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The Catholic Church’s Summer of Discontent and Secular News Coverage: Loving the Church Starts with Hearing the Truth

News and blog coverage of the Vatican’s summer of discontent continues, along with coverage of Laurie Goodstein and David Halbfinger’s New York Times article about Benedict and the CDF’s dilatory attitude towards addressing the abuse situation when Cardinal Ratzinger headed that Vatican office. And as with many of the articles now appearing about these topics, the one I am recommending now is from a secular website, Firedoglake.

As I’ve noted repeatedly at my Bilgrimage blogsite, it seems significant that the conversation about the Catholic church is going public and mainstream, and that the secular media are addressing Catholic issues freely and without the constraints they had in the recent past.  Those constraints were there because generations of bishops in powerful sees in major American cities cried holy hell when newspapers dared to print anything those bishops regarded as unflattering to the church.

This reaction is understandable, given that Catholicism was a minority religion for much of its history in some parts of the U.S. And Catholic immigrants did, indeed, contend with considerable anti-Catholic prejudice for a long time in parts of the U.S.

But the argument that the media are anti-Catholic and that American culture is prejudiced against Catholics no longer holds water, with a majority of Catholic justices sitting on the Supreme Court.  Catholics have long since been integrated into the social mainstream in the U.S. and wield great economic and social power and privilege in our society now.

The defensive response of those now blaming the Times for being anti-Catholic, born out of the huddled posture of the immigrant experience in the 19th century, is misplaced in the 21st century.  It is embarrassing in its patent refusal to accept unpleasant truths that not only non-Catholics, but Catholics ourselves, have been talking about freely for some years now.  Truths that have to be aired for the healing of the church . . . .

It is time for this dialogue to go public, and it is good for the church that it is going public.  Those trying to thwart the public dialogue and control its parameters with wild charges about the anti-Catholic mainstream media are not doing the church any favors.

And as Peterr points out at Firedoglake, and as some commentators on the Times story have noted in the Commonweal thread about it, one of the primary sources Goodstein and Halbfinger used in their story are bishops.  Irish and Australian bishops, in particular.

Some bishops in some places have had it with the Roman blame-shuffling song and dance, and are willing now to go on the record and tell the rest of us what they know of the mechanisms that have been used in recent years inside the church to eschew responsibility for the abuse crisis.

And this, too, is good for the church, if not for Benedict, the Curia, and the Vatican.


43 Responses

  1. Excellent post Bill!! Too many of these “anti-Catholic bias” charges are nothing more than red herrings.

    • Thanks, Frank. I’m glad you found this helpful. You’re right, red herring arguments, and as someone said at the Commonweal thread to which I link, I believe, they’re increasingly tired and tawdry.

      The center of energy is shifting such that a growing proportion of the people of God simply won’t settle for the defensive posture that ultimately damages the church its present defenders claim to love, but whose demise they’re abetting with their defensiveness that ignores reality.

  2. Mr. Lindsey:

    “Those trying to thwart the public dialogue and control its parameters with wild charges about the anti-Catholic mainstream media are not doing the Church any favors.” Really?

    Those (of you) trying to control the Vatican’s agenda with wild charges about “responsibility” for the sex abuse scandal aren’t doing the public, themselves, the Vatican or the Church any favors either.

    The responsibility for the sexual abuse lies clearly in the laps of those who committed the acts of abuse. Granted, the Church’s response to the crisis was less than adequate; but, it did not commit the abuse. There is a certain irony in the fact that the Church is one of the few institutions that has taken any responsibility for responding to the abuse. Nearly every other institution, secular and religious, has disavowed responsibility for the abuse within its institution.

    For example, the John Jay report suggests that the incidence of sexual abuse among non-Catholic denominations is approximately the same as the Catholic rate. What then accounts for the gross disparity in the media coverage regarding the Catholic responsibility?

    The most obvious answer would appear to be bias. Misinformation is another possibility. Sensationalism is a possible answer.

    Regardless of your answer, the media would be hard pressed to suggest that it has been fair and balanced in its approach to the sex abuse crisis. It has almost always been the prosecutor in the public trial of the Church; it has rarely been the defender.

    • Unfortunately for your argument, Mr. Ludescher, the “agenda” of the church belongs to the entire people of God and not merely to the Vatican.

      And so we, the people of God, have not only the right but the responsibility to call our pastoral leaders to accountability and to see that the truth is told. If we love the church, we will continue to exercise that right and to live up to that responsibility.

    • Bill,

      I agree that the agenda of the Church belongs to all of us.

      The argument that the Vatican is somehow responsible for the sexual abuse issues has about as much merit as the argument that homosexuality within the ranks of the clerics is responsible for the crisis.

