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Issue Date:  November 10, 2006

From the Editor's Desk

After the truth, healing will come

When I began covering religion in the early 1980s, I would not have listed as even a remote concern how to cover a sex abuse scandal or the swirl of institutional dynamics that would issue from it.

Nor do I take any pride in realizing, a quarter of a century later, that a distinguishing element of my journalism career will likely be my involvement in covering one of the ugliest and most damaging stories in modern Christian history.

I can’t tell you the number of times I and others in newsrooms in New York when I was there, and later here in Kansas City, have said, out of desperation, “No more sex abuse stories. Let’s get on with other things.” We always knew that we would not adhere to that exasperated order to ourselves. We couldn’t. Because always there was another revelation of abuse, another group of victims who would come forward, another batch of documents showing that this or that bishop had lied, covered up, countersued victims, moved more priests, endangered more kids.

I call it the sex abuse crisis now because that label has become useful shorthand. But it is no longer a sex abuse crisis; long before this, it became a crisis of authority and accountability. And I venture here to say that it has become, at its deepest levels, a crisis that only a sacramental community can understand.

That’s why it won’t go away, no matter how much legal maneuvering is done, no matter how many rules the bishops enacted in their now infamous meeting in Dallas, no matter how much money is poured out, no matter how many prelates rail about how unfair it is that the church has become a special target. It won’t go away inside the Catholic community, nor will the bishops be able to muster much sympathy for their plight, because at bottom it is a sacramental issue. At an essential level the community has been harmed, the very basis of its existence has been deeply compromised -- at first by the sex abuse itself, but more profoundly, as time went on, in the deep betrayal of the community by its leaders.

This is going to be a longer than usual Inside NCR column because I think it is essential to talk about this crisis, where it is today, why we will keep covering it, and what it could mean for us and the church at large in the future.

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I ask pardon for speaking in generalities -- bishops, leaders, victims and such. Exceptions always exist, people in all of those categories who have acted differently from the norm. But there is a norm, and it is, by virtue of the fact that it occurred in a church and is handled or mishandled primarily by leaders of the church, an institutional norm. What has happened is both the result of a certain culture and symptomatic of deep flaws in that culture. The scandal persists not because people hate the church. Quite the contrary, I believe. The scandal persists precisely because people loved the church and believed deeply in the promises of baptism that became as much a part of their lives as breathing.

So, where are we?

Some would have us believe that the crisis is over because most of the reported cases occurred years ago and there are processes in place to deal with new ones. They would be correct, to a point. There are fewer cases being reported and the church in many areas has done a commendable job of putting programs in place to protect children and to deal with those accused of abuse. But that’s only part of the story.

Imagine, just for a moment, that somehow, magically, all the nasty legal business were behind us; that somehow the church had discovered a way to settle all the claims and to satisfy all the victims. Would that put an end to the story? Would we be, once again, whole as a church? Would the moral authority of our leaders be restored?

I don’t think so. The reason I don’t think so is not because I want to see this story dragged on forever or because I don’t like bishops. Doing justice to victims, whether monetarily or otherwise, is the easy part -- it’s the part that the wider culture, outraged by what it has seen, has forced the bishops to do. It’s the part that was initially inspired by a desire to get ahead of the bad publicity curve.

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The tougher part, of course, is the sacramental part -- healing the deep breach of trust within the community between its leaders and its people. What do we know about it? We know that in places such as Boston and Philadelphia and, to a degree, Los Angeles, where the legal system has forced church authorities to hand over the documents that tell the inside story, the story is always more egregious than the leaders ever acknowledged or than most of the people in the pews suspected. What becomes clear is that the evasion of discipline, not to mention the law, and the callous response to abused children was far more deliberate than church authorities would divulge on their own.

What we know is that those kinds of documents exist in many, if not most, dioceses.

The culture from the top down is in denial, deflecting charges and attempting to make the victims invisible.

That’s where we are -- and none of the above is any longer a secret.

~ ~ ~

So, how do we get beyond this?

We must start by telling the truth. The community has a right to know what was done in its name and by whom.

Pope Benedict XVI, in an Oct. 28 address to a group of bishops from Ireland, spoke of clerical sex abuse as “egregious crimes.”

“The wounds caused by such acts run deep,” said Benedict in his first comments about the scandal as pope. While he was speaking to the bishops of Ireland, his advice could apply anywhere: “It is important to establish the truth of what happened in the past,” he said, “to take whatever steps are necessary to prevent it from occurring again, to ensure that the principles of justice are fully respected and, above all, to bring healing to the victims and to all those affected by these egregious crimes.”

It is no accident, one presumes, that at the top of the list -- ahead of prevention or justice or healing, was the need “to establish the truth of what happened.” That is the step that has been lacking inside the U.S. Catholic community.

The truth commissions in South Africa have been heralded as models for achieving reconciliation because they were steeped in a sacramental understanding of what is essential for true forgiveness. In order to come before the commissions, one had to tell the entire truth. One couldn’t blame a superior or the conditions of the times. The expectation was a report to the community on what an individual did. It is probably no coincidence -- considering the nature of the commissions -- that a central architect of the system was Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

The church in the United States can become a similar model for the wider church on this issue. The difference between what has happened in terms of learning the truth of the sex abuse crisis and what must happen for a sacramental healing to occur has to do with a willingness to be frank with the community.

Most of what has been learned by the community to this date has been dragged out of the chancery offices by secular authorities, public pressure and the machinations of civil law.

At the same time, we have had profound examples of bishops finally reaching out to victims. Not long ago, Cardinal Justin Rigali in Philadelphia organized an extremely moving listening session, attended by priests of the archdiocese, where victims and victims’ parents were given uninterrupted time to tell their stories.

Not to diminish the significance of that event, but it clearly occurred because the archdiocese was shamed by a scathing Grand Jury report that detailed horrendous treatment of victims and protection of repeat rapists. Public reaction to the report was strong and persistent.

Many bishops have expressed, correctly, their deep sorrow for what happened to victims.

But what about what happened, and continues to happen, to the sacramental community that is deeply damaged by those events?

If a bishop were to apologize to that community, isn’t it reasonable to ask: For what are you apologizing? What did you do?

I can hear some complaining that we’re never satisfied. I don’t mean to come off that way. But consider, bishops, what you ask of your people; consider what you teach about our sacramental life. If someone who is divorced gets remarried, you prohibit that person from approaching the Communion table. That’s the degree of public accountability you demand from the faithful.

So what kind of accountability is it reasonable to expect in the cases of children’s lives destroyed by our sacramental ministers; in the cases of repeat abusers protected by the leaders of our community?

I don’t know what a truth commission inside the church would look like; no models exist. But our understanding as a community of what is required to achieve forgiveness and reconciliation should provide some clues. While the various studies that have been completed, as well as the upcoming John Jay College study, provide invaluable information on the context of the crisis, its dimensions and some of its causes, those reports supply only part of the truth. What is missing is the narrative, a bishop to his people, about what happened, about who did what. The documents that tell the fuller story, as we have said, are extant, where they haven’t been destroyed. We live in an age in which such things will not remain secret forever. Our leaders are the ones who can determine whether this information will continue to be leaked or forced out by legal processes or whether the bishops will present the unvarnished truth to their people. One way to develop the narrative would be to entrust a committee of competent, professional lay people to cull the material in diocesan files and construct a history of the sex abuse crisis in every diocese involved, accompanied by selected documentation. In the same way the government responds to Freedom of Information Act requests, names and such could be blacked out of church documents to protect individual privacy, where appropriate.

After the truth is out, we can join in prayer for healing and reconciliation. Then it will mean something. And I think the forgiveness and reconciliation will occur in ways unimaginable.

I don’t expect anything of the sort to happen soon. Some, I am sure, think the church can ride this out. New bishops are always being appointed; old ones retiring to obscurity. Time will take care of it all.

I hope it goes differently. We all would rather be getting on with other things. Life-giving areas of our sacramental life suffer greatly because of the energy and time required to deal with this crisis. In the meantime, we’ll continue to pursue the story as we can, because our community has been deeply hurt; because many loose ends remain; because the community deserves to know what was done in its name.

This week we look at the difficult situation in Spokane, Wash., where Catholics are torn, as is the case increasingly, between compassion for victims and concern that settlements will destroy the church.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, November 10, 2006

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