Today I would like to say a few words about the sexual abuse crisis within the Catholic Church. What urges me to say something is the recent grand jury report released in Pennsylvania. The 900 page document says that more than 300 “predator priests” in 6 of the 8 Catholic dioceses in the state have been “credibly accused” of sexually abusing more than 1,000 victims over a period of 70 years. For the most part, these priests were never brought to justice for their crimes. On the contrary, they were often moved from place to place and their crimes were “covered up” by the Church leadership.
Just when I thought the sexual abuse crisis couldn’t get any worse, it did. The sheer numbers are staggering: 300 priests… more than 1,000 victims…over 70 years… My heart breaks for all those victims—the children, their parents, their families—who were so blatantly betrayed by the very “men of God” they trusted.
Here are just a few of my thoughts about this issue:
Years ago, when the sexual abuse stories first came to light, I was speaking with a layman, the father of several children, about the situation. With great emotion in his voice he said, “Sister, if any of those bishops had had children of their own, they would have responded to this crisis in a very different way.” He made a good point.
Similarly, I believe that if women had somehow been a part of the bishops’ decision-making process, the bishops’ response would have been different. I lament the fact that the major decisions made by the Catholic Church are made chiefly by celibate men. I have nothing against celibate men. Some of my best friends are celibate men. But I believe the Church must somehow involve laymen and laywomen (nuns/sisters are part of the laity) in the Church’s decision-making process. Hopefully, this is one lesson we can learn from the grave mistakes the bishops made.
If there is one mitigating factor in the bishops’ handling of the sexual abuse situation, it is this: we know a lot more today about pedophilia than we did 30, 50, or 70 years ago. For example, when I was studying for my M.A. in spirituality at Duquesne (1980-82), I had workshops by “experts” on sexuality. Back then, some psychologists still believed that pedophiles could be “cured.” Programs were set up to do just that. Some Bishops, in good faith, sent their “problem priests” to such programs. Today we know better. So we cannot judge all past decisions using today’s knowledge and insights. That being said, I am not excusing the “cover up.” It seems the bishops placed the reputation of an institution (the Church) above the welfare of individual human beings. What would Jesus say about such priorities?
Two more things. We must remember that there are thousands and thousands of priests who have served and are currently serving God’s people with love, compassion, self-sacrifice, integrity, humility, and joy. I know many of them. You probably do too. And secondly, we, the whole Church, need to repent for these grave sins and find ways to prevent these things from happening again.
The Holy Father has written a letter to the whole church that addresses the Pennsylvania report. For the first time, he refers to sexual abuse as “criminal.” He acknowledges “with shame and repentance” the Church’s failure to act on sexual abuse by clerics against minors. He says, “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”
The Pope expresses great compassion for the victims: “The heart-wrenching pain of these victims, which cries out to heaven, was long ignored, kept quiet, or silenced.” Yes, by the Church! In doing this, says Francis, the Church fell into “complicity.”
He speaks of the past and the future: “Looking back to the past, no effort to beg pardon and to seek to repair the harm done will ever be sufficient. Looking ahead to the future, no effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated.”
What are some of your thoughts or reactions to all of this?
It seemed fitting to choose a Lenten hymn today. This one, by Jim Farrell, is called, “Save your people, O Lord.” The sexual abuse crisis reminds us of our Church’s constant need for repentance and healing.
I welcome your responses below: