Catholics may be sick of clerical sex abuse stories, but they can't be ignored

We’ve received several emails and letters from readers, pleading, essentially, “Enough!” of our coverage of the clerical sex abuse crisis. One said she was “weary of the continuing barrage of information on the sexual scandal in the Church. I know that it has happened; I know that the Holy Father is doing everything in his power to respond to it. I just do not think that we need to hear so much about it.”

Even as the co-author of a recent book on Pope Benedict XVI and the crisis, I find myself wanting to agree. We are all tired of this topic. It is a bad news story that won’t go away. Many of us have been dealing with news of the scandals since 1985 — a quarter of a century.

Suffering PTSD

As moms and dads, brothers and sisters, our hearts have ached for the victims, these boys and girls who were betrayed by figures they trusted, by priests and religious who used the signs and symbols of their privileged state to exploit the most defenseless. This abuse has caused a lifetime of damage each time it occurred. And when those responsible for such abusers failed to stop them, the victims and we ourselves were betrayed again.

To a certain extent, we are suffering from a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder, especially in this country. We just want this nightmare to end.

But it hasn’t. The reality is that the topic hasn’t gone away. Pope Benedict himself clearly recognizes that silence is not an option, that the truth will set us free.

Moreover, in the midst of all this, there is good news. Much has been accomplished, and contrary to the media message, this pope and his leadership is a big part of that good news.

Most importantly, we need to keep addressing this issue because our desire to avoid the topic may be part of the problem. Catholics need to stand up, not shut up, and that means we must start by getting informed.

This latest round of bad news began at the start of the year, when the situation in the Irish Church came to a head, followed by a wave of abuse allegations across Europe, and a flurry of reporting by The New York Times on decades-old American abuse cases that Pope Benedict, as head of the Vatican office now tasked with handling abuse cases, may have had a part in handling.

This left Catholics reeling, and once again on the defensive.

Some blamed it all on media bias, but after all the years and scandals we have endured, that is a pretty weak argument if it stands alone. Some Catholics cynically assumed the Church must be guilty, the pope must be guilty, of whatever the media accused them of. And some Catholics used the wave of stories to make broader assertions about celibacy, about homosexuality and the priesthood, about women’s ordination.

Catholic amnesia

As Catholics, so many of us forgot what we once knew. In 2002, the U.S. bishops instituted a radical and wide-ranging series of proposals known as the Dallas Charter. To read recent news stories that involved incidents that occurred decades before the Dallas Charter, one could easily assume that the Church had done nothing, had learned nothing.

The truth is that no other institution in society has imposed such a demanding and rigorous set of rules for itself. No other institution has gone to such lengths to provide a safe environment for all children through educational programs as well as by screening priests, employees and volunteers. And no other institution has agreed to an annual audit to measure how well it is doing.

A recent Washington Post exposé of a teacher who was a predator who had abused dozens of children and moved around a variety of school systems without being caught quoted a lawyer for one school system as justifying their inaction despite warnings: “You just can’t fire someone because a complaint is made and the investigation shows no criminal activity. ... Once you hire them, they have certain rights, and you can’t just say, ‘You’re gone.’

”But the U.S. bishops have imposed a far tougher standard: immediate suspension when an allegation is made, and total removal from ministry if the allegation is judged credible.

Second, Pope Benedict has been an outstanding leader who, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as pontiff, has both walked the walk and talked the talk when it has come to the abuse crisis.

The pope’s plan

As cardinal, he worked with Pope John Paul II to clarify the canonical procedures for reviewing abuse cases, returning to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith its traditional authority to review all clergy abuse cases rather than allow them to be subject to the uneven and perhaps inadequate procedures of each local church.

As pope, he moved quickly to resolve certain outstanding cases, most dramatically the notorious case of Father Marcial Maciel, the founder of the Legionaries of Christ.

He was instrumental in supporting Vatican approval for the U.S. norms, and has now moved this past month to make many of these norms universal.

He has spoken out repeatedly on the abuse crisis in highly visible venues, including during his visit to the United States in 2008.

He has apologized, plainly and openly. His most eloquent apology, perhaps, is in his pastoral letter to the Catholics of Ireland. To the victims of clergy sexual abuse, he wrote: “You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated.”

In 2008 and on several other occasions he has also met with the victims of abuse, has heard their stories, wept with them and prayed with them.

He has made it clear that bishops must confront this evil, and has shown he is willing to accept the resignations of bishops. He has sent a clear signal that bishops are responsible for addressing abuse cases thoroughly and appropriately.

The pope’s letter to the Catholics of Ireland is unparalleled in its clarity and directness. It is also important because it presents most clearly his call for renewal. While specific to the Irish Church, it provides a first step for a much broader spiritual renewal of the Church that Pope Benedict is seeking.

In particular, he calls on Catholics to offer up Friday penances — fasting, prayer, the reading of Scripture and works of mercy — for the grace of healing; a return to the Sacrament of Reconciliation; Eucharistic Adoration for reparation for the sins of abuse and a deeper sense of mission; nationwide mission; and prayers for priests.

Seeds of renewal

These are the seeds of what could become a great period of renewal, if we seize the moment. In his appeal, the pope harkens back to the many other crises in the Church’s history, those dark moments when hope seems lost until someone like St. Francis or St. Catherine of Siena comes upon the scene and a new dawn is born.

But this doesn’t make news. There is obviously a lot more going on here than concern about 50-year-old sexual abuse cases. Catholics, even more than non-Catholics, seem eager to use the scandals to advance their agendas. Some conservative Catholics use the scandals to challenge the authority of the bishops, some liberal Catholics are using the scandals to challenge the authority of the pope and Church teaching, and some ex-Catholics are using the scandals the justify what they were going to do anyway, which is leave.

And all of this, in the secular media, some Catholic publications and, most importantly, the Internet, has left ordinary Catholics in a state of absolute confusion.

It is no secret that most Catholics get most of their information about their own Church from the secular news media. Time magazine is read by more Catholics than any Catholic publication, which means that when it gets the story grievously wrong, as it did when it published its egregious cover story claiming that “Being Pope Means Never Having to Say You’re Sorry,” its ill-influence is enormous. As a Church, we are paying a steep price for this.

Weakened credibility

Hard to measure will be the lasting effects of the abuse controversy and the taint now associated with the Church, but it is beginning to look semi-permanent, at least for the foreseeable future.

Being the butt of Jay Leno jokes is not persecution of a noble sort, but it is a barometer of social disdain, and the Church has become fixed in the popular mind as an organization that has actively cultivated a climate of sexual abuse. This slur easily merges with the vestigial anti-Catholicism of American society and the old black legends about lecherous priests.

The result is that the scandals have marginalized the one institution that can raise a voice against a variety of social wrongs, including the broader epidemic of child abuse and child pornography, as well as treatment of the poor and most vulnerable. Its credibility has been weakened. Even worse, its credibility among its own people has been weakened.

This is where we must step up. And this is why it is important to get this story out, as unpleasant as it is, and as weary of it as we are.

Greg Erlandson is OSV president and publisher and recent co-author of “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal” (OSV, $12.95).