Then-Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick faces the press at the Vatican on April 24, 2002, as the sex abuse crisis unfolded in the United States (CNS photo/Paolo Cocco, Reuters)

It feels as if a lot of time has passed since Boston Cardinal Sean O’Malley said in July that a “major gap still exists” when it comes to the Catholic Church’s policies and procedures for dealing with sexual abuse and misconduct by priests, bishops, and cardinals. He was speaking in the wake of emerging details about the actions of former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the clerical culture that enabled his semi-secret behavior to continue for decades with no repercussions. Of course, the existence of that gap has since been horrifically underscored with the release of a grand-jury report on seventy years of sexual abuse and systemic cover-up by bishops in six Pennsylvania dioceses. In remarkably blunt language, the report makes clear that church officials sought to protect hundreds of perpetrators and the institution at the expense of more than a thousand victims and their families. Its graphic description of a range of acts is a painful and necessary reminder of just what the sexual abuse of a child is—and why its evil is compounded when the perpetrator is a trusted adult vested with moral and spiritual authority. The pain caused by such abuse can crush a life.

In his letter this week to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics, Pope Francis said the church has “abandoned” its children. The expression is apt. Echoing O’Malley, the pope acknowledged that “we as an ecclesial community” have been slow in “realizing the magnitude and the gravity of the damage done to so many lives,” and that “we have delayed in applying the actions and sanctions that are so necessary” to protect children, punish abusers, and hold accountable those who cover up such crimes. While many may welcome Pope Francis’s statement, words do not suffice for those understandably frustrated by the lack of specific proposals. “The Vatican would do well to listen now”: this was the final line of the Wilson Quarterly’s review of Jason Berry’s Lead Us Not Into Temptation: Catholic Priests and the Sexual Abuse of Children, all the way back in 1993. How often have the bishops been similarly admonished since then, yet with seemingly so little to indicate that they have mended their ways?

Future priests should not be hidden away from the rest of the community in cloistered seminaries, where they pick up the bad habits of clericalism.

In the wake of the McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania report, many inside and outside the church are issuing sweeping demands born of outrage: punish to the fullest extent possible the church officials who let it happen; do away with mandatory celibacy; ordain women; get gay men out of the priesthood; let the laity run everything; force the resignation of the entire American episcopate. Such responses are natural but not helpful. One important fact buried in the Pennsylvania grand-jury report is that all but two of the cases it details predate the reforms implemented in the United States in the aftermath of the Boston scandal in 2002. There’s more than cold comfort to this fact, for it shows how additional institutional reforms could be devised, carried out, and enforced. Certainly, a similar zero-tolerance policy is required when it comes to dealing with cases like McCarrick’s, and with bishops and other church officials who fail to respond to reports of sexual abuse.

More broadly, a serious examination of a clerical culture that fosters such misconduct is needed. As Cardinal Blase Cupich recently argued, the whole church needs to confront attitudes of power, privilege, and entitlement that characterize many of the ordained and reinforce a structure that protects them from accountability. This means that the laity should be allowed greater participation in many aspects of the church’s life. They must be involved in investigations into clerical sexual abuse and abuse of power, in the selection of candidates for ordination, and in the training these candidates receive—including in matters of sexuality, mental health, and trauma. Future priests should not be hidden away from the rest of the community in cloistered seminaries, where they pick up the bad habits of clericalism. If there is something to seize from this moment, it is the opportunity to envision—with vigor, clarity, and discernment—meaningful and measurable reform.

Published in the September 7, 2018 issue: 

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