Since 1985, the Catholic Church in this country has been living in the shadow of the sexual abuse crisis. In 2002, revelations in Boston made it an institutional nightmare.
Now the nightmare is spreading. In Ireland, two devastating reports in recent months have virtually paralyzed the Church there and provoked a special summit at the Vatican between the Irish bishops and the pope.
More recently, the scandal has migrated, like some slow-moving moral pandemic, to the Continent. In Germany, revelations of abuse first leveled against a Jesuit high school have now begun to involve other institutions, including the Archdiocese of Munich, which Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger — now Pope Benedict XVI — headed before he went to Rome to head the doctrinal congregation.
There is a scurrilous rush by some both inside and outside the Church to tar Pope Benedict with this scandal. This serves a variety of ideological purposes, not least of which is to keep the Church on the defensive and to shred its moral credibility.
Pope Benedict, both as head of the congregation and as pope, has in word and deed addressed the scandal. Alas, as I have noted before, some of our other leaders in the past have given their enemies the club with which we are now being beat. An unfounded faith in psychological treatments, an unhealthy concern for institutional (and personal) reputation, and the appearance of greater concern for the abuser than the victim: All of these are failings that have come back to haunt us all.
There is little that can be said that has not already been said a hundred times before. This long, long purgatory may be what the Church needs to purify and renew itself, some say, but that renewal should come at the cost of so many innocents seems a conclusion more worthy of Herod than Christ.
The moral trajectory of sin and betrayal holds lessons for all of us, unfortunately. There is a climate of rationalization everywhere that society encourages, and it infects all of us, clergy and laity. How many laypeople, after all, routinely violate the teachings of the Church, rationalizing their abandonment and ignoring the victims of their unfaithfulness?
In all such sin, big and small, there is a choice. At one point, one moment, a decision is made to cross a line, to go down a dark path that we may even convince ourselves is bright.
We are uncomfortable thinking about this tipping point when temptation becomes something more, because we realize how vulnerable we all are. If we are honest with ourselves, we will realize how often sin steals upon us not with the drum beat of cloven hooves, but on quiet cat paws. We make a choice — to lie or cheat or gossip, to touch, to strike, or to simply do nothing when something is warranted — yet sometimes it happens so stealthily that only looking back do we realize with shame that the act of sinning began long before the sinful act itself.
The clergy sex abuse scandal is demonically perfect for causing us to recoil with horror. That it is only a fraction of all priests is something we must remind ourselves of, because the headlines and the stories are so discouraging. But if we are honest with ourselves, we will see that there is scandalous behavior all about us — some get headlines, most do not.
It comes back to sin, and no one has a corner on that market. The abuse crisis is leading to changes and reform in the Church, and that is undoubtedly a good thing. But these scandals are a reminder of the one thing that secular society most wants to ignore — that we are all sinners. The irony is that when we forget that truth, or assume we are immune, we take our first steps down that dark path.
Greg Erlandson is OSV’s president and publisher.