      The “truth” of the matter is that the perpetrators are the cause of the sexual abuse. Had the Church been more insightful, and had the leaders known then what they know now, the abuse would be significantly less because priests wouldn’t have been shifted around. In fact, the abuse rates appear to have dropped very dramatically as the Church has become increasingly responsive.

      The “truth” of the matter is that the media has focused a significant amount of attention on the Church, when other denominations were suffering nearly identical problems.

      Lastly, I don’t think I agree that we have not only the right, but the responsibility to call our pastors to accountability. That is a common secular response – a call for blood. Our Christian response has to be much deeper – ultimately an act of forgiveness – the same response Christ gave to his persecutors.

      • David, you say, “The ‘truth’ of the matter is that the perpetrators are the cause of the sexual abuse.”

        And the truth of the matter is that the pastoral leaders of the Catholic church, right up to the Vatican, are the cause of the cover-up of the sexual abuse.

        Denying that or obscuring the truth about it does not do the church any service at all.

      • Bill,

        I’m not going to quibble with the truth of what you say. However, I’m still not convinced that the “cover-up” had anything to do with a systemic problem in the Vatican or even the hierarchy.

        For a long time, everyone connected with sexual abuse of minors covered up what happened, including the parents of the victims. Now that we have a better understanding of how and why sexual abuse happens, it is easy to criticize what the “Church” did or didn’t do. But, it is much harder to come up with a workable penance for the Church.

        • David, it seems obvious to me that, given its claims about itself and its role in the world, the church should function on a higher moral plane than secular institutions.

          Vis-a-vis the handling of the abuse crisis, it has functioned at a significantly lower level.

          Hence the dismay of those of us who care about the church and its claims.

        • Bill,

          It strikes me that the Church’s failings were primarily administrative, not moral. I don’t think that there was ever a claim that the Church or its teachings promoted sexual abuse. Depending upon an individual’s perspective, some have suggested that the power structure, celibacy, homosexuality, or the media are at the root of the problem. None of those rationales seem to be accurate regarding why abusers abuse.

          It is hard to get a good handle on what happened or is happening because almost all of the evidence is anecdotal. The John Jay report seems to provide the best empirical evidence. That evidence suggests that it was only a small percentage of priests that abused, that almost one-half of the incidences were committed by someone who only abused once, and that the serial abuser being passed from parish to parish with knowledge of the bishop was the rare and unusual case.

          Regarding the “handling” of the abuse crisis, it is interesting to note that the “abuse crisis” peaked at least 20 years ago. There has been a steady decrease of reported incidences since the peak. It is only recently that the media has started to pound the Church about the “crisis” as if there were still substantial abuse happening.

          It seems to me that many people simply are not interested in the empirical data about the Church and sexual abuse. Nor are most people interested in the Church’s obligation to the abuser.

          • David, you say, “It strikes me that the Church’s failings were primarily administrative, not moral.”

            I suspect you’d feel quite different about that specious distinction if you yourself had been abused by a priest as a minor, and the crime covered up by church officials. Or if this happened to one of your own children.

          • Bill,

            If I had a child abused, I don’t think that I would care who caused the problem or the reason for the problem. I would want revenge. That is why those of us looking in from the outside have to lend some perspective rather than using it as a means to promote our own objectives.

            As a parent, I would probably also be very mad at other parents for not bringing the matter to the attention of others. Sometimes we ignore the reality that the parents of the children abused were also “covering up” the abuse, sometimes by entering into confidential agreements to settle claims.

            We can’t get to the heart of the problem by simply blaming the Church officials who were generally called upon to deal with the matters in the best way they knew how at the time.

            Public officials used to have the same problem with rape victims. Rape victims didn’t want to press forward because of the large personal sacrifices that have to be made.

          • David, your use of the word “blame” is telling.

            When authority figures (e.g., parents, church officials) don’t do their duty, there are two possible responses on the parts of those who monitor the actions of such figures.

            One is blame. The other is a call for the authority figure to begin acting responsibly–which includes admitting that he has been irresponsible.

            In my view, the first response is not mature. It often creates an immature back-and-forth blame game in which the authority figure tries to shift blame to someone else, is blamed back, shifts again, and so forth. There is no mature, positive outcome.

            I’m far more interested in the second response. As a member of the people of God who is called, along with all other church members, to speak truth in love to pastoral officials when they fail in their duty to be pastoral, I’m not interested in blaming.

            I’m interested in seeing these grown men called by Christ to be pastoral leaders accept responsibility for their actions, mend their ways, and move to a better future for us all. I’m interested, in other words, in seeing them model the behavior they challenge us to display when we sin, repent, confess, and atone for our wrongdoing.

          • Bill,

            I think we differ in our perspectives of whether the leaders were acting to intentionally hurt the children when priests were shuffled around, or whether they were doing it because they thought it was best for everyone involved.

