My mother, surely a saint today, was one of the most devoted Catholics anyone might find among the faithful. She attended Mass every day — sometimes twice on Sundays! — and followed devotional practices constantly. At home, statues of the Blessed Mother, crucifixes, missals crammed with holy cards, Catholic magazines and newspapers, miraculous medals, scapulars, rosaries and holy water fonts in every room all seemed quite normal to me and my siblings growing up in a strict Catholic household in Philadelphia. As my five brothers grew old enough to be altar boys (there were no “altar girls” back then), she took great pride in ironing all of those cassocks and surplices, keeping them clean and crisp. Driving the boys to 6 am Mass or staying late at Church for a 40-hours devotion was never a burden, always a joy for her. Having “Father” over for dinner was a distinct honor that brought out the good china and starched tablecloths.
So it seemed all the more poignant, and even tragic, that in her final years my mother harbored a secret anguish, a deep fear that “Father” might have done something harmful to her boys. Mind you, to my knowledge there was no evidence of any such evil happening specifically to any of my brothers, but the explosion of the clergy child sex abuse scandal horrified and haunted my mother — and countless Catholic mothers like her, the women who were and are the pillars of parishes and churches, the staunchly devoted ladies who piously followed all the rules, carefully internalized the lessons of every sermon, and did all that they could to raise their kids to do likewise (not due to any lack of effort on their part the reality that many of the kids went down different pathways) . As the tawdry, tragic stories of priests committing appalling acts of abuse spread from Boston to Philadelphia and parishes and dioceses nationwide, the mothers of the altar boys, in particular, suffered silent grief and suspicion, leading to a sense of betrayal and then alienation from the Church to which they had devoted unquestioning loyalty throughout their lives.
As the news broke over the last several weeks of the tragic allegations about sex abuse committed against at least one child and several seminarians by Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, I thought back to the conversations I had with my mother in the year before she died. The abuse scandal left her bitter about the hypocrisy of priests and bishops; she wondered aloud about her own father, my grandfather who, as a young man in Milan, had been in the seminary for a while. He left the seminary and came to America and, in my mother’s memory, he would not set foot inside a Church. “All’s right between God and me,” he would say to her. The emergence of the American abuse scandal made her wonder if something had happened to her father even so long ago in the Italian seminary; again, no evidence, but the scandal created more doubts, caused more anguish, like a rapidly spreading toxic algae bloom across waters, the once-faithful now feeling vicariously victimized and drifting farther away from Mother Church.
The allegations against Cardinal McCarrick are profoundly serious and a source of sorrow for so many who knew him in the Archdiocese of Washington. (As of July 28 McCarrick has renounced his position in the College of Cardinals.) Our primary concern must be with the victims —- whether minor children or young adult priests should not matter, the fact is that a person in a position of tremendous power and deep trust allegedly committed heinous acts for his own gratification. Could the allegations be false? Of course, but the sources seem numerous, and the facts are emerging that the allegations have been known for a long time, and some led to cash settlements. Not dispositive of absolute guilt, but not circumstances that any priest, bishop or cardinal should find himself in.
The Church’s response to the massive sex abuse crisis has always seemed to lack a certain level of deep, urgent understanding of the gravity of the sin against children and other victims. Certainly, words have cascaded, gestures made, money paid out. But, somehow, the words and gestures and checks have all seemed more self-protective of the organization than truly penitential at the most profound level. In an age when we can casually listen in on secret recordings of a presidential candidate talking about paying off a porn star, we might wonder what it will take for powerful men to understand the deep horror of abusing someone else’s body for their own pleasure. #MeToo is a movement among women who have suffered grave abuse at the hands of powerful men, and yet, many men in positions of power (including the president, who recently mocked the #MeToo movement) still act like it’s really no big deal. Cardinals and bishops are powerful men, so perhaps it’s not unusual that they, too, have a hard time understanding the deep human impact of abuse.
