I want to speak to you this morning about the latest abuse scandals in the church, emanating especially from the release last week of the grand jury report in Pennsylvania, but also from the revelations about Cardinal - now former Cardinal - Theodore McCarrick, the retired archbishop of Washington, D.C. I know it’s not pleasant to hear these things, and one aspect of the harm done, though certainly not the worst, is that rather than pondering the words of our Lord - Truly, truly I say to you, unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood you have no life in you - we are talking about these sordid, vile, and criminal betrayals instead. But we must.
And the first thing I want to say is, I am sorry. I am sorry for what has happened at the hands of my fellow priests. I have begun doing penance for reparation of these sins, and my private Masses, for at least the rest of this year, are offered for the victims of priestly abuse.
As to these latest revelations, you should understand that, in the main, the Pennsylvania grand jury report confirmed what we already knew, both good and bad. First the good, and this really is important. The Catholic Church in the United States, our parishes and our schools, today are very safe places for children. Since the rounds of scandals that began to emerge in the 1990’s and especially the Boston-area scandals of 2002, incidents of abuse are very low, particularly as compared to other institutions both religious and secular, and when they do occur and are reported, they are handled immediately and properly - that is, transparently and with the immediate and appropriate involvement of the civil authorities. Here at Corpus Christi and St Mary’s we very carefully and intentionally adhere to all the safe environment protocols put in to place since the Dallas Charter was adopted in 2002. Your children are safe here, and I say that as one who is a father of young children. They are safe at our local Catholic Schools. That doesn’t mean that continued and careful vigilance isn’t needed; it is. And you must hold your priests and principals and teachers and other leader’s feet to the fire.
The Pennsylvania grand jury report covers abuse reported to diocesan chanceries going back 70 years. The overwhelming majority of that abuse occurred in ‘60s and ‘70s by priests born in the ‘30s and ‘40s. This is just what we learned in 2002. What is new in the Pennsylvania report, and what has, very appropriately, I think, aroused so much anger, is that it gives a deeper, more clear, more horrifically detailed picture of the nature of the abuse that occurred, and also of, in some cases, the utterly inept, and in many other cases actually malfeasant, covering-up, protect-themselves-and-their-institutions-first response of the bishops in question, some of whom are still active. And making things worse is that as these revelations came out, so many bishops and cardinals came out mumbling PR firm-provided talking points about the need for new policies and procedures rather than lamenting their own sin and promising penance, amendment of life, and reparation. Some of them failed in their duty to protect the sheep, but have avoided accountability under a subterfuge of management-speak and corporate expressions of sorrow rather than taking personal responsibility. I don’t think they will be able to escape that responsibility any longer, but we will see.
A couple more observations:
This is not a uniquely Catholic problem. Again, other religious and secular institutions are having the exact same issues. That itself is not an excuse and shouldn’t make us feel better; we ought to be better. We are the Catholic Church, the Church founded by Jesus Christ, and the Church ought to be a beacon of light, sanity, charity, and rightly-ordered life in the midst of our confused and darkened culture.
This horror is not a product of priestly celibacy. Our celibate priests are less likely to be abusers than the population at large, or, for that matter, the married clergy of other denominations. We know that the great majority of abuse is perpetrated by adults against their own children. And it strikes me as passing strange - I say this as a Catholic priest who actually is married and has children - to suggest that what would help these predators is to have a wife and children.
Having said that, there is something no one has wanted to talk about but which has been dragged into the light by the McCarrick scandal, which has to do with abuse and harassment of seminarians and young priests. There is a crisis of chastity within the priesthood, which is related to the abuse scandals (which are overwhelmingly same-sex in nature) and that crisis is related to the sexuality of some of our priests. It’s difficult to talk about in this setting, both plainly and with the nuance required, and to take grateful of account of the great majority of priests who live good and holy lives in the face of all sorts of challenges and temptations, but it will have to be dealt with.
Now, where do we go from here. I’ll offer just two thoughts, one on the institutional level and one on the more personal, spiritual level.
First of all, on the institutional level, there should be a forensic audit of every diocese related to abuse claims with the results made public. Every diocese will need to have its Pennsylvania moment. We will find, no doubt, many more examples of bishops and their chancery staffs having failed to properly handle abuse claims and having facilitated abusers by moving them around from parish to parish. We will find that some beloved bishops, bishops who have otherwise done good and beautiful service to the church have badly failed in this regard. But it all needs to come out, every last sordid bit of it. Truth, reconciliation, healing - these things are inextricably linked. We cannot heal without truth. Our bishops have now asked for an Apostolic Visitation - that means a Vatican investigation. Good. But let me say, as many have said, that for that investigation to have any credibility it must have significant, competent, and independent lay leadership. I think that’s what we’re going to get, but if not, we must be prepared to demand it by whatever licit tools of protest are at our disposal.
And second, and on the more personal and spiritual level, there is a place for anger. Not the deadly sin of anger, the anger that burns out of control and destroys and generates hate and resentment, but the anger of our Lord before the money changers in the Temple, the anger of our Lord as he stood before the grave of Lazarus, the anger of the psalms that long for justice and wholeness and will not be satisfied with less, the anger that serves charity.
But what is that place? How can anger be channelled to charity? I read an interview yesterday with Leah Libresco, a young writer and convert several years ago from atheism. She was asked how she remains joyfully Catholic in the midst of these scandals. She notes that she knew enough biblical and church history before her conversion to be aware of the reality of sin and hypocrisy within the Church. But then she said,
But I think one thing to hold onto is that when we recognize these abuses as horrific, the strength of our response also invites us to recognize the holiness of what has been profaned. A priest’s abuse of seminarians carries an additional evil, in addition to the grave evil of sexual abuse and the profanation of authority (that would also apply when any boss or supervisor used his power to entrap his [employees]). The priest also sins as a husband to the Church, dishonoring his vows of chastity. He sins as a father, who wounds his children when he was ordained specifically to heal them through the Eucharist and in the confessional. Hold on to your horror, and remember you are angry because holy things are profaned (the child of God treated as a plaything, the sacraments, etc.). Then run to adore those holy things, as well as to admonish those who profaned them.
And that is what I invite you to do now, this morning. Remember why you are angry - holy things, the gifts and sacramental mysteries of God grace, and God’s own beloved children, have been profaned. Hold on to that horror, but then let us adore those holy things even as we demand change so that these things never happen again.
Lord, have mercy upon us.
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