            When you suggest that you are calling our leaders to begin to act responsibly on the sexual abuse issue, I would say that you are about 25 years too late. it was about 25 years ago that we began to see a substantial decrease in the abuse. If you want to speak to the truth, you should mention all the positive things that have happened over the last 25 years.

            As you mentioned above, the conversation is going public and mainstream. However, the focus appears to be upon what happened 20,30, and 40 years ago. (Like your conversation about Benedict’s “dilatory” tactics when he was in charge of the CDF.)

          • “I think we differ in our perspectives of whether the leaders were acting to intentionally hurt the children . . . .”

            I assume you have heard, David, of sins of omission and commission? In some ways, it is far more horrifying to assume that our pastoral leaders simply did not even think of what was happening to sexually abused children, as they responded to the abuse situation.

            Where we differ is in your belief–I call it misguided, and you disagree–that you are serving the church and doing it a favor by not seeking to have the full truth known about these sins of omission.

            I maintain that we have come to a turning point in the church, where those now engaging in the traditional defensive apologetics that tries to draw a screen around church leaders are doing the church a tremendous disservice. As people both inside and outside the church begin to know, at a wide level, more of the true picture of the abuse crisis and its cover-up, we have to shift to a new kind of apologetics.

            I would argue that this new level is far more mature than the old blame-shifting immature level of apologetics some defenders of church leaders have been following. And I would argue that it’s time for our leaders to grow up and move beyond the blame-shifting: accept their responsibility like men, admit what they have done, confess, atone, and move on.

            That’s, after all, what they ask of all of us. For both sins of omission and sins of commission.

          • Bill,

            I’m not trying to defend the Church. I am trying to put the abuse into perspective.

            You are only presenting one side of a complicated issue. I think the “those bastards” side has been hashed and rehashed. What hasn’t been discussed as part of the “full truth” is the evidence that suggests that much has been confessed, much has been atoned, and substantial reconciliation has occurred.

            The “true picture” that you say you want to present doesn’t appear to be as bad as you make it look. Call that apologetics if it makes you feel better. Beat the Church over the head for the next 25 years if you want. None of that is going to help anyone.

            Have you read the John Jay report? Do you have any opinions on its conclusions? If you don’t think it is accurate, what are your concerns?

          • I am sorry you continue to refuse to see the point, David. I recognize that you and the camp to which you belong are in an exceptionally embarrassing position these days, as more and more information comes out to contradict your defense of the indefensible.

            And, as with your use of the word “blame,” the term “those bastards” doesn’t come close to representing anything I’ve said here.

            Yes, I have read the John Jay report. I consider its conclusions valid insofar as they go–insofar as they accurately reflect a set of data provided by the U.S. bishops to the John Jay researchers. Provided, that is, by those who have covered up the abuse situation, who have hidden files and refused to turn them over except under legal duress, and so forth.

            We cannot and will not have a full picture of the abuse situation until all the data have been disclosed, and they won’t disclosed as long as the process of disclosure is in the hands of the very people who have refused to disclose information until legal and criminal authorities have forced bits and pieces of information to be made public.

            Can bishops and popes be sinners like the rest of us? Yes. Is the church sinful as well as holy? Yes.

            Do we do it a favor when we ignore and apologize for its sin? No.

          • Bill,

            What is your point? From reading your article above, it seems that your point is that you are glad the press is hounding the Vatican and church leaders about the abuse issue.

            I don’t see any place in the article where you suggest what has to be done other than vague references to “taking responsibility” or “getting the full truth”. What specific actions do you think need to be done, and why?

            Do you think that the information that the bishops provided for the John Jay report isn’t accurate? Do you have a basis to believe that information is being withheld?

          • David, you’ve complained in the past that I offer critiques without offering constructive proposals for change. And then when I do accede to your request for a constructive proposal of change and blog about that, you tell me once again that I have critiqued and haven’t offered any constructive proposals–though one such posting to which you responded had a list of some ten concrete proposals attached.

            Am I to conclude that you simply don’t agree with my concrete proposals for constructive change?

            What specific actions do you think need to be done, and why?

            I’ll repeat myself, ad nauseam if necessary:

            Me to church leaders: please embody in your own practice what you preach to us as believers. If you tell us that it is important to admit our wrongdoing, confess it, do penance and atone for it, and then set off on a fresh path diverging from wrongdoing, please do what you tell us to do.

            Because the most effective lesson parents teach children is not what they say. It’s what they do.

          • Bill,

            While the leaders haven’t had a perfect response, for the last 20 years or so, and even now leaders are making sincere and positive efforts to care for the abused. Many archdioceses are broke because of payments made. Leaders have met with the abused to offer the Church’s apologies. Much of what is left is to combat the exaggerations, untruths, and assaults in a Christian manner.

            I just don’t understand why you and others think that the Church hasn’t made acts of contrition, confession, penance, and atonement. Pick at the scab, and what do you get?

            There comes a time when we, as members of the Church, must forgive the leaders for their sins of omission and commission. That time was about 10 years ago.

            I am of the opinion that there is a fairly large segment of the population who calls itself Catholic actually is enjoying the pounding the Church is taking in public arenas. They not only enjoy it, they are helping to feed it. Almost all of it is unhealthy. It does not help abuse victims to celebrate the slings and arrows of secular officials and the media. Justice is the cry. But, the meanness goes way beyond justice.

            I am cognizant of the fact, as are you, that many who call themselves Catholic are more interested in their own agendas than they are in creating some resolution. They don’t blame the abuser. It is the fault of the Church. (Lawyers especially like this approach because the abusers don’t have any money; so, they go after the entity that has the money.) They claim that the Church caused the abuse: celibacy caused the abuse; male domination caused the abuse; immature sexuality caused the abuse. They blame everyone but the abuser.

            And, where is their ministry to the abuser? It is non-existent. It doesn’t exist because the agenda isn’t about the the sexual abuse problem; the agenda is to get rid of the Vatican so that a more liberal and freer theology can reign.

            We all get to decide if we want to be one of those people who cares more about his or her own personal agenda than doing the right thing for the sinners, even if those sinners are our leaders.

          • David, you say, “I just don’t understand why you and others think that the Church hasn’t made acts of contrition, confession, penance, and atonement.”

            And I’m very sorry that you don’t see the point. It’s the point of this entire discussion. The news stories wouldn’t be pouring out, each one with a new revelation, if the church’s pastoral leaders were behaving with transparency and accountability.

            I’m sorry that you see the attempt to discover the truth as picking at a scab. I prefer to see it is a therapeutic process of lancing a very deep wound, whose continued festering is threatening to infect and destroy the entire body of Christ.

            We stand at two very different places vis-a-vis the challenges ffacing the church today, don’t we?

            And one of those two positions stems from love of the church and points to a viable future for the church.

          • Bill,

            I see your point that the Church leaders need to be held accountable. Your point would have substantially more merit if you were trying to discuss what is happening now rather than discussing how Church leaders did not take more proactive approaches in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s.

            There are “new” revelations about abuse all the time. Unfortunately for your argument, almost none of it happened in this century.

            You simply refuse to acknowledge that much has been done and that the rates of sexual abuse have dropped dramatically. There is indeed a deep wound. But, it is healing. Positive things are being done in spite of the negative publicity surrounding all of the horrific crimes of the past.

          • I do understand your chagrin, David. And I feel for the position you are in.

            While claiming that those who call for transparency and accountability on the part of our pastoral leaders have an agenda and you don’t, you now see your agenda (and that of your allies, e.g., your brother Knights) being exposed for what it has been all along: an impediment to the reform the church desperately needs in order to meet the challenges of postmodern culture.

            While claiming that you love the church in an exceptional way, you have actively colluded in blocking the healing that the church so desperately needs to be a sacramental sign of God’s love in the world. You are now working to thwart accurate reporting about the ills from which the church is suffering, and claiming that you are doing so out of love for the church.

            And that you have no agenda at all, while you and your brother Knights have undermined Catholic social teaching, reduced Catholic values to simplistic “answers” to single-issue culture war issues like same-sex marriage and abortion, conflated the meaning of being Catholic with one political party and with an amoral business culture that fails to meet the challenge of Catholic ethical teaching about economic and social issues.

            I do feel for you, because the tide has turned, and you now find yourselves, for the first time in a long time, on the losing side of a cultural shift that is exposing some deep wounds in our church which you’ve refused to admit were there. You find your own agenda exposed even as you claim to be without any agenda at all–only those of us who don’t stand where you and groups like the KC stands have agendas.

            And the revelations won’t stop, nor should they. Nor will the shift that follows on these revelations stop. The agenda of the restorationist moment of Catholicism under John Paul II and Benedict has been, in some key respects, deeply destructive of the church.

            Those of us who love the church are intent on moving on beyond this moment and finding healing based in accurate information and truth about our pastoral leaders’ behavior. No matter how often you and others attack progressive Catholic groups and websites like this, the tide’s not going to be turned now.

          • Bill,

            I don’t want to throw the baby out with the bath water which you seem to be willing to do.

            The Church may be in need of substantial reform, but it has taken some real positive action in the last 20 years on the sexual abuse issue. And, if you were honest about it you would have to agree.

            No one should be taking delight in the misery of the hierarchy, and the Church’s representatives. The attacks do not further God’s purpose on the earth. Nor do they further the truth about how the Church has addressed many of the problems which you so gleefully expose.

  3. The problem with this defense of the Church hierarchy is that it ignores the fact the Church hierarchy operates very differently from any other cultural organization–except for maybe the family—and the family is the other structure which protected it’s abusers at the expense of it’s victims.

