The Roman Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse crisis has come roaring back to life as if it were the worst days of 2002, when the scandal tsunami out of Boston seemed to inundate the entire church.
The shock waves this time came from substantiated allegations that a well-known cardinal, Theodore McCarrick, a retired archbishop of Washington, had molested boys; he was forced to resign last month from the College of Cardinals. Then came the grand jury report out of Pennsylvania detailing 70 years of horrific abuse by some 300 priests, too much of it facilitated by bishops.
It has all landed on the desk of the current pope, and the scandals have the potential to undermine the Francis pontificate.
It shouldn’t. Indeed, if Pope Francis lives up to his own words and actions, this could be a chance for him to advance his vision of church reform and turn a long-running crisis into an opportunity for long-term renewal.
Only Rome could investigate bishops, they said, and only the pope could punish them. That wasn’t likely. The Vatican under John Paul II was not very keen on the United States hierarchy’s new policy against priests, and the pontiff certainly didn’t want to throw his own bishops under the bus.
In closed-door meetings on the eve of the conclave that elected him in March 2013, Pope Francis — then-Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Buenos Aires — gave a brief, powerful address in which he said the church needed to open up or risk becoming “self-referential” and “sick” with “theological narcissism” that leads to the worst evil, the “spiritual worldliness” of an institution that is “living in itself, of itself, for itself.”
The church, he was saying, had to undergo a moment of kenosis, of self-emptying, like Christ on the cross, surrendering power and prestige and privilege in order to truly become what she is called to be.
“Clericalism is a perversion of the church,” Pope Francis told 70,000 young Italian Catholics at a rally this month. “The church without testimony is only smoke.”
Pope Francis’ vision of the church is clearly more radical than the defensive posture of John Paul or the nostalgic traditionalism of Benedict. But is he willing and able to implement it?
The pope has had a spotty record on disciplining bishops and on the sex abuse issues as a whole, but a promising trajectory. For example, in 2015 he investigated and dismissed two American prelates, Bishop Robert Finn and Archbishop John Nienstedt, who had been accused of covering up for abusive priests. (Both men were favorites of conservative Catholics and found sanctuary elsewhere.) In 2014, Francis removed a conservative Paraguayan bishop who had sheltered an Argentine priest who had left the diocese of Scranton — yes, a diocese cited in last week’s grand jury report — under suspicion of sexual abuse.
Yet earlier this year, Pope Francis faced what had been the greatest crisis of his papacy when he firmly defended a Chilean bishop accused of covering for a notorious and influential priest who led a scandalous double life. Then in April, faced with evidence that the bishop, Juan Barros, and many others in that country’s hierarchy had in fact been complicit in the scandal, the pope suddenly reversed course, issuing a profound mea culpa for his error and blasting the bishops, who almost to a man submitted their resignations.
When Archbishop McCarrick was found to have molested minors as well as young men, the pope not only ordered the retired 88-year-old churchman confined to virtual house arrest but also accepted his resignation as a cardinal.
These are encouraging steps, but much more is needed: not only the kind of spiritual renewal that Pope Francis demands but also the kind of systematic change that can safeguard children and vulnerable adults, restore some credibility to the institutional church and begin to dismantle the culture of clericalism — the spiritual elitism of holier-than-thou cliques who cover for one another as they try to run the church.
Pope Francis has frequently been excoriated by church conservatives for his desire to change some church practices and to “develop” certain doctrines, such as his decision this month to declare the death penalty “inadmissible” in all cases.
But on the issue of abuse, the Catholic right is often proving to be the pope’s unlikely ally, with many calling for a top-to-bottom overhaul.
It’s not like the church has to rewrite the creed. Instead, Catholicism can start by creating a human resources department to ensure that any person who is sexually harassed or assaulted — especially by a bishop or cardinal— can report it in confidentiality and safety. Such a system would ensure that the information would be investigated by an independent board, featuring laypeople, and made part of any cleric’s personnel file.
It’s a simple first step, but even that would have been unthinkable under the ecclesiology of previous pontificates. Now such changes are both unavoidable and integral to the kind of humble, open church that Pope Francis desires. They also work. As soon as a victim reported his allegations against Archbishop McCarrick to the Archdiocese of New York, reportedly late last year, a review board opened an inquiry, and Archbishop McCarrick was removed from ministry.
