Holly Hunter appears in the TNT cable television series, Saving Grace, as Grace Hanadarko, an Oklahoma detective, with a self-destructive tendency, indulging in alcohol, cigarettes and gratuitous sex, while her “last chance” angel attempts to bring her back to the “saving grace” of God. (1)
The Catholic Church reminds me of this character. Lost, defiant and continuing on its self-destructive path, in spite of the pleas of those around Her… needing to be saved, but just not aware of it.
And that is the crux of the matter, how can a church repair its image, if it doesn’t really understand the damage it has caused to its members? Not just to the victims of child sexual abuse, but to all its members when it continues to deny, cover-up and justify the actions of her priests and hierarchy.
Still, it has survived for two thousand years, with many episodes of admirable and not so admirable moments in her past, in fact, at times, actions which could certainly be called evil. Who could forget the Inquisition? Where was the church during the Holocaust? There have been many times in its checkered past when the Catholic Church has put the needs of the universal church above the needs, even the lives of its smallest and weakest members.
However, the Catholic Church has also been a place of refuge, of inspiration, of hope and love for thousands throughout its history. As with any group or organization, it is made up of humans and by default, it is subject to both their best and worst characteristics.
Every day we hear of more allegations of sexual abuse of children. What was once considered an American problem has quickly become a worldwide tragedy, with the youth of Ireland and Germany its latest victims.
And now, even the Pope himself, is being implicated for failing to act while he was Archbishop of Munich (1977-82) and prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (1982-2005) (2) How does the leader of a religious body as large, as important to so many lives, as the Catholic Church, deal with guilt leading all the way up to the Holy See? No one is implying that Pope Benedict committed these acts. But does covering up the victimization and abuse of children by someone in your organization to protect the universal church bear the same weight of responsibility? In my opinion, absolutely!
So what is a church, more importantly, a pope, to do?
First and foremost, take responsibility.
That’s it, no excuses. From the pope down to the local parish priest, the Catholic Church has to be willing to acknowledge that as a whole, the Church has failed its tiniest members by allowing their abuse to continue. Whatever progress has been made, it’s obvious from recent allegations, which have surfaced in both Ireland and Germany that this issue will continue to plague the Church for some time to come.
It seems to me that as an authority figure, it is a difficult thing to admit to failure or a bad decision. We see this happen in every aspect of life, be it a political figure unwilling to say, “The buck stops here. I made a poor decision.” Or a religious leader, hiding a lifestyle they openly condemn, a principal in a school whose students have run amuck to yes, even parents unwilling to see how their parenting styles or lack thereof, have contributed to a child’s bad behavior. So number one, the church must take responsibility.
One of the Ten Commandments says, “Thou shalt not lie.” The hierarchy must take the commandments that they profess to believe in seriously and quit the cover-ups. And those who participated in these protections, switching accused priests to a different parish, only to avoid scandal, and allowing them to abuse again, must be held accountable, even if one of those happens to be the pope. As the saying goes, what would Jesus do?
I grew up Catholic in a parochial school that did in fact have as its parish leader, one of these sexually abusing priests. When one victim stepped forward in confidence to the local Diocesan officials, he was not told for three years that in fact, three other men had made similar allegations. (3) It was not only a lie but it also perpetuated the victimization and pain that this young man had already experienced as a small child. The Catholic Church has to be courageous enough to bravely quit the cover-ups.
Third is a simple step but seems to be completely overlooked.
Apologize, apologize, apologize some more.
Yes, it does help. How can a man, supposedly acting in God’s behalf, not be willing to say “I’m sorry”? What if they had no hand in either the abuse or the cover ups? In my opinion, it doesn’t matter. If you are a member of a body such as the Catholic Church, which has protected and harbored pedophiles, it is still your responsibility to come forward and let its members know how truly sorry you are for the pain that your brothers have caused. Unfortunately, it is part of the collective guilt the priesthood now carries.
Fourthly, make reparations, with money if needed. It’s certainly one way to make up for the loss of childhood, the loss of innocence, the destruction of a child’s trust in those of authority, the loss even of a child’s belief in God.
But who is to pay for this pain, so callously inflicted on the youth of the church? I remember attending Mass in Santa Fe, New Mexico, about fifteen years ago. An offering basket was passed to help the parish pay for the enormous financial stress they were experiencing because of attorney fees, settlements, etc. associated with victim’s cases of sexual abuse. I remember thinking, “I didn’t abuse a child”. I was pretty sure the people around me hadn’t. I was reasonably sure that the priest leading the service had had nothing to do with either the abuse or covering it up. So why were we being asked to pay for the ramifications of these cases. “Let the church sell a painting,” I thought and I meant it. I still mean it. So what if the Vatican has to sell all of its treasures to repay these adult children of abuse by priests. Just as a company is responsible for the actions of its employees, so should the church be held accountable for its “workers”, namely the priests they have entrusted its members care.
What about counseling services to those who were abused? Certainly, that would be a good use of its funds. Provide money for research into why people develop these urges. At least then, the knowledge gained by the past mistakes of priests, could contribute to the common good. Understand that this is a sexual disorder and that although some may be, most, are probably not inherently evil men. But make no mistake that their actions are wrong, wrong, wrong and that the youth of the church must be protected.
Make sure that victims understand that the abuse was not their fault. They did nothing wrong. Help them remove the shame, the fear, the loss of trust, and provide the resources to help them make the transition from victim to survivor. Let them experience their anger, their grief, their sorrow so that they can heal from the abuse and discover that life is good and full of hope and promise for their future.
And lastly, make absolutely sure that it never happens again, and if you can’t do that, by God, don’t cover it up. Stop letting the priesthood be a safe place for these men with sexual disorders. Don’t hide their actions. Quit worrying about the image of the church, quit worrying about financial ramifications, practice what you preach. Report their actions to the proper authorities. And if there is the slightest chance that they are capable of harming a child, make sure that their access is cut off. What good is an institution dedicated to saving men’s souls, if they have lost theirs in the process?
I happened to be at the entrance of St. Patrick Cathedral in Ft. Worth, Texas on Sunday as Mass was ending. As people filed out of the church, with smiles on their faces, joy in their hearts, uplifted and ready to face another working week, I pondered a question my husband had recently asked of me…”Why are people not leaving the Roman Catholic Church in droves as the sexual abuse allegations and cover-ups continue to surface? Hasn’t the Church lost all its moral authority?” In many ways, I agree with his assessment, but having been raised in the Catholic Church, I also know that the reason people stay is hard to put into words. It’s a love of the traditions, the history, the rituals, and most importantly, according to Father Andrew Greeley, it’s the stories. Just as you can’t completely cut yourself off from a dysfunctional family, the same dynamic is sometimes true of your “birth” church. And ultimately, the church is not about the hierarchy, it’s about the people and their beliefs.
It will take a very brave man, an extremely courageous church to turn and face the destruction that a portion of its brothers have enacted on its laity. But this is what the church of the future needs, a leader that will do what Christ would do, clean out the temple and then surround the most hurt and damaged of His followers with love and concern and support. Let’s hope for all the pain that these were forced to endure, the Catholic Church of the future will find in its time of darkness – saving grace.