By Greg Erlandson
One thing is certain about the Church’s sex abuse scandal: A lot of trees will die because of it.
It won’t be just because of the endless reams of newsprint that has already been consumed. There will be books and books. I, myself, with co-author Matthew Bunson, am going to be contributing to this woodland slaughter with a new book coming out next week called “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sex Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal.”
Other books have already been written, and I’m sure many more will come. The truth is that the crisis is so complex and multifaceted that it really takes far more than a newspaper article or a blog to get at all the varied strands: the crimes, the errors, the false starts at reform, and the current state of the issue.
But while reporters and historians will do the bulk of the writing, only a novelist will be able to do justice to some parts of the scandal: someone who can imagine his or her way into the minds and hearts of the various protagonists in this apparently unending saga of weakness, blindness and evil.
I thought of this again when I heard that another bishop had resigned. He didn’t resign because he had turned a blind eye, or had mishandled a guilty priest. He resigned because he himself had crossed the line and had abused someone.
The most recent case is a Belgian bishop named Roger Joseph Vangheluwe of Bruges.
Bishop Vangheluwe has admitted that, “when I was still just a priest, and for a certain period at the beginning of my episcopate, I sexually abused a minor.”
Now what is astounding to me is not the incident of abuse. Unfortunately, the last 25 years have made this sin less than astounding. No, what astonishes me is that he accepted ordination to the episcopate knowing what line he had crossed.
Many of us carry secrets of all sorts. The youthful escapade, an act of deceit, a crime never confessed. It is part of our original sin, and many novelists have reflected on, and written about the heart in darkness, this interior landscape of guilt, remorse and fear of discovery.
Yet as a priest who is esteemed enough to one day receive the call from the papal nuncio and be informed that the Holy Father wants to raise him to the episcopate — how does such a priest live with this secret, and yet have the nerve to say “Yes”?
There must be many ways of rationalizing this assent. Perhaps that particular offense has been compartmentalized and almost forgotten, or excused as the result of too much alcohol or too much stress. Perhaps it is the fear that saying “No” might raise more questions. Or does naked ambition simply make this risk worth taking? If men judge the trappings of the episcopacy to be worth the risk of shaming themselves and the Church they claim to serve, then something is terribly wrong.
In Bishop Vangheluwe’s sorry saga, it sounds like a case of “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Edgar Allan Poe’s famous short story. At a press conference he confessed that “over the course of these decades I have repeatedly recognized my guilt toward him and his family, and I have asked forgiveness; but this did not pacify him, as it did not pacify me.”
He continued: “The media storm of recent weeks has increased the trauma, and the situation is no longer tenable.”
Pope Benedict is calling for the spiritual renewal of the Church, and this renewal must start with the episcopate. Whether zero tolerance is the right policy for priests is a fair question, and one that is debated. But if we are to trust the men who are to lead us out of this terrible crisis, there must be zero tolerance for bishops.
Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher.