I've tried to avoid writing about this issue but, as one of my readers pointed out, it is too big to ignore anymore.
I've been reading and thinking about Sinead O'Connor's insistence that Pope Benedict XVI needs to confess. Those who criticize Sinead must understand that she is coming from having been one of the girls confined in the infamous Magdalene laundries -- the issue of abuse in Catholic institutions is personal for her. But her analysis of the causes of abuse doesn't go far enough while some of her solutions, e.g. suggesting that Catholics should "avoid Mass", go too far.
We also heard about the sex abuse scandal on Palm Sunday from Fr. Joe, who feels our anger and shame and used his brief homily to beg for forgiveness for his fellow priests and, if not forgiveness, then prayers. He asked us -- most of us are Latin American -- to remember the Church that has been in solidarity with the poor there (although the Latin American Church has also had its share of pedophilia cases). Finally, he appealed to those who might be tempted to leave in disgust to remember that we are the Church. Fine...except that Fr. Joe never abused a child and doesn't owe anyone an apology, and while he says that we are the Church, those who run the Church don't seem to give a rap what we think unless the funds start to dry up. Mostly we are told to shut up and mind our own business if we don't want to appear sinfully disobedient.
I think we need to step back and look at the bigger picture. I actually feel somewhat sorry for Pope Benedict XVI. He has only been Pope since 2005 and most of the incidents we are discussing occured during the administration of the previous Pope, John Paul II. But we certainly need to look at Pope Benedict XVI's record too, in light of the reports in the New York Times on the case of Fr. Lawrence Murphy, the Wisconsin priest who molested as many as 200 deaf boys but was never brought to justice after he personally appealed to then Cardinal Ratzinger. A second issue involves the Pope's handling of the case of Rev. Peter Hullermann, a priest in Munich who was repeatedly transferred to new parishes and and allowed to work with children, even after a 1986 conviction for sexually abusing boys. The Pope claims the transfers were handled by a deputy and he was unaware of them. Perhaps His Holiness is only guilty of being a compassionate guy and a negligent administrator, but is that what we want on the throne of Peter?
In an interesting aside, Austria's Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn has gone on record in defense of the Pope arguing that in 1995 then Cardinal Ratzinger tried to investigate allegations that the previous Archbishop of Vienna, Cardinal Hans Hermann Groer, had molested youths at a monastery in the 1970s, but was blocked by Pope John Paul II. Groer was not relieved of his religious duties until 1998 and went into exile in Germany where he died several years later. This is a clear sign to me that we should be putting the brakes on John Paul II's canonization until we find out to what extent he was involved in protecting pedophile priests and their ineffectual bishops.
Finding out who knew what and when at the Vatican may get easier. Attorneys in abuse cases in Oregon and Kentucky have won the right to proceed against the Vatican. The circuit court decision in the Oregon case has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Vatican has traditionally claimed that as a sovereign state it is entitled to diplomatic immunity in these cases. For the record, we find this deplorable.
Ultimately, the only real answer is demanding that the Church be more open and accountable. As long as the "Father knows best" model predominates and the faithful are routinely denied information about parish and diocesan decisions and their legitimate questions and concerns are patronizingly dismissed, we will continue to foster the climate in which clerical sexual abuse of children (pedophilia), staff (sexual harassment), and those who go to priests for counseling (professional misconduct) can flourish.
As long as priests are treated as gods who cannot be questioned, they will be free to abuse their power and position. Abuse has been allowed to continue because priests have enjoyed the benefit of the doubt. How many unwittingly abet the abusers by refusing to believe their own children or by suggesting that older victims "asked for it" because of how they acted or dressed? We have only to look at how the woman is villified when a popular priest like Fr. Alberto Cutié leaves the priesthood, as if Fr. Alberto had no responsibility or ability to say: "I'm a Catholic priest with vows so: No, I won't go there." We need to stop blaming the victims, the women, and instead hold our priests accountable for violating their vows, their positions, and our trust in them.
The Pope is also under fire for a 2001 directive he wrote while a Vatican cardinal, instructing bishops to keep abuse cases confidential and that all were to be channeled through the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. The directive has been interpreted as an attempt to cover up, although this was refuted by Monsignor Charles Scicluna. Scicluna said that since the 2001 directive, 3000 cases of abuse have been investigated by the CDF. Three hundred of those were determined to be genuine pedophilia while most of the rest involved adolescents. Six hundred priests have been defrocked. Most of those who were not defrocked were spared due to their advanced age.
But we need more than contrition and selective prosecution from the Vatican. The Pope needs to send a loud and public message to all priests and bishops that they have a collective responsibility to protect our Church by weeding out those whose behavior brings disgrace and mistrust to the institution. That there is a time to lay aside collegiality for truth, to forcefully encourage each other to shape up or ship out, to get counseling if needed, to turn oneself in to civil authorities if guilty of criminal behavior. A message that says that whistleblowers on clerical sex abuse will no longer be treated as pariahs by their religious communities. If we were effectively policing ourselves, the courts would not have to get involved (see Mt 5:25).
I would like to see the Church move away from the secrecy, the idolatry of the clerical state, and other factors that have nurtured an environment where abusers can get away with their sins. This is OUR Church. We want it back. We want a Church that we can be proud of, not one that makes us cringe with embarassment every time we open the newspaper or turn on the evening news. A Church where our leaders keep their pants on and their ears and hearts open to the questions of their flock instead of trying to keep us in the dark and "in our place". Only then will any words of contrition ring true.