be baptized.” Our church has a responsibility to reach out to victims who have experienced tremendous pain and hurt and to their families whose lives have been affected by sexual abuse of their child. We need to comply with and exceed the law in order to protect the innocent. Models like that established by Cardinal Joseph Bernardin more than 10 years ago, with a lay-dominated committee, including a victim or victim’s relative, a non-clerical gatekeeper and a well-publicized hotline must become standard and mandatory across the country. And they need to be reviewed periodically to see if they are working.

There must be honest dialogue, efforts to heal, forgive and support and an urgent quest for whatever can be restorative for victims, perpetrators and the community at large.

What must we do? We bishops, we priests? Repent and be baptized. Our bishops need to repent and be baptized, to be plunged into the pain and suffering of their people. They must be willing to listen humbly to their people’s complaints and opinions. Transparency and accountability must replace the closed, secretive and authoritarian modes that have helped to cover up the abuse for so long. We need to open the windows of the church as Pope John XXIII did 40 years ago. It is also time to stop saying that certain topics are off limits for discussion in the church. As much as we need closed files to be opened, so too we need closed topics to be opened -- women’s ordination, married priests, celibacy, authority, discipline and equality. Loyalty has always been upward. It’s time to change the direction.

Acquiescence in the culture

We priests, too, bear responsibility for our acquiescence in the Catholic clerical culture that has impeded efforts to detect and remove priest molesters. We need to join the bishops in apologizing to victims and their families, to you, and to the whole community. But apologies, however heartfelt, are not enough. We need to repent and atone for the sins of our brothers.

As your pastor, I stand before this community on the eve of my 40th anniversary as a priest, and I apologize with all my heart and strength for the sins of my brother priests and bishops. I pledge to do whatever is necessary to heal the wounded body of Christ.

What must we do? What must you do, you, the laity of the church? Vatican II in the “Constitution on the Church,” says: “The laity have the right to receive from their pastors the spiritual goods of the church. By reason of their knowledge and competence, they are sometimes obliged to express their opinion on things which concern the good of the church.”

You are the best-educated and most fully engaged Catholic laity in the church’s history. Spend your baptism. Hold your bishops and priests accountable. You have a right to comprehensive reports on how your contributions are being used to further the mission of the church. You have a right to be informed about priests who have credible allegations brought against them for various kinds of misbehavior, not only sexual transgressions. You have a right to see more laywomen and laymen in church leadership roles.

What must we do -- all of us? Repent and be baptized! The body of Christ is wounded. It has borne many wounds throughout the past two millennia. What must we, what can we do together to heal those wounds? The gospel speaks of Jesus as Shepherd, Jesus as Gatekeeper. In Israel, the shepherd often was the gate for the sheep. He lay down in the entrance of the enclosure at night so a wolf or other marauder would have to pass over his body to get at the sheep. Ultimately we are all both shepherd and gatekeeper. You, the laity of the church, we the priests and bishops, are all shepherds who must keep the gate and protect the vulnerable from marauders. And the vulnerable can be people of the Middle East or those of the Midwest, our children, our girls and boys.

Good touch, bad touch

I want to speak for a moment to you girls and boys -- the children of our community. We have been talking about you and our concerns for you. You are our treasure, our most cherished gift, which we hold in trust together. You are our future, the future leaders of our church. We want you to be safe, secure and happy. What must you do? Yes, there is something for you to do, too. In school you have learned about “good touch and bad touch.” Pay attention to that. If you ever feel uncomfortable because of someone’s bad touch, tell your mom or dad or someone dear to you. Never hesitate, never be afraid!

Sisters and brothers, as members of this wounded body of Christ, we all need to atone for the sins of the church and beg forgiveness of the victims and of God. Plunged into the paschal mystery of the dying and rising of Christ, with sins forgiven, gifted with the Holy Spirit, we hold a promise -- a sacred promise -- for ourselves, for our children, and for those who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls. Always, always remember, never forget: “Christ who himself bore our sins in his body on the cross, so that free from sins, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds we have been healed.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 24, 2002