Similarly, as the church analyst Father Thomas Reese noted, just two of the more than 300 priests named in the Pennsylvania grand jury report were involved in abuse in the last 10 years, and those two had been reported to authorities by their dioceses. Good policies have worked well in protecting children, and they will work for addressing the church’s two outstanding problems: protecting adults as well as minors, and holding accountable bishops who cover up for abuse as well as those who commit abuse.
Those policies were among the series of recommendations announced by the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops late last week, a prelude to what could be another historic shift for American Catholicism, and one that will also provide a road map for churches around the world that are just now beginning to face these scandals — if Pope Francis acts on the proposals, and on his own advice.
(David Gibson is director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University.)
Thanks to CATHNEWS NZ for this link to an article in the NEW YORK TIMES
In the new atmosphere of honesty in the Church about issues of gender and sexuality, it is not only Anglicans who seem absorbed with the need to address the situation of inequity of the status of women in leadership – as well as the reality of gay clergy – the recent scandals in the Roman Catholic Church about the abuse of children by celibate clergy has now led to a crisis of confidence in the efficacy of enforced celibacy on all Catholic priests.
While we Anglicans seem to have concentrated on the issue of Same-Sex Marriage and the treatment of intrinsically LGBTI people as both clergy and lay members of our Church – with a few local parishes in ACANZP having recently distanced themselves from the rest of us in protest against our General Synod’s ruling which allows for the Blessing of Same-Sex legally-married couples in Church by those clergy licenced by the local bishop to perform such ceremonies – our Roman Catholic confreres are dealing with the scandal of child-abuse carried out over the years by celibate clergy and Religious in its institutions and local parishes.
While the issue of enforced celibacy is not a problem in Anglicanism (Anglican clergy are allowed to marry – except if they are members of a Religious Order) – there are still questions about enforced celibacy for secular clergy in the Roman Catholic Church. This was not always an issue, the Church was – for a period in its long history – open to married clergy. St Peter himself was actually married – a situation mentioned in the gospels. One of the reasons for a celibate priesthood, mentioned even today by its adherents, is the ready availability a priest has for sacerdotal and pastoral ministry – unhindered by ties of family responsibility. There are, currently, married clergy ministering in Roman Catholic parishes in the U.K. (re-ordained as ex Anglican clergy who left the Church in protest against ht ordination of women).
Conservatives in the Church (both Roman Catholic and Anglican) seem doggedly attached to the need for the celibate lifestyle for their single clergy, although the diaconate for Roman Catholics has – since the changes introduced by Vatican II were implemented that allowed for married deacons – in certain places where their ministry (together with that of professed Religious because of the shortage of ordained clergy) become important for the distribution of the Sacraments of the Church.
It has to be admitted that clerical celibacy has always provided a valuable outlet for homosexually-oriented males in the Church Catholic – whether Roman or Anglican – as a means of sacrificial offering by the time-honoured avenue of the ‘eunuch’ mentioned by Jesus in Matthew:19:12; dedicated “for the sake of the Kingdom of God” – as either clergy or members of a Religious Order. As a proportion of the Catholic population, though, it would seem that there are only a small number of heterosexual people called to this sort of sacrificial celibate dedication, and those who are must be recognised as specially gifted.
However, it has not been sufficiently appreciated that Jesus also mentioned that there are “eunuchs who are so from their mother’s womb” – a class of eunuch now considered by modern theologians as referring to anyone, male or female, who finds themselves predominantly sexually attracted to people of the same gender. In past generations of the Church, such people were officially discouraged from exercising their same-sex attraction to their peers – with, in the life of Religious Orders, an injunction against the cultivation of ‘Special Friendships’, that was considered to be a necessary caution against any same-sex attachments in the Community. (It should be noted here that Cardinal John H.Newman – a former Anglican priest – requested to be buried in the same place as his own special friend, a fellow priest in his religious community, but this fact was later disputed by the Church, on the occasion of his postulation for sainthood.)
Pope Francis, who has already intimated his acceptance of faithful same-sex relationships (short of marriage); is now being challenged by conservatives among the Roman Catholic hierarchy on his openness to changes in the Church’s attitude toward both woman and the LGBTI community – more than once suggesting that there are worse sins in the Church than those connected with sexual activity. In a Church that seems obsessed with such things at this time in its history, the enemies of Pope Francis are providing challenges that would match any of these presented before in the history of the papacy. May he live long enough to help in the cause of truth about gender and sexuality that will free the Church from its historical problem of hypocrisy in these areas.
I pray for Pope Francis at every Eucharist I celebrate.
Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand