After more than 20 years of disturbing revelations about the sexual abuse of boys and girls by priests and other Catholic clergy, what has changed?
The Roman Catholic Church has apologized. He paid billions of dollars in damages. Investigations have been conducted by journalists, victims, grand juries and attorneys general. Maryland AG Brian Frosh just completed a report, identifying some 600 victims in the Archdiocese of Baltimore over 80 years. “No parish was safe” from predatory priests, investigators said. Frosh said some of the discoveries made him sick and he was stunned by the extent of the cover-up.
But this story has been with us for a long time. We have read many stories of abusive priests being transferred from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, rather than defrocked and reported to the police.
Pope Francis has promised more transparency and accountability in Vatican governance to protect children.
But where is the fundamental change in the priesthood that would prevent more horrors like those that have occurred for so many years in full view of the bishops?
The priesthood is still the domain of celibate men, with the exception of Episcopal priests who have been accepted into the Church by the Vatican. Women are still banned from ordination. Priests are always expected to be celibate.
The priesthood remains what it has been for centuries – entirely male, with the extremely abnormal requirement of celibacy and, above all, with the power to forgive sinners, including other priests.
Here it is in the Baltimore Catechism: “The priests of the Church exercise the power to forgive sins by hearing the confession of sins and granting forgiveness to them as ministers of God.
If the focus is on sin and not the criminal assault of a minor, if a priest forgives another – rather than, say, reporting his brothers to the cops – then why would anything change in this secret world?
To whom is a priest more devoted, God or the rule of law?
The late Richard Sipe, the former Baltimore priest who spent 30 years counseling members of holy orders, concluded that half of all priests were not celibate; they had sex in the shadows with other consenting adults. This secrecy, according to Sipe, has created a culture that has also resulted in sexual abuse of minors. Sipe concluded that about 6% of the Catholic priests he counseled had sexually abused children.
And that was the big, dirty secret of the church until the end of the last century. It’s been one revelation after another since.
Why did this happen? A report commissioned by bishops a decade ago blamed it on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. But, as Frosh’s report suggests, the abuses occurred decades before Woodstock.
After many hours of contemplation, I have come to believe that singleness is a big part of the problem. This is not a liberal vision. It’s a logical speculation, based on Sipe’s work and a fundamental understanding of human nature.
Celibacy and misogyny have alienated many good men and women from the priesthood. In the 1960s, with fewer men entering the priesthood as more on the left, a shortage seemed inevitable. The shortage seems to have necessitated the retraining of predators – that is, the relocation of problem priests within a diocese, in part because the hierarchy needed every available priest. (Frosh’s report indicates that a Baltimore parish, not yet publicly identified, had 11 assailants assigned to it over a 40-year period.)
What changed? The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops just elected a president who has suggested, against studies to the contrary, that gay priests are to blame for the sex abuse crisis. “I think it would be naive to suggest that there is no relationship between the two,” Bishop Timothy P. Broglio told reporters at this month’s meeting of bishops in Baltimore.
You hear something like this and ask: what has changed?
Not a lot. They still don’t understand.
In addition to Broglio, the bishops elected Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore as vice president, who has vowed to fight abortion rights for American women.
The bottom line is that the bishops seem more interested in the culture wars than in reaching out to the many Catholics who have drifted away from the Church, disappointed not only by the abuse scandal but also by the obsessions of the hierarchy – celibacy, the all-male priesthood, opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to abortion.
I always come back to a simple place and ask: What does all this have to do with Jesus Christ, serving the poor and making peace? How did we go from “Love your neighbor as yourself” to all these rules and edicts? How did we go from being a nice prophet to bishops openly expressing a desire to deny the Eucharist to those with whom they disagree? Would Christ have refused anyone to taste the bread of faith?
Like other Catholic baby boomers, I hoped it would come back to me — the desire to return to the Church in which I was raised. I still find it too hard, and it’s deeply sad.
So I keep things simple. I take out the prayer of Saint Francis. I consider his requests. I hold them as aspirations:
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love… where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy. That’s enough for me. It’s a lot.