For decades, a number of Catholic clergy around the world have used the church’s moral authority both as a cudgel and a cloak to sexually abuse the powerless — children, nuns, lay women, the disabled, and seminarians.
While victims led lives of suffering, often turning to substance abuse and even suicide, clergy were protected by a perverse wall of secrecy which granted them de facto permission to practice sexual and moral cruelty.
The appalling and widespread abuse has torn apart lives, pained the faithful, and undermined the church throughout the world. It is made even worse by the church’s refusal to accept full responsibility for the victims. Only recently was it forced to acknowledge its poisonous hypocrisy by the growing public outcry and criminal investigations.
This week, Pope Francis is meeting with 100 bishops in Rome to discuss what they can no longer hide. While expectations may be high that the pope will end this plague of abuse, there are those who caution that not much may happen. Their skepticism is warranted because victims, and not church leaders, have brought this crisis to a head.
If the meeting fails to deliver credible reform, victims and their sympathizers will be rightly disappointed. But the facts of the abuse should be enough to animate frank conversations among concerned Catholics about how to force reform.
First, practicing Catholics should define the pope’s call for “concrete” solutions to the crisis as a call to pressure bishops to give law enforcement all of their secret files detailing abuse. Such files were the basis of the sweeping Pennsylvania grand jury investigation, which found that more than 100 priests abused more than a thousand victims. The August 2018 report was so influential that attorneys general in more than a dozen states and the Justice Department are conducting their own probes.
In New Jersey, for example, while the state’s five dioceses released the names of 190 priests last week who credibly were accused of abusing children, the bishops have not yet given Attorney General Gurbir Grewal their complete files. Without full public exposure and prosecutions, these victims have little hope of healing.
Second, the faithful should force the church to address whether celibacy is still relevant in the 21st century. Celibacy did not create the perversions of sex and power, but sexual repression must be explored as a contributing factor to the scale of this tragedy. While the pope has said he would maintain the rule, which has been in force since the 12th century, it is not immutable, because it is not a formal church doctrine. The idea of eliminating the rule, stirring for years, has new urgency in the wake of criminal findings.
At a meeting at St. Joseph’s University in Lower Merion earlier this month, concerned Catholics discussed an end to celibacy as well as the immediate firing of offending clergy, allowing women to become priests, and creating an environment of intolerance for abuse. That’s a good start.
But it is not enough for church leaders to confess misgivings or promise reform. They must challenge some of their bedrock principles — since those principles have victimized so many.
Posted: February 21, 2019 - 3:54 PM The Inquirer Editorial Board