How is a Catholic to make sense of the current sex abuse scandal? And even more difficult, try to explain it to our neighbors? 

There’s no question that a lot of the current attention is unfairly placed. Far from being another bishop enabler, the record thus far shows that Pope Benedict XVI actually has been a leader in addressing the issue, speaking plainly to the victims as well as to priests and bishops, encouraging the resolution of cases that have so damaged the Church’s credibility (see story, Page 4). And there’s no question that if the mainstream media’s goal is protection of children, it is disproportionately aiming its investigative resources at the Catholic Church, because child sex abuse is demonstrably more prevalent in civil society, including our public schools. 

But this is no excuse for what cannot be excused: the sexual abuse of children by representatives of the Church; priests, religious and lay workers. With the pope, we express our sorrow and our apology to the victims of such abusers, and with them, we must challenge our leaders — pastors and bishops and heads of religious orders — to address allegations immediately and fairly and to accept their responsibility to ensure the safety of our children. 

In the past, there was an unfortunate desire to protect the Church from scandal, and an unfortunate willingness to accept the recommendations of psychiatrists and treatment centers regarding the potential for rehabilitating abusers.  

Plain common sense and good Christian sensibility would have dictated better courses of action, and it is to the lasting shame of the Church that its own moral and canonical rules were not more closely followed. 

While the past is impossible to defend, the present is a different story. True, here and there a culture of secrecy still has a grip on Church chanceries and parish offices, undermining communication that leads to building a true communion of believers. While we all understand that the Church is not a democracy or a political institution, too often “discretion” and “confidentiality” can become excuses for limiting accountability and obscuring responsibility.  

In general, though, the Church in the United States is a healthier, purer Church than it was when the major scandal first broke on the pages of the Boston Globe in 2002. Much of that is due to the “zero-tolerance” Dallas Charter approved by the bishops to standardize ways of handling abuse allegations, vet Church workers, and make parishes and Church properties “safe environments” for children. 

But a look at allegations data shows earlier seeds of reform. Incidents of alleged sex abuse peaked in the 1960s and 1970s, and in the early 1980s began a slow but steady decrease. Out of 68 million Catholic Americans, there were six reported credible incidents of clerical sex abuse in 2009 — six too many, but much fewer than the hundreds annually a few short decades ago. 

One reasons is that seminary formation is much more thorough today, especially in areas of psychological health and sexuality, than it was a few decades ago. 

The Church in Europe and other parts of the world that appear now to be at the start of their own clerical sex abuse scandals can take advantage of the U.S. Church’s painfully earned experience and adopt similar reforms. 

But no merely bureaucratic or structural reforms can prevent sin, even if they help keep us vigilant to the problem. 

The root of this scandal is spiritual failure. Most of us had no part in creating it, but we all have a responsibility to help repair it through our prayers and vigorous pursuit of conversion.