Catholics today are confronting horrible revelations of clerical abuse. Will this ongoing scandal change our church? Yes, undoubedly this encounter with dreadful home truths is already changing us.
The sickening revulsion we have felt toward accounts of distant concentration camps, torture chambers, serial murders and genocides is now induced by descriptions of sexual abuse of vulnerable children and adolescents. As the stomach heaves with disgust, the mind flinches and protests—no, oh no.
Priestly sexual abuse and its cover up by church authorities are forcing us to admit that corrupt evils exist inside our community and not only outside. These offenders are from our own communities and their victims are like us. The sins of lust and abuse of power that come to light are destructive and all too similar to other moral atrocitie of history.
Self -justifying leaders that deny moral responsibility appear in our Christian community as in other self-serving institution. Ambition, careerism, and self-protective behavior are engendering complicity with evil. Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as Lord Action the great Catholic reformer declared.
It is particularly disturbing to acknowledge that “religious” individuals can engage in monstrous acts, while at the same time administering and receiving the sacraments, proclaiming the scriptures and leading prayers in worship. Obviously external religious behavior can be carried on with no sacramental effect on the inner person.
Bitter disillusionment accompanies these realizations of the crisis. Religious persons and institutions must be judged as more perverted and blameworthy than others when they betray the truth. Salt that loses its flavor and hypocritically whitened sepulchers are despicable in their hypocrisy.
Another adjustment the abuse crisis is forcing is a changed understanding of the psychology of persons. Individuals possess different inner personal parts or dimensions in their make up, and these can be inadequately integrated or unified in a self. This unevenness or fragmentation of personality helps to explain why some religious sex abusers also have good qualities that helped them win friends and avoid detection. Only when their destructive tendencies become dominant do they act out. But other abusers, like the psychopaths studied in psychology, are innately incapable of any empathy and so wholly immoral.
So here we all are, in a church that is bruised, chastened and challenged. As fallible, self-deceptive, self-justifying human persons ourselves, can we admit the shadow side of our religious life and the power of sin? The work of truing, reforming and reconciling await, and it won’t be easy. Any suggestions for how to begin?