The shame associated with the abuse of children by Catholic priests is borne these days by all Catholics forced to explain to incredulous friends and acquaintances how this could have happened, how it could have gone on so long, how it could have been allowed to become so extensive—questions that still require a proper answer. Like a millstone around our necks, the scandal, year after endless year, drags us all down with it. How the church as the people of God respond to it should not be a question of loyalty to the pope nor even more demands for his resignation; it is a matter of restoring the church’s integrity as an institution and renewing the life of holiness for its members. It is a matter of corporate conversion.
It is clear we are no longer dealing with an “American problem.” We never were. This is a global crisis that requires a church-wide strategy. The whole church—from parish to diocese to Roman Curia—needs to respond with the resources and the urgency it demands. Cardinal Walter Kasper, head of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, argues it is time for a thorough housecleaning. “We need a culture of alertness and bravery,” he said, “to do the housework,” and we must begin with caring for the victims.
Seek out the victims. Instead of waiting for victims of abuse to step forward, we should seek them out. During his 2008 visit to the United States, Pope Benedict XVI met with victims of abuse; he has promised to do the same in Ireland. These meetings need to be replicated by bishops and pastors wherever abuse is alleged. Though he seems to have had a tragic blind spot with respect to sexual abuse by the clergy, the late Pope John Paul II set a precedent for a ministry of apology and forgiveness for the offenses of church people. Small- and large-scale apologies need to be offered and forgiveness requested by bishops in dioceses where abuse has been committed. Public repentance needs to be demonstrated, as Cardinal Sean O’Malley showed with a penance service early in his healing ministry in Boston. Finally, funds should be established for the psychological healing and social support, where needed, of victims aimed at making them as whole as possible. Acts of piety and even reparation will be insufficient, however, without church reform as the manifestation of institutional conversion. Deeper institutional conversion will entail transparency, accountability and lay empowerment.
Come clean. “There is nothing that is concealed that will not be revealed,” Jesus said. The image of the church has been so profoundly diminished that there is now no point in forestalling investigations or attempting to stamp out brushfires of scandal. Innocent lives have been desecrated. At this point Catholics and others feel that desecration is drawn out wherever the church’s response is perceived to be halting and defensive. But the distressing truth is that surely more revelations await in countries where the poor have few resources or where legal systems are inadequate to respond to such crimes. Church offices should reveal all they know about the breadth and depth of this crisis. As in all organizational recoveries, transparency is necessary.
Be accountable. There are the sins of the clerics to contend with, but there is also the sin of clericalism that helped feed this crisis through silence and denial. Many bishops have persisted in their refusal to accept accountability for failure in supervision of priest personnel.
A handful of bishops have resigned, and in his letter to the church in Ireland Pope Benedict admitted the failures of the hierarchy in perpetuating the scandal. Members of the hierarchy may continue to find enemies in the media, and the media is not without fault, but for the most part the complicity of superiors in these crimes remains to be acknowledged. For genuine conversion in this matter, a searching examination of conscience over the sins of the institution will be needed.
Empower the laity. Lay participation in church governance is a conciliar value more honored in the breach than in the practice. That is no longer acceptable. The faithful must insist that parish and diocesan pastoral councils be activated and that they be given greater authority in canon law. Positions of real responsibility also need to be assigned to lay people and women religious for decision-making roles in church government. Humility should be a virtue for all to embrace just now, but especially for church leaders in seeking the guidance of the faithful. Whether what emerges in the future is a more humble but institutionally stronger church or a community in decline may be decided by the actions the church takes in the coming weeks and months to renew the spirit and structures of its own governance. For there is a conversion for institutions as well as for individuals, and it is often even harder to embrace.