    But even in this comparison there is a big difference. The typical family does not pass it’s abusers onto other families, where as the Church hierarchy made this a practice. It was more the rule, not the exception.

    If God really is deeply involved in Catholicism it seems to me our belief should be that Catholicism should be thoroughly taken to task if it has failed in God’s mission. It’s God’ leader and bears more responsibility in God’s scheme of things. If Catholics, and particularly the Vatican, can’t stand God’s heat then perhaps they should get out of God’s kitchen.

    • Colkoch,

      I’m not sure that Catholicism has failed God’s mission. Certainly, many Catholics and its leaders, and many of God’s people, have failed in the mission to protect the children. And, there were, and perhaps still are, structures that make this type of thing more or less likely to happen.

      It seems like the verdict is still out on the “cause” of the abuse and the reluctance to take affirmative action against the abusers. Overall, it appears that the actions of the Church leaders were more indicative of the times than of a particular philosophy regarding children and sex. Recent reports suggest that the problem of sexual abuse in the Church has been declining for a substantial time, perhaps for more than two decades.

      I am all in favor of the Church being “taken to task”. What exactly that means escapes me. On an individual level “taken to task” means contrition, confession, absolution, and penance (reconciliation). It strikes me that the same process is necessary for the Church leaders. As a society, we are stuck on stage 3 and stage 4. “Let the bastards burn in hell” is not the Christian response.

      The idea that Church leaders should be subject to secular tribunals (or the media) for acts that escape secular punishment strikes me as odd and unfair. For example, of what consequence is it to the media or the general population that Pope Benedict didn’t defrock a priest 29 years ago? At that time, the secular authorities had full knowledge of the abuser’s actions. It’s odd to think that the Pope should be responsible for future misconduct of this person when the conventional wisdom at the time was that the person was fit to continue in his ministry.

      What is disconcerting to me is that so many people, including the media, are using this tragedy to further their own agendas. In those cases “accountability” is too easily mistake for revenge.

  4. David I am not one who has let the secular authorities off the hook. Absolutely too many perps were turned over to bishops by the very same police who knew better and/or DA’s who went right a long with it. Very much in the same vain the prosecution for any domestic violence too often depended on who you were, not necessarily what you did.

    The general societal attitude was protect all ‘fathers’ at the expense of their ‘family’ victims, especially powerful rich ones or those involved with powerful rich structures. In my mind it’s this protection of the worst and most intimate of male predation that needs to be addressed, and in that sense the male authority of the Church is still trying to protect that kind of unexamined masculine privledge because it is core to it’s whole identity.

    I’m not trying to speak for anyone else but me. There is no inherent privledge nor excuse for male predation or the tolerance of it. That whole unexamined issue is anti gospel and what makes it worse for me is Jesus is used as the excuse.

    • Colkoch,

      There is a lot of merit to what you have to say.

      However, we have to be cautious about drawing any firm conclusions about the “male domination” theory. The pendulum has swung back to the point where accusations often go unchallenged or the past abuses are used to justify unwarranted attacks.

      For example, in my own parish, an accusation was made against our pastor that related back almost 50 years. Obviously, the statute of limitations had passed. Nevertheless, the accusation caused personal hardship and was a cause of concern for thousands in the parish during the time it was investigated. In the end, there wasn’t sufficient evidence to suggest that the accusation was credible. That process reflects how much things have changed from years ago. Every accusation, even those lacking any civil credibility, are assumed to have merit until the evidence suggests otherwise. In part, I think this approach is to make up for the tendency to sweep matters under the rug in the past. But, this approach can and does cause its own kind of damages.

      It is surprising to me that the Church has done as much as it has to address the underlying issues. As you said, it tends to be dominated by old, white, celibate males who wouldn’t have to listen to anyone. If you look at other institutions, and their reactions to sexual abuse within their own ranks, few organizations have done as much to meet with victims, pay restitution, and change procedure as the Church. Most other organizations, such as schools or other Christian denominations have shied away from accepting any institutional responsibility.

      Lastly, lost in much of this discussion is, “What should be the Christian response to the evils of sexual predation?”. Obviously, it has to be multi-faceted addressing the needs of the abused, the abuser, the Church, and the community. Sticking to the secular approach of lawsuits, monetary compensation, and the firing of anyone connected to the abuse does not bring about the genuine reconciliation that is needed, and frankly, is demanded, by the Gospel.

      • David your point about the pendulum swinging back too far is true, but it’s also perfectly indicative of the current mind set Catholicism is fostering. This doesn’t surprise me at all that first the pendulum swings towards no accountability, transparency or distinctions between types of abusers, and now it’s swinging to one strike, proven or not, and you’re out.

        It is not healthy to try to find solutions in opposite ends of absolute positions. The theology of the priesthood is essentially based in absolutisms which take the idea of the priest far beyond common sinful humanity. It’s a logical inconsistency to maintain this purity on one hand and then turn around and say, ‘well, priests are only human after all’.

        The theology of the priesthood does not really support the both/and position which is needed to put some compassion in the equation.

        I had a medical doctor once explain the idiocy of expecting humanity to conform to absolutes. He said if God had wanted absolute conformity he would have arranged us to all be born as clones, rather than as products of the genetics of BOTH a mother AND a father. Our thoughts are the product of BOTH a left AND right hemishperic thought process. We are biologically BOTH living AND dieing at the same time.

        We have to stop thinking either/or and admit we were really created to be both/and. Until we do, the conundrum you describe, with it’s inherent inability to jump beyond all the self perpetuating pardoxes will always be operative.

        After all Jesus was BOTH God AND man. He called us his brothers and sisters and maybe that means something we’ve never really looked at.

      • Colkoch,

        I have some serious concerns about the “one strike, all strikes” mentality. I see it in my law practice for issues such as domestic abuse, DWI, and sexual offenses. Justice requires proportionality.

        People committing sexual abuse are spending more time in prison and “psychiatric” hospitals than murderers. People accused of domestic abuse are spending time in jail without even getting a hearing. I had a client do 90 days in jail before his case was thrown out by the judge. The accusation – parking in front of his wife’s neighbor’s house.

        The “one strike, all strikes” mentality is especially dangerous for a Christian. We can’t adopt the secular approach to forgiveness. There has to be room for protecting the abused, and yet living out our responsibility to the abuser. The Gospel doesn’t give us a choice. (How many times do we forgive our brother? Seven times, seventy times, or seven times seventy?)

        The sexual abuse problem in the Church has many different sources. It is profoundly serious. It has to be addressed. The structures that contributed to its growth must be changed. But, the response must be proportional.

        I think a healthy solution has to involve placing the sexual abuse in its proper context. That is why I think it was wise for the Church to order the John Jay report. It defines the scope of the problem and addresses some of the structural issues. It is a much better building block for a constructive solution than the garbage that is printed by the AP, NYTimes, Boston Globe, or other news outlet. Their interest isn’t in a fair reporting; they want to sell newspapers.

        The temptation, especially for those who have been marginalized in the past, is let the media accounts, exaggerated accusations, and unfair attacks go unchallenged or, even worse, use them for political advantage. That is what I see too much of on this website.

        The priesthood may need to substantially change but it isn’t because of the sexual abuse scandal. If anything, it might demonstrate what happens when the administrative concerns override the Christian concerns. But, I’m not so sure that that is an accurate analysis either. The same kinds of things were so widespread throughout society that the better analysis may have to focus on why we would think the Church would or should have done better in an area that it has little competence.

        • I was with you almost all the way David, because I have worked in all the issues you cite from a mental health perspective, and I have been totally frustrated over the same concerns you have.

          This is where I lost you:
          “why we would think the Church would or should have done better in an area that it has little competence.”

          Actually, I think your statement is right, but I would dearly love to hear them admit that because they certainly didn’t act as if they had any competence, But in point of fact they bent over backwards to protect the fantasy that they did have competence in these areas.

          The ‘why’ the laity assumed they had competence is because they kept and keep telling us they are the only competent authority.

          Two other quick points. We really will not know how effective the changes actually are until twenty or so years have passed because that’s the general time frame in which children grow up enough to express the abuse. That’s general, sometimes it’s forty or fifty years. My personal opinion is that we will see a dip in the numbers but not to the extent claimed now and they will reflect a greater balance between male and female abuse victims.

          The other point is the John Jay study. It is never a good idea from a scientific standard to assume data given by the insititution being investigated is completely honest. Each bishop had a say in how much data he would release and that alone adds an uncontrolled variable. It doesn’t mean the data or the conclusions derived from it are useless, but it does impact it’s level of reliability.

          I actually believe the data on the genders of the victims are skewed towards boys for a number of reasons. Not because the bishops were dishonest, but because abuse of girls was vastly under reported by parents, and/or the girls themselves.

        • Colkoch,

          In retrospect, I’m not sure there was much competence in the community at large either. One of the arguments presented by the hierarchy is that they were following recommendations of mental health professionals who provided advice on whether the priest was capable of rehabilitation. I think that argument has merit, on a secular level. But, it does lack a moral component, as in why would they even take a chance? On the other hand, the data presented suggests that the majority of the priests who abused only abused one time.

          But, there is much to be said for the fact that those were different times with different approaches. One of the reasons “we” assumed that they were competent is also because they were acting within what seemed to be normal boundaries for the time.

          Unfortunately, a sizeable portion of the initial reaction was entrenchment and non-disclosure. Part of that is due to the Church taking a legal approach, which it has largely abandoned. Lawyers and insurance companies were telling them to keep their mouths shut to avoid financial responsibility.

          True, we won’t know the extent of the problem for quite some time. One thing noted by the John Jay report is that we are seeing decades of abuse coming out in a relatively small amount of time. So, reporting numbers are way up. But, the abuse is probably way down.

          The numbers may well be underreported. However, given the huge publicity, the financial incentives, and the removal of the stigma, underreporting for the Catholic Church may be significantly less than the underreporting in other institutions. For example, if a person was abused by a school official 20 or 30 years ago, what good does it do to report it now? We may be seeing quite a few cases in which the statute of limitations has run legally. There is still an avenue of recourse against the Church, but there is no avenue of recourse against the teacher (because there isn’t anyone to accept responsibility).

          There are many reasons to be dismayed with the Vatican and to call for a change of the guard. But, we do need to remember that the Vatican didn’t have much control over the shuffling of priests. It is only recently that the Vatican has taken over this responsibility. I think that is a good thing, although I have concerns that the call is for even a greater concentration of power over the affairs of the Church.

          • Yes, that is my concern too, that this latest move to centralize the crisis in the Vatican may play into exactly the wrong hands. It will be much easier to control and stonewall on high profile abusers like Maciel and Cardinal Groer and others highly connected to movements the Vatican has bent over to both promote and protect.

            The other place which I find ominous for real reform and cleansing is that the new norms still exempt bishops from their application. Along this same line is Benedict’s recent statement to Cardinal Schoenborn which stated only the Pope is competent to bring charges against a Cardinal. It’s now coming out that this was not in reference to Schoenborn’s remarks about Cardinal Sodano, but referenced the charges against Groer. Which again is another subtle slap at JPII.

            I can’t shake the feeling that something is really rotten in Rome. So rotten that it justifies the shots at JPII which could very well derail his canonization. Not something I personally care about, but something other lay Catholics really care about. In the meantime Benedict is starting to look like a person consumed by secrets he can’t tell. He is aging fast.

  5. I think what is scary to people about the church scandal is that nothing is *fundamentally* changing. Some apologies are being made, some perpetrators are being held accountable, there is an attempt to put a warm-fuzzy face on the church toward the victims. But in the end, the hierarchy and leadership structure that allowed this to happen once is not changing. Lay people are not going to get more say in the Church. Women are not going to be able to enter the ranks of clergy (women, I have read, are far less likely to be pedophiles than men.) There is still going to be this feeling that leaders are “untouchable.” People will always have suspicions because the leadership just wants this problem to be solved and everything to stay the same. I don’t know if it can without the Church always drawing suspicion. It just feels like the church has become too big and too powerful, like a huge corporation. People don’t trust things that feel too big and too powerful.

    • Erin, these are excellent points. For at least one promising proposal to address the too big and too powerful church structures, have a look at what attorney Marci Hamilton posted yesterday at Huffington Post.

      As she notes, what has huge numbers of Catholics who care about the church upset, along with millions of others around the world, is the misplaced priorities church leaders have displayed in putting themselves and their clerical system first, and abused children second. Hamilton says,

      Indeed, with all the recent global revelations of child sexual abuse by Church clergy, various governments are now faced with the question: who weighs more in the balance — the Roman Catholic hierarchy or victims of this abuse?

      And then she proposes some sane measures that the U.S. government might adopt, in line with the approach taken in Belgium, to address this situation legally. Hamilton is, for my money, one of the sanest voices addressing the abuse crisis. I haven’t ever read anything by her that didn’t strike me as extremely valuable (as with Fr. Tom Doyle’s analysis).

      • Marci Hamilton has hit on a really fundamental question, or else articulated the question most of us were asking from a million different angles, but it has to be paraphrased:

        “Who weighs more in the balance, the Roman Catholic hierarchy or the Roman Catholic Church?”

        The hierarchy says they do, and they deserve it because they supposedly sacrifice worldly pleasures, but more than that God says they do.

        Trouble is there aren’t too many people, at least in the West, who buy into this point of view any longer. They feel humpty hierarchy has gotten way too big and way too isolated and way too privledged.

        In my opinion John XXIII called Vatican II too essentially address this imbalance between the hierarchy and the rest of the church. I don’t think he ever saw liturgy as a central issue in this rebalancing, but he did see collegiality, scripture and empowering the laity as central to the rebalancing.

        In that light I guess it’s not surprising that sex and the liturgy would be substituted for the more fundamental questions of balance of power and authority because both sex and liturgy had historically been used to underline clerical authority.

        The way forward is for concerned Catholics to stop engaging with the liturgy and sexual culture wars and deal with the fundamental issue of shared, transparent, accountable authority. In my opinion this is why the clerical abuse scandal is so important. It calls the Church back to the task given it by John XXIII.

        • Colleen, I couldn’t agree more. (And I love the phrase “humpty hierarchy,” by the way.)

