The New York Times has assembled a first-class group to comment on the Pope’s visit, but none more astute, balanced, and challenging than Peter Steinfels.
Here is a portion of today’s reflection, which will undoubtedly provoke outcries from right and left, but which shows an uncommon common sense.
I have long had my own list of things Catholic leaders should do to prevent abuse, remove perpetrators and reach out to victims. Actually the church has done a good number of them. It has balked or stumbled on others. And there is always the danger of backsliding.
But it would be utterly naïve to think that any of this would assuage the anger. Too many people, frankly, have a stake in it. It is a reservoir of energy, whether for personal coping or for battles in the church. There are complexities in the sex abuse story that contradict or qualify many of the sweeping generalizations that both conservatives and liberals, in clashing ways, continue to repeat. There are even a lot of things, believe it or not, that we still don’t know. It is almost hopeless to try to discuss any of this. The anger is too great.
And now, unfortunately, I sense a new anger. Call it anger at the anger. It infects people in the pews who have perhaps always been too deferential toward their leaders. But it is, I believe, growing among people who were horrified to learn of these crimes, of the widespread (but not universal) negligence of bishops and by the outright complicity of some of them. Sympathy and outrage on behalf of victims and their families remain; but impatience, hostility and even cynicism are growing toward those who tap into that sympathy and outrage for larger purposes. Those purposes include the purging of gay men from the priesthood. They also include rewriting statute of limitations laws, which now seems to be the spearhead concern of the organized victims’ movement.
Since statutes of limitations vary from state to state, there is no way to make a blanket judgment about where revisions — or precisely what revisions — might be warranted. In some cases, legislation has been proposed that targets the Catholic church while exempting public schools or other settings where the risk of sex abuse is significant. The scandals have produced a small industry of plaintiffs’ lawyers specializing in litigation against the church who have a lot to gain from revisions in the law, and Catholics who follow these arcane matters are increasingly aware that the sums of money involved punish neither the predatory priests nor the offending bishops, who in a great many cases are retired, deceased or without personal fortune, but instead people who benefit from the church’s services.
It is a bad habit of those inside and outside Catholicism — and even of popes themselves — to assume that popes have the power to resolve all difficulties in the church. This is another instance where that will be proved wrong.