I remember being at a dinner of one of the many Catholic organizations in Washington when Cardinal McCarrick was our local archbishop. He spoke about the sex abuse crisis and I distinctly remember his defense of priests generally. He said that the incidence of priests abusing children was not greater than the incidence of men perpetrating such acts in the general population, and possibly less. He kept talking about “the fellas” and that they were all good men. I remember feeling increasingly angry as his speech went on that he never mentioned the children, the imperative of atonement for these horrific sins committed by powerful men against the most vulnerable persons in society. The utter lack of a truly empathetic acknowledgement of the victims and those who love the victims, those who also suffer because of the abuse — their mothers and fathers and all in the universe afflicted by these grave sins — this is the most fundamental problem that the Church has yet to address in a satisfactory way.
In the Catholic faith, as with many Christian faiths, the Cardinal Sins — also known as the “seven deadly sins” of pride, anger, gluttony, sloth, envy, greed and lust — are those vices that give rise to a whole host of morally repugnant behaviors. Warning the faithful about the dangers of these vices, telling the rest of us how to live our lives, what we may or may not do, is part and parcel of what priests, bishops, cardinals and popes do — they are doing their jobs when they describe and define the religious and moral rules that govern the lives of the members of the Church. But the Church has a sad history of sometimes rendering unequivocally harsh judgment against those who violate even minor rules while looking the other way when its own ordained leaders violate the most sacred and profound rules about moral conduct and respect for human dignity.
Hypocrisy is an alienating wedge that diminishes the Church’s moral voice and weakens the ability of bishops and popes to bear credible witness against the genuine threats to a morally good society. The crisis of the Church’s moral authority is clear in the way that civic leaders ignore or dismiss the voice of the bishops on immigration or environmental protection or poverty; politicians cherry-pick religious issues that win them votes (the “pro-life” stance of certain politicians is risable) while feeling free to ignore the totality of the moral imperative to defend the dignity of human life across all life stages. The McCarrick scandal has already given license to some critics to deride his engagement with progressive issues and to cast aspersions on papal decisions that he influenced. The scandal becomes more fodder in the right-left political struggle in this country, the last thing we need right now. As well, the scandal has once again led to some critics calling for a purge of gay men from the priesthood, a crude and self-serving use of a tragedy for political purposes. Sexual abuse and sexual harassment of employees are not the result of sexual orientation but rather they are crimes about the abuse of power. In the same way, advocates for a married priesthood should not exploit the sexual abuse crisis by calling for an end to celibacy, a worthy discussion in another place but not at all a solution for crimes resulting from the abuse of power.
To his credit, Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who has been a leader in addressing the Church’s sex abuse crisis, issued a very strong statement about the McCarrick allegations. But even that statement, because it necessarily speaks to investigative process and rules and adjudication and communication, does not seem to get at the essential need for atonement, which is an act well beyond rules and procedures. Pope Francis is trying to deal with a massive sex abuse crisis in Chile, and he, too, missed the whole point when he accused the accusers of lies rather than holding the bishops accountable. He has since accepted the resignations of several Chilean bishops and has stepped up his direct involvement in the cases.
In the end, however, the Pope and cardinals and bishops must find something else, something more: a deep, compelling, durable voice arising from the core of the Church, a practice of atonement leading to healing and reconciliation with victims and those who walk with the victims. The exercise of such a voice cannot arise from a position of power and authority, or legality and self-protection, but rather, from a posture of genuine humility and vulnerability. Such a posture requires a reduction in trappings and ritual, a simpler and more human vocabulary that begs forgiveness and expresses a level of understanding about the hurt that we have not yet heard or seen.
We pray for the victims and their families, and all those mothers of altar boys so sick with worry. And we also pray for the cardinals who have sinned, and the Pope and bishops and priests, that they may find the strength and courage to find that voice of humility and atonement that will, at long last, set the whole community of our Church on the road to healing.