Church at the crossroads


It has been a long and, for Catholics, frequently excruciating eight years since the Roman Catholic sexual abuse scandal broke in the U.S. in early 2002.

A similar firestorm over the abuse of children by priests, and the hierarchy’s failure to stop it, is now engulfing the church in Ireland and in Germany. Moreover, Pope Benedict XVI himself is now under fire, the fact having emerged that when he was archbishop of Munich in 1980, a known pedophile priest came to his diocese and was assigned to parish work. Whether then-Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger knew about this decision or not, it happened while he was in charge.

However, a sense of the overall arc of the abuse scandal seems necessary to gain perspective. First, the Catholic Church has made great strides in its handling of abuse cases. The vast majority of cases at issue over the last eight years, both in the U.S., and now in Europe, took place before the 1990s. Church officials long ago discarded the misguided notions that pedophilia can be successfully "cured" with therapy and that Christian forgiveness means allowing abusive priests to continue in ministry.

Moreover, since 2001, Benedict has been part of the solution, as John L. Allen Jr., Vatican correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter, pointed out in an op-ed article Sunday in The New York Times. That was the year that then-Pope John Paul II gave then-Cardinal Ratzinger, head of the Vatican Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, responsibility over the handling of sexual abuse cases. Before this, cases were handled -- frequently mishandled or ignored -- by the diocese where the alleged abuse occurred.

Benedict reportedly reviewed the documentation of every abuse case and seemed appalled over what he later called the "filth" in the church. A majority of the abuse cases he reviewed were resolved with clear and direct administrative action, bypassing lengthy church trials. Benedict even removed the priestly capacity of the founder of the Legionaries of Christ -- a man and a religious order dear to John Paul II -- when the long and sorry history of abuse by this priest was made clear. Benedict has also been the first pope to meet with abuse victims.

Those who are waiting for this pope to resign will be disappointed. Those who hope the church will abolish celibacy for priests and ordain women any time soon also will be disappointed. Yet if the church hopes to ever restore its moral credibility in the wider world and reverse the course of increasing marginalization it seems to be on, it will need to let the full truth about abuse and its cover-up come out and make full amends wherever possible.

Moreover, this hierarchical, highly centralized church needs to find some way to energize and inspire its "base" if it hopes for renewal. Tens of millions of lay Catholics throughout the world not only want the best for their church but are in a very real sense the church itself. Including more lay men and women in the governance structures of the church, from local dioceses to the Vatican itself, would require no changes in doctrine. This could do much to overcome the clerical culture of secrecy and defensiveness toward the secular world that has contributed so much to the abuse crisis.

Even some close the Vatican seem to get it. A recent article by an Italian journalist in L’Osservatore Romano -- the semi-official Vatican newspaper -- called for more women in leadership roles in the church, as women, both nuns and lay people, would have been more likely to defend children in cases of abuse.

Incorporating more lay people in church decision making would not compromise the hierarchy’s authority to shephard the church. It might, however, help insure that bishops and cardinals behave not as secretive heads of corporations, hoarding their power and covering their backs behind a wall of silence, but as servant-leaders, conducting the church’s business with openness, transparency and charity.



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