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Rome Must Lead on Dealing with Clerical Abuse

Tomorrow Benedict XVI will sign a letter to the Catholics of Ireland, expected to be a formal apology for the long national nightmare the Irish have experienced as a result of discovering decades of horrific sexual abuse and torture of thousands of children by clergy and religious. The text is scheduled to be released on Saturday.

We in the United States have endured several years of shocking revelations of how our trust in clergy has been violated in the most appalling ways, not only by the priests who abused children but even more by the subsequent coverups. This has cost us some $2.6 billion that cannot be used for parishes, education and the poor, and a decade of unrelenting shame that has more importantly left thousands of people traumatized for life and tens of thousands so justifiably enraged that they can no longer participate in the life of the Church.

But our experience here pales in comparison to what the Irish have endured. Not only is their bill now about €1.2 billion during a debilitating recession (in a nation of 6.3 million, to keep perspective—about 1.5 times size of the entire Catholic population of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles), but the crisis has reached catastrophic proportions in that predominately Catholic nation, with hundreds of thousands estranged from the Church, the once-full seminaries depleted and thousands of walking wounded trying to recover from childhoods of cruelty and prolonged torture. Some wonder if Ireland can ever again have a Catholic culture.

There seems to be no end in sight to this historic cataclysm. Astounding cases of demented abuse continue to arise in Australia, where the total cost is yet to be determined. The Church in Canada continues to reel from abuse cases there, with a single religious order struggling with $90 million in settlements—and that is only one order among many cases involving religious communities and dioceses wending their way through the legal process.

The uncovering of decades of misconduct in the United States, Australia, Canada and Ireland prompted some in the Vatican to view the phenomenon as a distinctly Anglo-Saxon cultural issue. But now attention is shifting to egregious cases of abuse and coverup surfacing in Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Argentina, the Philippines and Brazil, where, God help us, actual video has surfaced of an 82-year-old priest in the act of raping a teenage boy. One of the Vatican’s favored sons, the Mexican priest Marcel Maciel, held up as a model of orthodoxy and sanctity by the Vatican and whose order was accorded unprecedented privileges such as having their priests regularly ordained by the pope in St. Peter’s Basilica, was discovered not only to have frequently raped male members of his order, but also to have fathered children with a mistress. The accusations against Maciel were for a long time summarily dismissed by the Vatican as a vendetta against a good and holy priest. And we may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg; what other nations have yet to tell their tragic stories?

This worldwide crisis of clerical abuse is a disaster unprecedented in the history of the Church. You’d think it would prompt the Vatican to act decisively to purge the episcopacy of those who sheltered abusing priests and to undertake serious research on the causes of sexual abuse to prevent it in the future.

But you would be wrong.

The Vatican continues to shield bishops involved in coverups. While four Irish bishops implicated in clerical abuse coverups have tendered resignations, only one of those resignations has been accepted. And Cardinal Bernard Law, who presided over the epicenter of the American crisis from Boston with such singular ineptitude and arrogance that he was forced to resign in shame, now has a cushy assignment in charge of one of the four major pilgrimage churches of Rome and, unbelievably, has been appointed a member of the Congregation for Bishops, which chooses new bishops for dioceses around the world. You just can’t make this stuff up. And you can understand how the Vatican’s molly-coddling of Law was widely seen as a slap in the face to American Catholics.

And although Benedict XVI (and John Paul II before him) has reluctantly called meetings, issued statements and flown around the world apologizing to entire nations, the Vatican’s policy response has been to either (a) blame gays, (b) blame the media or (c) complain that abusers in other vocations have not received the same attention as priests who rape children. In all these cases, the Curia presents the hierarchy of the Church as the real victims.

The Roman Curia holds tenaciously to these justifications despite the facts: (a) studies show that proportionally child molesters are just as likely to be heterosexual as homosexual, (b) the media are doing their job in reporting that an institution that relies on trust has broken that trust and (c) protests that the clergy has a similar proportion of child molesters as the general public ignore the fact that the general public does not undergo eight years of formation, evaluation and supervision to prepare for sacramental ordination that is supposed to infuse the recipient with grace for a life of service to the Gospel.

There are some who say that celibacy is to blame for the crisis because it produces priests with a stunted sexuality. Some say the answer is better formation. Some say the answer is a more involved laity. Some say the answer is more involvement by women. Some say the answer is education. All these positions are no doubt valuable contributions to the discussion, and some may even be correct, but in the end they are all still opinions. We do not know why some clergy rape children. And the time has come to understand this issue completely.

The Vatican is happy to meddle in lots of aspects of the everyday life of the Church: liturgy being decided by people who are not liturgists, English translations dictated by people who do not speak English, religious communities investigated by people who are not religious, marriage being defined by celibates, boundaries for women set by men, pastors given instructions by people who have never been pastors, ecumenical decisions being made by those with only a sketchy understanding of ecumenism, disgraced bishops selecting new bishops. But when it comes to the need for real leadership on the issue of clerical abuse, the central crisis confronting the universal Church today, we are given carefully parsed platitudes.

If Rome is to be relevant, they must lead the world in the understanding of what causes child abuse, no matter what comfortable customs may need to be set aside. That means turning to science, not soundbites. It means that the Bishop of Rome must lead the People of God out of this nightmare into the light of new life to a vision that will help every society to deal with this issue and regain the respect and trust of humanity and other Christian Churches. Otherwise, the Holy See is nothing but a lofty concept enslaved to the Roman Curia, a morally bankrupt bureaucracy, as many have contended through the centuries. The time for Roman hand-wringing and official statements of “concern” has passed. If we are a Resurrection People, the time has come to turn tragedy to triumph.

2 Responses to “Rome Must Lead on Dealing with Clerical Abuse”

  1. [...] Rome Must Lead on Dealing with Clerical Abuse — Tomorrow Benedict XVI will sign a letter to the Catholics of Ireland, expected to be a formal apology for the long national nightmare the Irish have experienced as a result of discovering decades of horrific sexual abuse and torture of thousands of children by clergy and religious. The text is scheduled to be released on Saturday. [...]

  2. Bob Cleek says:

    So, how long have you been a deacon… not counting today! LOL

    Excellent editorial. I cited it at as an example of the “resurrected” American Catholic Church.

    Easter blessings!

    Bob Cleek

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