One would need to be living under a metaphorical rock to have not heard about the most recent Catholic priest sex abuse scandal, which is shaking not only the Church in the United States, but has reached all the way to the up the highest levels of the of the Church.
This problem isn’t new, of course.
I was studying theology at Franciscan University of Steubenville—likely the most identifiably ‘Catholic’ school in the country—when Cardinal Bernard Law and the Archdiocese of Boston disgrace hit the front pages of every newspaper in the nation. The recent news, subsequent to the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report is, rather, a further unmasking of the problem going back decades.
What is new, however, is just how widespread the abuse is and how deep the cover-up has been. And beyond the confirmed scandals surrounding Theodore McCarrick there are weighty allegations against Cardinal Donald Wuerl and even Pope Francis.
I was working for a parish in the wake of the Boston revelations in the Archdiocese of Seattle. While Seattle and most other diocese around the country already had protocol for priests and staff members, I can confirm that the situation was taken seriously and new training and protocol was adopted and implemented.
But it isn’t enough.
Most Catholics, let alone the majority of those outside of the Church, don’t really comprehend what the names of Theodore McCarrick, Donald Wuerl, George Pell and others mean within the practicing-Catholic world. But let me confirm that these are/were substantial names—powerful men and ‘princes’ of the Church. And with credible accusations of impotence, if not cover-up, with the pope himself, it is time for the Church and all practicing Catholics to take this issue seriously if they have yet to.
Even now, in the midst of this heightened scandal, I have been generally disappointed with the responses that many bishops and priests have offered.
Just this last weekend, for example, the priest at my parish spent almost ten minutes talking about the scandal, yet never once mentioned or alluded to the victims.
Any response to this situation that gives the slightest impression that the number-one concern isn’t victims or future victims is inadequate and disturbing. The issue isn’t whether Catholics will leave the Church, or whether their faith is shaken in its leadership; the issue isn’t whether high-ranking officials should lose their jobs; the issue isn’t whether doctrinal changes need to occur (because that isn’t possible); the issue isn’t whether priests should be celibate or not, or whether it is an issue of homosexuality. The first, second and ninth concern should be about victims, whether they be children or adults, gay or straight; uncovering any crimes and cover-ups; prosecuting those responsible and, within the church, removing such people from ministry; taking serious strides to prevent this issue from happening again.
All other problems and concerns, while real, take a backseat. Nay, they might be all the way in the trunk if not dangling off the rear end.
As a committed, practicing Catholic I am, by extension, complicit.
The Church is my family and what my family has done has adversely affected the lives of many people. On behalf of my family, then, I apologize. But not only for the scandalous and illegal actions of priests and bishops, but for any remote participation I may have had in silence or apathy.
I do not know what it is going to take to discover, prosecute and weed-out these predators and their enablers. But, any reasonable response is going to start with the following things:
1. All Catholics, whether they are among the laity or the hierarchy of the church, need to listen and have an open mind. We do not have the luxury right now to dismiss the vast majority of grievances or propositions for resolution. Indeed, failure to actively listen and be on the defensive does not lend legitimacy to one’s understanding of the depth and seriousness of the problem. Listen.
2. All diocese in the United States need to be subject to an independent and complete investigation by outside authorities, not unlike the investigation recently completed in Pennsylvania. That wave appears to already be taking form. Good.
3. Beyond that, any investigations within the Church, including those against Pope Francis, need to include competent lay people. Any findings must lead to quick and effective action within the Church and they need to be provided to secular authorities for potential prosecutions.
4. Local authorities in the United States need to seriously consider whether statute of limitation laws need to be changed to make prosecutions easier. It is not enough to find out about these crimes after prosecutions are no longer tenable.
5. And all people within the church, whether they are clerics or laypeople, must take the stance that nobody is above reproach. Nobody.
There may be related issues that could be added to this list, but these things need to take primacy, just after appropriate acknowledgement of the victims and justified mea culpas.
If parishes are closed, so be it.
If the priest-shortage we are already experiencing in the United States and the rest of the western world is worsened through discovery, so be it.
If people leave the Church, justifiably or not, so be it.
Which leads to this, and here I am speaking directly to Catholics and broadening the subject-matter a bit: the experiment of loose, weak, impotent, fluffy-bunny ‘Catholicism’ is over. It didn’t work—it was never going to. We don’t need more warm bodies in the pews than we need committed people who want to be there on principal. We do not need more priests than we need strong committed ones.
Jesus describes His followers as the ‘salt of the earth’ and He says that if we lose the flavor we should be ‘thrown out and trampled under food’. We are supposed to be ‘strangers and sojourners’ and having read the New Testament dozens of times, I can assure you that He never once spoke of a Church that would encompass a sixth of the world’s population by compromising its identity—not only in its doctrine, but in its spirit and disposition. He let his followers leave before he conceded; he premeditated what He would be doing in the Temple by ‘making a whip of cords’ (think about that…); He promised persecution and death for following Him. All of Judea was welcome (indeed, the whole world), but He never bent or was going to bend Himself or his teachings to enable it.
Likewise, if the Church is going to in any meaningful manner function like Christ did 2000 years ago, Her doors should always be open, but She will be steady in faithfulness to Herself and Her Bridegroom. The Catholic Church didn’t grow from a mustard seed and rise through the fall of the Roman Empire by being what it is today. If the Church 2000 years ago looked anything like it does today, it would have been a failed start-up. So be humble and welcoming like Christ, but people need to stop isolating Jesus-speak and Jesus-actions—He admonished people, had righteous anger and let people leave before He would compromise a ‘dot or iota’ of His message. It would be better to have a milestone hung on some necks and be cast into the sea; better to not be born.
We don’t need part of Christ; we need the whole Christ. I know this deeply and personally. And the Church and those within it need to act like it unless they wish to be deemed adulterous Brides.