The Church's Sex-Abuse Crisis

What's Old, What's New, What's Needed—and Why

There are scandals and then there are scandals. Most are ugly, absorbing, and quickly forgotten. A few change history. The current flood of revelations about Catholic priests sexually preying on minors and the failure of Catholic officials to expose these outrages is taking on the dimensions of a history-changing scandal.

Seasoned observers of Catholicism are straining—and failing—to find a comparable event against which to measure the current crisis. Polls of Catholics register their massive loss of confidence in their leaders. Interviews surface raw anger. Catholics report friends and family members who have started attending other churches. To be sure, most parishioners express shock and sorrow while declaring their faith unshaken. No doubt they mean it. After all, the faith of Catholics has survived a lot of shaking in the past four decades. But that rock-bottom confidence does not reflect the continuing tensions between faith and doubt that are now the daily reality for millions of religiously thoughtful Catholics. Nor can even the most steadfast escape the impulse to take some distance from a soiled church.

It is no exaggeration to say that years of pastoral work have been undone in a few months. All the matters that the Vatican and its supporters in the United States have considered perils to the faith—theologians without mandates, gender-neutral language in the liturgy, the casual...

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About the Author

Peter Steinfels, co-founder of the Fordham Center on Religion and Culture and a former editor of Commonweal, is the author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.