e-mail us


Searching for wisdom, new directions

Most apparent in the letters and e-mails that have been pouring in to the paper in recent weeks is a consistent plea for reliable leadership and a new direction for the church.

It is a search for wisdom, which is in short supply in the beleaguered circumstance of the American bishops. We’re feeling the effects of broken promises and betrayed trust of individual bishops and priests, but those incidents fall under a larger umbrella of broken trust -- the assault on the process that had begun at the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s and has been systematically thwarted during the past 20 years.

The disturbing but inevitable question that surfaces for U.S. Catholics today is “Whom can we trust?”

There is no small irony in the fact that Cardinal Roger Mahony, even before a piece he wrote for America magazine hit the newsstands, had to apologize for transferring Michael Baker from parish to parish. In Mahony’s article in America, a Jesuit publication which is, by the way, telling some hard truths these days, Mahony advocates zero tolerance for any priest who abuses a minor. He also recommends a number of admirable goals and structural changes, but the suggestions are in serious danger of being lost now in his own credibility problems.

As we went to press, it was revealed that Milwaukee Archbishop Rembert Weakland, who has articulated changes -- more openness in the church, greater roles for lay people, married clergy -- that we think are ultimately necessary to bring some balance and needed perspectives to the closed-in clergy culture, has been keeping his own secrets.

According to news reports, he had a relationship in the late 1970s with a 30-year-old man who claims he went to Weakland seeking advice about joining the priesthood. The reports state that Weakland and the Milwaukee archdiocese ended up paying the accuser a settlement of $450,000 in 1998. Where is the accountability to the people, the openness that Weakland has advocated? Where did that money come from and who gave approval for payment? That certainly is part of the larger picture of accounting for what has been spent nationwide by bishops to deal with sex abuse by clergy. The people in the Milwaukee archdiocese have a right to demand an accounting. Weakland, too, had a proposal for the Dallas meeting. One can only wonder now what kind of hearing it will receive.

These particulars fold into a larger pattern of hierarchical arrogance, aloofness and privilege. Certainly not all sexual transgressions by priests are the same. There is a difference between abusing children and taking advantage, if that is what happened, of one’s authority in a relationship with a 30-year-old.

But so many secrets are tumbling out of the Catholic clergy culture these days that it is difficult to discern and draw such distinctions. And in the end, the community, though it hardly expects saints for bishops and priests, is left with broken commitments and hush money. The betrayal is occurring in such a flood that the community is left feeling run over and battered.

Where is the wisdom? Where is the path to balance and wholeness again?

The words of Bishop Raymond Lucker (see Page 3) are certainly a guide. So, too, are the words of the commentators who appear regularly in this paper and the voices of lay and religious in other Catholic publications trying to make sense of this.

And there is a central realization spoken by retired Bishop Albert H. Ottenweller, who said recently, “If we had proceeded with the focus of Vatican II we wouldn’t be facing this sex abuse crisis we have today.”

That doesn’t mean that priests and bishops would not have committed the occasional indiscretion. Catholics have understood and forgiven that kind of behavior for centuries.

What he does mean is that the organic balancing of church structures that was being worked out in that reform council was suddenly stunted. And what has resulted are all manner of aberrations. “The people of God ushered in a balance -- sorely needed -- into the working of the church,” he said during an interview with the Catholic Chronicle of the Toledo diocese. “It was radical. It ushered in a whole new way upon which to proceed.”

But change, as Ottenweller said, “is tough. We humans resist it mightily, even when we agree with our minds that change is necessary, our hearts -- our guts -- resist it.” Now circumstances are mandating change, but no one quite knows how to proceed.

Ottenweller is more optimistic than most. Change will happen he said, “because the Holy Spirit is guiding the church in this direction. This current crisis might be a grace to help in this movement.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 31, 2002