Friday, August 13, 2010

What is the legacy of the pedophilia crisis in the Church?

Leonardo Boff's weekly columns are available in Spanish from Servicios Koinonia. Some of his older columns are available in English at

by Leonardo Boff (English translation by Rebel Girl)

In the 16th century, at the height of power of the Renaissance popes in Rome, who were involved in scandals of all kinds, a cry arose throughout the Church for its "reform from head to toe." This cry came from the laity, the lower clergy and theologians such as Luther, Zwingli and others. The response was the Counter-Reformation, which transformed the Catholic Church into a bulwark against the movement of the Reformers, further hardening its power structures.

Now, the scandal of pedophile priests in several Catholic countries has given rise to a strong clamor for structural reforms in the Church. This outcry comes not only from below, as at the time of the Reformation, but mainly from above, from cardinals and bishops. First, this sin and this crime was approached with a disastrous management by the Vatican. It initially attempted to discredit the facts as "media gossip," then sought to hide them, even using "pontifical secrecy" under the pretext of safeguarding the presumed intrinsic holiness of the Church, then minimized the facts, or resorted to arguing that a plot was being mounted by dark secular forces against the Church and, finally, faced with the impossibility of any excuse or escape route, the disturbing truth came to the surface.

The Pope took harsh measures against pedophiles, deemed insufficient by many people in the Church itself, because "zero tolerance" and canon and civil punishments are not enough. All this comes a posteriori, after the crime has been commited. Nothing is said about how to prevent such scandals from recurring and what reforms should be introduced in the experience of celibacy and the education of candidates for the priesthood. A priority is not placed upon the protection of innocent victims, many of whom reveal a dark spiritual void, the result of feeling betrayed by the Church, in a mixture of guilt and shame.

Then the high authorities made serious allegations against each other. Cardinal Christoph Schönborn of Vienna accused Cardinal Angelo Sodano, when he was Secretary of State (the next highest position after the Pope), of having concealed the pedophilia of his predecessor in the See, Cardinal Hans-Herrman Groer. German bishops criticized their bishops' conference for not having been sufficiently vigilant against the notorious sexual abuse of Bishop Walter Mixa of Augsburg, who was forced to resign. Also with reference to the Bishop of Bruges in Belgium, who abused one of his nephews for 8 years.

The self-criticism made by Canberra Archbishop Mark Coleridge is impressive, acknowledging that Church moral concerning the body and sexuality is rigid and Jansenist in style, creating an "institutionalized immaturity" in seminarians, tending towards discretion and secretism in the face of crimes, in order to maintain the good name of the Church, fruit of a hypocritical triumphalism. The primate of Ireland, Diarmuid Martin, sincerely questioned the future of the Church in his country, such has been the number of pedophiles in institutions for many long years. He acknowledges that reforms are urgent, because the Church "can not be imprisoned in the past" and must fundamentally change its structure to prevent such deviations. Perhaps the most lucid and courageous document came from the Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra, Pat Power, who calls for a necessary "total systemic reform of Church structures." He states that: "It needs to be recognised that all wisdom does not reside exclusively in the present all male leadership of the Church and that the voices of the faithful must be heard." He bravely acknowledges that "if women had been part of the decision-making in the life of the Church", the Church might not be in its current crisis.

We could present the voices of other high church officials, but it is important to note that this scandal has affected the capital of ethics and trust of the institutional Church, paradoxically leaving a positive legacy: it raises the question of basic reforms, adopted by Vatican II. These, however, were boycotted by the Vatican Curia and the last two popes who were aligned with a conservative view and against all modernity.

Those of us who love the Church with its lights and shadows view the current crisis as an opportunity raised by the Spirit so that the institutional Church can really find the best way to convey the good news of Jesus and help humankind cope with an even greater crisis, that of the life-system and the Earth-sytem that are terribly threatened.

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