3. How do we allow the Church to meet the standards that Jesus set for it in the treatment and reception of children? All I can do as an individual Catholic is propose ideas, imperfect though they may be, for change that will serve the most vulnerable amongst us, as Jesus intended. I should be clear that for me it is not a question whether there should be leaders in the Church, a pope, bishops, priests and deacons. These offices have been established by Jesus and the early Church and reflect the authority given by Jesus to the apostles. For me the question is, rather, how can those leaders be put in a position so that they can fulfill the mandates given to them by Jesus? On the sexual abuse crisis, most institutional authorities did a terrible job of responding to the crisis of priests who abused and then scandalized the faithful, and still do today, covering up the abuse, the abusers, and those who were abused. They had in mind not first and foremost the welfare of children, as Jesus taught, but the perpetuation of institutional structures.
The first step the Church leadership must take, as many have said, is to get everything out in the open now and to stop any sort of obfuscation or dissembling. This is not because it is a good PR move, though it might be, but because the truth cries out to be known and the Church is “always in need of being purified” (Lumen Gentium 8). Only an encrusted bureaucracy, which cares more for itself than the sheep it is entrusted to care, could argue that to move abusive priests, to hide abusive priests, and to cover up the abuse was to avoid scandal. Such moves were made to avoid scandal, but only to those who define the Church narrowly as the clergy. Scandal could not have been avoided for the actual scandal was that which was perpetrated against the boys and girls who were abused and their families who had to suffer with them. They are the Church! If anyone who is known to be an abuser of children is still being hidden away or allowed to exercise ministry, they must be relieved of their duties and the proper authorities contacted according to the legal requirements of the specific jurisdiction.
Second, the Church must continue to reach out to those who were abused. This must not only be a onetime event, but an ongoing practice. How many children and their families lost faith due to the scandal that was perpetrated against the “little ones”? How many have turned away from the Church? What the Church needs to do is allow these voices to be heard and for the hierarchy to begin to do penance for their sins. One of the ways for the voices of the abused to be heard is to have every Catholic seminarian spend time, in a formal way, with victims and victim’s families and learn about the profound impact abuse has on real people.
Third, the Church leadership in the United States has made important moves to protect children with the Dallas Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. If these norms are fully instituted, the Church has made genuine headway in protecting children from abuse. Such regulations and norms need to govern the Church worldwide.
Fourth, I know that many priests have nieces and nephews and even run schools in which they come into regular contact with children, but there is something about being a parent which sensitizes people to the needs of children, the precious qualities of children. More contact with children when priests are in formation will make it less likely that the vast majority of priests who are faithful and devout will be willing to cover up this particular sin when it comes about. What do I suggest? As naïve or whimsical or silly as it seems, if we are to return to the model of the Christian leader as one who becomes like a child, as Jesus instructed, then seminary formation should include seminarians working in a daycare or equivalent setting under the proper supervision of trained childcare professionals. How do those who want to be priests and bishops deal with the “little ones”? How do they show compassion to the one with a scraped knee or bruised feelings? Do they see Christ in the little children?
Fifth, as with the case of seminarians, those elected bishop, before taking their new position, would spend significant time not just meeting with victims of sexual abuse and their families, but working with victims of sexual abuse. It is important that all shepherds be aware of the impact their decisions have on the entire flock and of the needs of the “little ones” who are the core of their flock.
Sixth, lay Catholics must be able to question and challenge the secrecy of Church authorities and the distance, physical, emotional and spiritual, that some Church leaders have from the faithful. When you are not allowed to question, to challenge, to ask, this is when abuse can run amok; when secrecy rules the day, and when appearances are more important than reality, this is when hypocrisy can flourish. Unquestioning obedience in the face of sinful behavior perpetuates sin and allows sin to flourish. The Dallas Charter suggested a high level of lay involvement for the review boards which examined charges of sexual abuse (“The majority of its members are to be lay persons not in the employ of the diocese/eparchy”). Lay leadership on any number of scores is not a panacea – as if lay people never abuse, or that abuse does not place in families – but it is the opening of a window that allows fresh air to blow in, that breaks a level of secrecy that might otherwise flourish. Abuse demands secrecy like the thirsty demand water. The more voices that can be heard, the more people who are involved, the less likely that secrecy on such matters can be maintained. Lay experts need to be consulted on a regular level and at the highest levels in the Church.
Seventh, I am not an expert on Church law, but it would certainly seem to be prudent that the local Church, the local bishop or archbishop, would be able to laicize members of the clergy directly, just as it ordains members of the clergy. The Church needs more focus on the local Church as it is, in my opinion, but where a priest or some other clergy member is harming children, the bishop ought to be able to deal with this at the diocesan level as quickly as need be for the protection of children and the Church as a whole.
Finally, in the midst of discussions about sexual abuse it is important to keep in mind that the vast majority of people do not sexually abuse children, neither cleric nor lay person. The issue for the Church, once one has prioritized the healing of the children who were harmed and punishment of the minority of clerics who did harm children, has always been the secrecy, denial and silence by the Church leadership. This was the source of scandal: that those entrusted to care for the flock as their first and primary order of business, to put the needs of the faithful in front of their own, as Jesus demanded, cared more for power and authority than the lives of children. It is not that most priests and bishops were abusers, but that they were unable to put the needs of children over fellow clerics. And while the bishops might have been getting bad advice from psychologists about the possibility of offending clerics returning back to the ministry, the bottom line is the early Church was clear from the 2nd century on as to the nature of this sin and its particular horror. When the sexual abuse of children was simply a cultural norm in much of Greco-Roman society, Christians were at the forefront of condemning it. Strong prohibitions were issued, for example, by Clement of Alexandria against the use of children sexually, specifically boys, whom he says we should consider as “sons” as opposed to sexual objects and whom should never be touched in a sexual way (Paedagogus 2.10). Both the Didache 2.2 and the Epistle of Barnabas 19.4 included the sexual abuse of children on a revised list of the Ten Commandments! Ancient Christian theologians, with the aid of the Old Testament, the New Testament, their consciences and hearts trained on the truth knew inherently that this abuse was wrong and needed to be rooted out in a culture that took the practice for granted. They did not need a cadre of trained psychologists to aid them.
What our Church leadership needs to do is train its sights on Jesus’ teachings and, where necessary, gain the humility that is required for one to accept the Kingdom of God like a child. That will require some genuine change in the structures of the institutional Church, but diagnosing the problem is much easier than suggesting relevant change. I also take it as given that as Ben F. Meyer stated, “theological reflection on change and on the stirring but also jarring experience of it in the Church cannot, then, legitimately intend any erosion of faith, nor any separation of faith from Church, nor any diminution of faith in the Church. Nor can this reflection be cut off from its own ultimate, indispensable source: the faith of the New Testament” (119-120). I want the Church to live up to the mission Jesus set for it; I want the Church to succeed at the only level that matters: fulfilling the mission that Christ gave to us. Faith will flourish when everyone in the Church lives up to Jesus' call.
I have offered suggestions, but many of you will have a clearer sense of what must be done and of what can be done. I apologize for how little, after two weeks of thinking seriously about this issue, I was able to suggest. How can we help the Church leadership change to make the Church a place where not only are children safe and welcomed but they, not the powerful, prestigious, well-connected and wealthy, are seen as the model disciples of Christ’s Kingdom here on earth?
John W. Martens