The Year of the Abusive Priest

In June of 2009, Pope Benedict XVI declared “The Year of the Priest,” and in his homily at the vespers marking the opening day, he spoke the following words:

How can we forget, in this regard, that nothing causes more suffering for the Church, the Body of Christ, than the sins of her pastors, especially the sins of those who become “thieves and robbers” of the sheep (cf. Jn 10:1 ff.), lead them astray by their own private teachings, or ensnare them in the toils of sin and death? Dear priests, the summons to conversion and to trust in God’s mercy also applies to us; we too must humbly, sincerely and unceasingly implore the heart of Jesus to preserve us from the terrifying risk of endangering the very people we are obliged to save.

These words ring hollow with the daily revelations of sexual abuse cases—most recently the New York Timesexposé on the deaf children abused by Father Murphy in Wisconsin. The exponential spread of documents and stories surrounding clerical sexual abuse, from Wisconsin to Munich, has put the Vatican in a defensive posture against the media, circling the flaming wagons around its impervious leader. Making matters worse, the Pope tried to deflect from the mounting worldwide criticism with a stab at his detractors during his Palm Sunday homily, stating “Jesus leads us toward the courage not allowing oneself to be intimidated by the petty gossip of dominant opinion.”

I beg to differ, but this sexual abuse scandal is not petty gossip. It is hardcore fact. In another case, almost at the Vatican City doorstep, students from another school of the deaf in Verona, Italy are speaking out about their abuse. Alessandro Vantini described the sodomy he experienced as so brutal and relentless that he felt “as if I were dead.” A description like that cannot be filed under gossip. It is also not petty gossip when not one but two governmental commissions in Ireland, The Murphy and Ryan Reports, lay out in stark, horrendous detail the abuse of children at the hands of Irish Priests and nuns. Nor is it gossip when a United States Federal Appeals court allows sexual abuse lawsuits against the Vatican in Oregon and Kentucky to proceed. So whatever sentiment Pope Benedict was attempting to convey in his Palm Sunday homily, he succeeded in showing a profound insensitivity at a time of public moral outrage. By saying that the revelation of fact is gossip, he is accusing the press and media outlets of insufficient morality to judge the church. Unfortunately for the church, there are laws for each country the church operates in, laws that apply to Catholic clergy. Those laws may very well prohibit the Pope from traveling outside of the Vatican walls for fear of reprisals and perhaps arrest.

The reality is, it is going to be secular authorities that will drag this church kicking and screaming into the 21st century—and perhaps to justice. The language that the Church is using to defend the hierarchy (saying the Pope is the “leader in purification, reform and renewal that the church so very much needs” or, “the Pope’s letter to Irish Catholics was courageous”) is the language of a dying institution. These are people who trade in words, who argue incessantly in ecumenical dialogues about a word’s meaning. The problem is, the Vatican and its minions haven’t figured out that we are past the days of the monastic scribe, slowly chiseling out each word. The internet age has assured that their choice, ill-crafted words can be made available to everyone (assuming the church hasn’t shredded or put them under seal). No one is going to be put on the rack anymore for criticizing the Catholic Church, even if Benedict wishes it were so.

To put in perspective how slowly things happen at the Vatican, since 2001 there have been 3000 cases investigated by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), with 300 being incidences of pedophilia, and 600 priests defrocked in a ten-year period. These cases, according to Monsignor Charles J. Scicluna, represented sexual abuse cases that had occurred over the last fifty years. Unfortunately, this is a very small percentage of the cases worldwide, in part because Scicluna states that between 1975 and 1985, “I do not believe that any cases of pedophilia committed by priests were brought to the attention of our Congregation.” What he’s saying here is that they never saw the extent of these cases because they were handled on the diocesan level—much like the case of Father Hullermann, that Benedict (then still a Cardinal) is accused of mishandling. Ponder that. In a sense, the Vatican has known, but has never completely grasped as an organizational entity, the scope of the scandal worldwide. The ponderously top heavy organizational Church structure prevents it from acting quickly and decisively. Hence the Vatican doublespeak and rustling cassocks rushing to declare the Pope’s bravery and determination. Meanwhile, it is left up to the secular world to judge and find wanting the ramblings of a dying institution whose complicity in its own demise is astounding.

Protecting Doctrine, not Kids

While other clerics are praising the Pope for his leadership at the CDF during the time these cases came through, it would do them well to remember that this issue has been before the church long before 2001. This was the year that these sexual abuse cases were turned over to the CDF for Church oversight, headed by the leader of the CDF, Cardinal Ratzinger. Before it was renamed the CDF, this commission was called the Sacred Congregation of the Universal Inquisition. So perhaps this might not be the best place to work on sexual abuse cases. After all, it’s about protecting doctrine, not protecting the physical being of children, unless they are being taught teachings heretical to the Church. Which is what Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict, has been noted for, and why he does not have any other language from which to address this avalanche of deservingly bad press. This Pope is a theologian, more comfortable wielding doctrine than dealing with the real people who practice the Catholic faith. His language is theological language, which just doesn’t work well with the media, the Muslim world, or with governments charged with upholding laws.

The upshot of this is, this scandal is going to get much worse before it gets better. Despite the letter to Ireland, in which he bashed the secular world, his meeting with abuse victims here in the United States, and the whining about the press giving him a bad rap, this Pope is toast. Whether he resigns or not, his Papacy legacy is in tatters historically, unless he can pull off an amazing change of heart, and language. At 83 years of age, that is hard to do. At the very least he should certainly heed the calls for an emergency synod to deal with the scope of the scandal. For all of his “doctrinal purity,” he very well may be in charge of the destruction of the moral and temporal authority of the Roman Catholic Church as he knows it.

The Pope’s dogmatic stance of wanting a “pure” Church may come to pass—except that by the end of this scandal the “pure Church” will consist only of aging priests and clerics. The people of God and their money are going away, if they haven’t already. By putting the emphasis on the office of the priesthood, the Pope has ensured that the future of the Catholic Church will be in futile attempts at attempting to restore its evaporating moral authority. The Church will not be able to adequately insure its clergy with any reputable insurance agency against malpractice; educational institutions for youth will be stripped bare because of lawsuit payouts, and number of vocations, already low, will become even lower because of the stigma attached to being a priest. The test of Moral Credibility has been found wanting, and the handwriting is on the wall. Even the National Catholic Reporter’s editorial page has called for the Pope to provide answers. No doubt about it, this is perhaps the second biggest crisis in “Christendom,” outside of the Reformation. It may even cause another one.

It remains to be seen if the Catholic Church, starting with the Pope, is up to shouldering the blame, making repentance and providing full restitution, or if it will continue on with its reprobate behavior towards children. Somehow, I don’t think so. If the Pope can arrogantly state that Jesus would lead anyone to have courage to consider this scandal merely as petty gossip, I don’t think he gets the point of what Holy Week is about—even if he is a theologian.