Now three months out from the initial allegations against ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick and a month out from the Pennsylvania grand jury report on clergy sexual abuse of minors, Catholics understandably feel battered.
The storm seems to have no end in sight, especially with several other states following the lead of Pennsylvania and announcing their own civil and criminal probes into the issue (see our story). Facing this reality on the heels of a summer of bad news for the Church, it’s worth offering some perspective on the path on which the people of God now find ourselves.
First, everything is coming out. This reality will be awful, painful and shameful for Catholics — but it will be cleansing. In the wake of the 2002 eruption of the abuse crisis, U.S. dioceses provided statistics to researchers commissioned to explore the scope of the problem. And those numbers have grown with the steady trickle of new allegations (most of them dating back decades before 2002) that have emerged from year to year.
Now, with criminal investigators doing a deep scouring of records and combing for survivors and witnesses, the statistics will be brought to life in harrowing narrative detail. This horrific parade of sin, as we have already seen, has a way of poisoning the atmosphere of the Church. True to its nature, the evil of abuse creates ripples of mistrust.
Priests — the overwhelming majority of whom are innocent of this behavior — are viewed with suspicion rather than as spiritual fathers and mentors to our children.
The U.S. bishops — who have experienced a near-total generational turnover in the United States since the days of routine cover-up and reassignment of offenders — see their voice and moral authority sapped.
And laypeople have been robbed of the assurance of their faith as a place they can turn — for guidance, for encouragement, for grounding in moral values, and for a sense that the divine intersects with our world and all its problems.
But there is reason to hope. The Church has a hard-won understanding of how both predation and safe environments work. Necessary safeguards and boundaries are now in place so that relationships of trust can once again be fostered and produce fruit over time, now with the awareness and the vigilance we were so sorely lacking for so long.
The next several years will not be enjoyable. They will not be pretty. They will be prolonged and penitential. But they will be an earnest, if plodding, movement toward justice and healing.
Our Gospel mission might feel different coming from a place of such acute awareness of our Church’s past failings. But a humbled witness and a more authentic witness are not mutually exclusive. And as God ever challenges us all to deeper faith, all Catholics should hold on to the assurance that the Holy Spirit is at work in this storm and ordering everything according to God’s will.
In light of the next rounds of shoes to drop, living out the Faith in this hope will prove daunting day-to-day and even year-to-year. But this deeper, faith-filled perspective will make this a cross we can all cling to as one in the midst of the storm.
OSV Editorial Board: Don Clemmer, Gretchen R. Crowe, Scott Richert, York Young