Revelations over these past few months are enough to dizzy one’s mind. Even more dizzying, though, are the perhaps millions of words that have been penned in the media worldwide. Have we heard enough? Have we heard more than enough? What’s to be done? Shocking...scandalous...disgraceful...sick...sinful...disgusting...secretivethe adjectives and adverbs pile up, almost tripping over one another. Yes, the church’sin this case the hierarchy’scredibility has been shaken to its foundation. But contrary to what some know-nothing wags are saying, the faith of most of the faithful remains intact.
And I am proud to report that I’m one of themalong with everyone else I have spoken with recently, whether within or outside my parish. Because we know, to use the phrase of a book title from many years back, the people are the church. Now that certainly does not mean we have taken sexual abuse by the clergy lightly. Like everyone else, we deplore not only the sins of predatory priests but the ecclesial wall of silence that, happily, has finally toppled. Worse is a sort of guilt by association with which so many of our good priests are now struggling. If anything, we should be building them up, lending support. And we should be praying for all of themeven the rotten eggs. Curiously absent from the litany of adjectives is compassionate.
When news hits home, when suddenly there’s a faceor faceswe can put on the clergy abuse scandal, things seem different. Many parishioners reportedly rallied in support of an accused priest. That’s understandable. We look at the great things that priest might have accomplished, the number of lives he touched sacramentally, the hurts he helped heal (I know that sounds ironic), his record with charitable, outreach and other endeavors. We’re human; it’s hard to come to grips with sudden revelations of misconduct that dates back decades. (The Geoghans and Shanleys of this world, as far as I’m concerned, are insidious exceptions to the kind of priest I mean here.)
Still, we need answers. What kind of childhood did that man have? Was he forced (by mother?) into the priesthood? Is he from a dysfunctional family? Is he getting back at a sexually repressive church? I’ll bet there are as many stories as there are names currently under investigation. I might remind the commentators out there, by the way, that child abuse is not a clergy thing by any means. Nor a Catholic thing. Let’s not forget that.
Admittedly, church history is replete with scandals, heresies and the like. Pope St. Gregory VII’s words, in a letter dated March 9, 1078, could well have come from a modern pen: It is the custom of the Roman Church which I unworthily serve with the help of God, to tolerate some things, to turn a blind eye to some, following the spirit of discretion rather than the rigid letter of the law. So, folks, there’s many centuries’ worth of undoing to be done! But resilient as she is, and resting on Christ’s own promise to be with her until the end of time, the church will survive. We have to summon confidence in that promise during the present crisiswhich is easier said than done, of course.
When I think back to my childhood, I recall different times. My first-grade teacher, Sister M. Petra, O.P., often asked me to accompany her shopping (the sisters had to have company on all outings). We rode a bus together into Brooklyn to some sort of nun store, and there she would buy those heavy black stockings. I thought nothing of the outings, actually. On the morning of my father’s death in 1964, my sister and I were taken out of church and brought to the convent, where both sisters and priests convened in the parlor. There was no shortage of affectionhugging, holding and the like. It is regrettable that such physical contactwhich is so very important and needed at such timesis taboo today. Now clergy and religious are fearful not only of contact, but of being alone with a youngster. And to think, it didn’t have to turn out this way.
We know whom we have to thank.