          The words that keep ringing in my ears are those of Fr. Vincent Twomey, an Irish priest and moral theologian and associate of the current pope. Fr. Twomey writes,

          But the real cause [of the cover-up of abuse cases by the hierarchy] – and it is frightening – is the lack of expected emotional response to reports about the abuse of children. Nowhere, as far as I can see, was there any expression of horror or outrage by those who were told. Horror and outrage are the natural passions of the good person which God gave us to ensure that we get up and do something in the face of injustice done to others.

          The lack of expected emotional response. Expected, because good people everywhere naturally feel horror in the face of reports of defenseless children being victimized by adults. Expected, because we’re talking about church pastors, for Christ’s sake! Expected, because I cannot imagine a parent worth his salt excusing, apologizing for, standing passive in the face of sexual abuse of his child by an adult.

          It’s that lack of expected emotional response that rankles, for many of us, and will continue to rankle, until the church’s pastors do what they ask of us as the minimum, when we’ve sinned: admit that we’ve done wrong, blame no one except ourselves, confess, repent, and atone for our sin.

          • I was raised Catholic but I now belong to a Protestant denomination (ELCA.) We have our own problems no doubt, but there is a much different feel to the leadership of the church. Everything is done very democratically. My husband and I attended our Synod assembly in June and voted on our Synod budget, mission and vision statement, and a whole slew of other important issues that no Catholic would ever get to vote upon. I have some misgivings about a church that is handled *too* democratically because some things should not be open to societal or cultural whims of the moment. At the same time, the laity ARE the Body of Christ and so why should our feelings and opinions go by the wayside because our pastor’s boss’s boss’s boss has different ideas? We are allowed to interview and hire our pastors, and fire them if they do something wrong. Beyond our Synod bishop, I could not tell you who is “in charge”….because it doesn’t really matter. The decisions are made by the people and there doesn’t seem to be much power or glory in being an ELCA bishop…they are administrators of the process that involves all members. I don’t think our system is perfect by a long shot. But we are still very liturgical and Scripture-centered (none of this non-denominational mushiness in services and whatnot.) Traditions and sacraments are very similar to what I grew up with in the Catholic Church. But it just FEELS different.

          • Erin, thank you. One of the unfinished projects of Vatican II is the exploration, within the Catholic church, of what Vatican II means when it admits that non-Catholic churches are valid churches, led by the Spirit, and that Catholics can learn from the experienced of these Spirit-led sister churches.

            One of the harmful wounds that the restorationist project has inflicted on the Catholic church in the papacies of John Paul II and Benedict is the attempt to roll back this ecclesiological advance of Vatican II. The previous papacy and the current one have seriously damaged the ecumenical project of Christianity.

            I hope, how that restorationism wanes (since it has to wane for the church to survive) that this ecumenical project can be resumed again. As that happens, the experience of people like you and of churches like ELCA will have much to teach us in the Catholic church–as our last ecumenical council noted.

          • Oh, and “Humpty hierarchy” has been in my head as well. 🙂

          • I hope that no matter what happens in the larger Catholic Church, that individual churches stand up if they feel ecumenical activities are in the best interest of the faith community. Our small town’s Catholic, Methodist and ELCA churches combine to teach Vacation Bible School. We have an ecumenical Thanksgiving service each year between the 3 churches. It gives community members a chance to meet each other and learn from our similarities, instead of feel like strangers with big differences when we are really more alike than different. It would be devastating if that were taken away from our community. Thanks for all your insights—I really enjoy this blog.

  6. Bill, Your post is truly excellent, insightful, and on target for our beloved Church.

    The “nut-case” (I do not know how else to describe such carelessness of thought) that has been responding to your post and your comments exhibits a brittleness of mental ability that is truly astounding! I fear you waste your great theological and moral insight on such a person–though the exchange is an insightful lesson for me, and I suspect for others. This person appears simply to lack the intellectual wherewithal to have a theologically and morally informed conversation. This is truly sad for this person. I pity him and the legion of his kind that we see skulking about in the shadows of the church throwing their crude stones at the ones who are carrying the true burden of prophetic dialogue and conversation at a time of tremendous need in our sad Catholic Church.

    Keep up the great work! I only hope that your hapless interlocutor might gain some theological, moral and ecclesiological insight from your wisdom.

    • sjs,

      I have gained some theological, moral, and ecclesiological insight just by reading your post.

  7. SJS, thanks for your reply. I appreciate the vote of confidence.

    Dialogue seems important to me, and I do try to keep fostering it, even when I fail lamentably. I have, in the past, been as stubbornly committed to some intransigent ideas about the church and tradition as some defenders of the faith are now.

    So I understand the “addiction problem” of traditionalism, as it were. And for that reason, I keep struggling to educate myself and others, so that we can move beyond that addictive need to relinquish our minds to some outside authority figure, as we walk down the pathways of faith.

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