As my friend G. Shane Morris recently wrote, “It’s a truly tough time if you are a member of the Roman Catholic Church, and it just seems to get worse each week.”
Indeed, it is and it does. But, for this Catholic, what makes it worse each week is that in our rush to come up with “hot takes” and, in some cases, grind our ideological axes, we have, either intentionally or by neglect, made it unclear what it is that ordinary Catholics are supposed to be angry and feel betrayed about.
I know that probably sounds ridiculous. You may be thinking “people are angry and feel betrayed about the sexual abuse of minors and the failure of Church officials, especially diocesan bishops, to do anything about it.”
This is true but incomplete. When the Catholic commentariat talks about the scandal, they often have more than the sexual abuse of minors and the subsequent cover-up in mind. It’s not a sin against charity to wonder if, in some instances, events like the grand jury report in Pennsylvania have become an opportunity for them to talk about what they believe is wrong with the Church in general and the current Pope in particular.
While in their minds it’s all part of one sordid whole, the conflation isn’t helpful, especially because I suspect people like the man who yelled “shame on you!” at Archbishop Wuerl during mass aren’t especially concerned about these other issues.
As boring as it may sound, the best approach to these stories and the resulting scandals is a lawyerly one: a chronological narrative that answers the questions, “Who did what to whom, and when did they do it?”
The narrative begins in the early 2000s. That’s when reporters at places like the Boston Globe, as dramatized in the Oscar-winning film, “Spotlight,” began reporting on allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by priests, and the failure of bishops to address the allegations in ways that put the well-being of children first.
While there had been reports about the sexual abuse of minors long before that — a priest in Louisiana pled guilty to molesting eleven boys in 1985 and the Diocese of Santa Rosa, California paid $5 million to a victim of abuse in the early 1990s — this was when, pun not intended, the spotlight was aimed directly at the Church.
The most common response to allegations of abuse, as documented by Rod Dreher in 2002, was to shift suspected offenders from one parish to another. Arguably, it was just about the only thing bishops could do for a long time, because, as Dreher wrote, “Church law restricts the right of bishops to move quickly against suspected pedophile priests.” As one canon lawyer told him, “In all fairness to the American bishops, they tried to get the Holy See to approve an expedited process for laicization, but Rome didn’t go for it.”
It wasn’t only the Holy See. As Dreher has recounted, prominent American Catholics of the decidedly-conservative variety leaned on him to stop reporting about the scandal.
Remember the italicized “when” up above? It’s important to keep in mind that, by definition, all of the reported sexual abuse occurred prior to 2002, and, as in the case of the Grand Jury report, the reported abuse goes back decades.
The “when” is important because, without it, people are left with the erroneous impression that the cycle of abuse and cover-up is ongoing. It’s not. In the aftermath of the scandals, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.
As a result, by 2008, the Church “had trained more than 1.8 million clergy, employees and volunteers in parishes in how to create safe environments and prevent child sexual abuse.” It had also “prepared more than 5.8 million children to recognize abuse and protect themselves, and it had run criminal record checks on more than 1.53 million volunteers and employees, 162,700 educators, 51,000 clerics and 4,955 candidates for ordination.”
Every practicing Catholic has seen evidence of these efforts in his or her parish. There’s no shortage of signs, notices, and pamphlets.
The result? In 2007, twelve credible accusations of clerical sexual abuse against minors were reported to Church officials. In 2009, the number was six. This is probably hard to hear (read?) but George Weigel is probably correct — he is certainly not alone in this assessment — when he writes that “the Catholic Church is, by empirical measure, the safest environment for young people in America today.”
As Charol Shakeshaft, who studied sexual abuse in schools, told CBS News in 2006, “[T]hink the Catholic Church has a problem? . . . The physical sexual abuse of students in [public] schools is likely more than 100 times the abuse by priests.”
None of this, of course, can or should make the victims of sexual abuse feel better. Very few of them will ever receive anything approximating justice, in large part because the statute of limitations has run out and/or the perpetrators are dead.
When you add the fact that some of the crimes described in the Pennsylvania report are almost literally unbelievable, real-life versions of the kind of stuff printed in 19th century anti-Catholic tracts like “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk,” you understand why the Pennsylvania grand jury felt compelled to issue the report: It was the only accountability to be had in many instances.
The report, in turn, not only re-opened some old wounds, it gouged them out with a rusty spoon. It’s one thing to talk about abuse, even sexual abuse, in the abstract with a few sordid details added like jimmies on an ice cream cone. It’s another thing altogether to have it described in graphic (pornographic?) detail.
It also served as a reminder that, for all the good done by the aforementioned Charter, one group of people had largely escaped accountability: the bishops.
To add insult to injury, not only did the bishops fail to take anything resembling full responsibility for what had happened, they tried to gaslight the laity into thinking that somehow it shared responsibility for what happened.
When the scandal broke fifteen or sixteen years ago, the USCCB called on Catholics to observe a day of penance for the scandal. It brought to mind the old joke about the Lone Ranger whose punchline goes “What do you mean ‘we,’ white man?” I recall wondering what it was that I and the people around me were supposed to do penance for.
I also recall marveling at the chutzpah of it all. Men who had zealously guarded their turf from encroachment by hoi polloi were now using “we” non-ironically.
As the Talmud says, “Chutzpah carries its point, even against Heaven,” so it shouldn’t surprise us that it sort of worked for the bishops, at least for a while. Then the release of the Pennsylvania report in August shocked hoi polloi into remembering/realizing that the bishops, or at least some of them, still had some explaining to do. And that’s putting it mildly.
But a month earlier, a report in the New York Times about the former Archbishop (and Cardinal) of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, had begun an argument that, at least among the Catholic commentariat, would eventually overshadow the one about the sexual abuse of minors and the bishops’ failures.
That’s because it involved the commentariat’s two hottest buttons: Pope Francis and the presence of gay men in the priesthood.
That overshadowing is the subject of my next column.