Pope Francis is convening the world’s Catholic bishops this week in a special summit on the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church. The news today of the laicization of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick sets the stage for an event that has the potential to move the Church in a bold new direction, but at the same time, Church history tells us that movement is always slow. But whether the Church can afford its customary glacial pace and archaic governance practices given the depth of the scandal is a serious question. For this blog I am imagining an “open letter” to the Pope and bishops discussing some of the key issues that should be on the agenda:
Dear Brother Bishops,
This week, on Thursday, February 21 and extending through the weekend, you are convening at the Vatican for a “summit” on the clergy sexual abuse crisis. You come together prayerfully and earnestly to find a path forward out of the nightmare of this crisis that has harmed so many innocent victims, exposed the failures and sins and crimes of so many priests and bishops, and shattered the trust of the faithful in so many places. I hope that the summit might begin to move the Church from reaction and confusion and denial to a more honest, progressive pathway for rebuilding trust and confidence in the Church.
In order for the summit outcomes to be positive and progressive, however, the meeting must be more than formalities and orotund speeches with deals done by bishops out of sight over long Roman dinners. Perhaps the schedule will lend itself to genuinely open and heartfelt dialogue with victims of clergy sex abuse, and beyond those immediately abused, to include as secondary victims the families, particularly the mothers of abused children, and even to the tertiary level of the members of parishes and dioceses so appalled and disheartened and discouraged by this scandal.
Unfortunately, it seems that, once again, the presence and voice of lay Catholics will be limited in this gathering. While I have not been able to find a great deal about the structure of the meetings, the December 18, 2018 “Letter of the Members of the Organizing Committee” on the Vatican website indicates that the primary participants are the bishops, and part of the meeting preparation was completion of a questionnaire by the bishops in the respective national conferences. While certainly bishops need to confer, and gathering information from them can be useful, once again it seems that the impulse to clericalism has blocked effective engagement of the larger community of faithful Catholics who are feeling marginalized and excluded from discussions about how to address the clergy sex abuse scandal effectively. Having lay Catholics fill out that questionnaire might be eye-opening.
To his credit, in August 2018, Pope Francis wrote directly and with humility to the faithful in his “Letter to the People of God.” In that message he stated quite emphatically:
“It is impossible to think of a conversion of our activity as a Church that does not include the active participation of all the members of God’s People. Indeed, whenever we have tried to replace, or silence, or ignore, or reduce the People of God to small elites, we end up creating communities, projects, theological approaches, spiritualities and structures without roots, without memory, without faces, without bodies and ultimately, without lives. This is clearly seen in a peculiar way of understanding the Church’s authority, one common in many communities where sexual abuse and the abuse of power and conscience have occurred. Such is the case with clericalism, an approach that “not only nullifies the character of Christians, but also tends to diminish and undervalue the baptismal grace that the Holy Spirit has placed in the heart of our people”. Clericalism, whether fostered by priests themselves or by lay persons, leads to an excision in the ecclesial body that supports and helps to perpetuate many of the evils that we are condemning today. To say “no” to abuse is to say an emphatic “no” to all forms of clericalism.” (Pope Francis, Letter to the People of God, August 20, 2018)
The “active participation of all members of God’s People” requires dialogue and engagement — not just calling us to prayer and acts of atonement, which some find insulting since the lay people are not the ones responsible for the abuse. Genuine engagement of the faithful means that lay people should be present and engaged in the discussions at ALL meetings on the topic of clergy sex abuse and the governance problems that led to cover-ups for decades.
The hierarchy has been making this crisis about itself and its perquisites and the clerical club for far too long. I recall quite clearly an evening in 2002 at a major Catholic dinner in Washington when then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick (now defrocked as of the February 15 order of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) went on a long riff defending priests in the wake of the emerging sex abuse scandal, and never once did he speak of the victims. Now that we know what we know about McCarrick, all of his pious statements seem no more than a tissue of lies.
And in the last six months in the Archdiocese of Washington, rocked not only by the McCarrick scandal but also by the revelations of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report about Cardinal Donald Wuerl’s role in failing to report abusers, and his later admission about what he knew about McCarrick, the most frequent communications about the crisis have been to “Dear Brother Priest” while the rest of us who also work for the Church remained on the margins, not really invited to participate in any substantive discussion of next steps for the Archdiocese.
Even bishops who try to do the right thing, who strive to make change possible, wind up feeling stymied and exhausted. A long article in the February 14 Atlantic magazine about Cardinal Sean O’Malley’s work on the sex abuse crisis is illustrative of the fact that even the best have a hard time changing the clerical culture. If Cardinal O’Malley can’t make a dent in the obtuse clerical culture, who can?
While it’s too late to change the participant list and agenda for the summit this week, I hope that the Pope, cardinals and bishops gathered in Rome will agree to these essential steps to begin to restore trust and confidence:
- Any future convenings on the topic of clergy sex abuse must include not only victims and families, but also lay Catholics who have to deal with the aftermath of the scandal, including and most especially the educators in Catholic schools who have yet to have any effective communication from the hierarchy around the long-term educational issues at stake, as well as Catholic health care professionals and others who have not only expertise but also the responsibility to address the consequences of this crisis;
- Lay people must be empowered at the parish and diocesan level to participate in ongoing plans and programs to prevent abuse, and to address cases that arise;
- Bishops need to spend some time out here with the everyday people of the Church, not preaching but listening, hearing the voices of the people who are making their own pathways through this mess — and not always in the ways the bishops might like, but in ways the bishops must come to understand.
Finally, there are two huge, intractable issues that we know you do not want to talk about, but that must be on the agenda for change: the role of women in Church leadership, and the issue of celibacy for ordained clergy. Women do bring a completely different sensibility and perspective to life issues, and the presence of women — not just religious women, who have many gifts, but also lay women with jobs and children and families — would change and enlarge the conversation for the better, and would put the Church on a far more progressive pathway out of this crisis.
And for a Church that teaches that life is social, that the family unit is essential to a complete human life, the denial of marriage for priests seems, increasingly, an archaic and unsustainable discipline that is causing tremendous harm in the ways it discourages potentially great ministers from even considering the priesthood. Such losses — the absence of women in leadership, the denial of married persons for ordained ministry — keep the Church structure and culture weirdly isolated and disconnected from some of the most important developments in the human community.
With hope that the Holy Spirit will truly be a source of wisdom for the Vatican summit,
See my other blogs on this topic: