The pain and shame we feel at the sins of some members of the Church, and at our own, must never make us forget how many Christians are giving their lives in love
Pope Francis, Joy of the Gospel (76)
As news of another sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania leaks out, news arrived that Fr. Carlos Montes, SJ was murdered in Peru. As we celebrated the feast of St. Maximilian Kolbe, we are inspired by the sacrifices and witness of these holy Christian men and women who give their lives in love.
However, the cascade of horrible news continues this summer. This latest round once seemed unimaginable—a well-regarded and well-connected American Cardinal exposed as a serial sexual predator of young seminarians, priests, and young boys who was allowed to continue unfettered despite years of cover-ups. This was not rumor, it was well-established knowledge among the priests and chanceries of his previous dioceses. This is our new normal as American Catholics again confront the spectacle of sexual scandal among its clergy. Add to that the scandals in Australia and Chile, and this summer is simply discouraging.
It is easy to condemn and shame the perpetrators and argue that these are events from the past which have no relevance to the present. But I believe the easy answer isn’t the best answer. The best answer is to uncover the root causes and work to establish a new framework for our Church. In other words, construct a new culture, which is no easy task.
Allow me to discuss a quick parallel. This summer, scandal has rocked two Big 10 football programs. At Ohio State, the coach has been placed on leave due to allegations that he knew about domestic violence behavior perpetrated by one of his assistants. At Maryland, the death of a player after a workout has shone a spotlight on demeaning and reckless behavior by the coaching staff. Incredibly, yesterday the university admitted liability for the player’s death and apologized. It is clear that the culture of the programs put winning above all other concerns and the reputation of the coaches was paramount. And because the culture of football puts playing through pain and winning at all costs, the concussion crisis continues, leading concussion expert Dr. Bennet Omau to proclaim that “football is not of God.”
We are seeing how the American Catholic Church Church has allowed this to happen. How?
- Priests come first. As vocations have diminished, the value of a priestly vocation is valuable currency to bishops. Bishops work to attract potential priests and to protect current ones. Seminarians and priests can act like free agents—transferring dioceses, for example, or declining posts. Bishops often work to placate them and protect their reputations at all costs. This was the root of the problem found at English abbeys and schools.
- Most bishops only do what is absolutely required. Canon Law often conflicts with criminal and civil statutes. For example, the disciplinary process for priests is onerous and time-consuming. This is why we must put new measures of accountability which call our bishops to new standards of transparency and put the interests of vulnerable children and adults first, not the men in power. This might mean putting criminal before Canon Law. After all, a lay teacher can be suspended or fired with far less proof than is required for a priest.
- Priests are only trained in pastoral and theological ministry. We must not extend the same authority to all aspects of their lives and work. The laity give tremendous trust to their priests and bishops, believing their spiritual leadership extends to personnel, behavioral, and social arenas. This is where the laity must share the blame for these scandals. We have looked the other way and chosen to believe what we wanted to believe—namely, that all priests and bishops (“our spiritual fathers”) are good men who are good at everything and always have good intentions.
I find the suggestions by Archbishop Etienne of Anchorage as a good start but also believe that Cardinal Wuerl’s call for more lay participation as necessary. Stricter rules and thorough investigations are just the start. We need to work to establish a better Church culture where all Catholics are to be in the words of Pope Benedict “co-responsible” for its future.
So how do we create a better culture? I recently read a short piece by Andy Dunn on Medium entitled “Creating Culture: An Imperfect Recipe.” He lists four ways to create a better culture which have application to this situation:
- Motivate by Joy as Opposed to Fear. The Catholic Church has rules, lots of rules. But how much recognition. Among the clergy, are accomplishments honored? Are our parishes filled with celebration and joy? In our Catholic schools, healthy staff morale, happy students with school spirit, and spirited parents are found at all of our successful schools.
- Give the Company Away. When people are invested in decisions, they have skin in the game. I’m not suggesting that important theological decisions should be put to a popular vote. But we are finding success at the school level with Boards of Limited Jurisdiction that aren’t simply advisory. We may want to return to our congregational roots!
- Tribalism is the Enemy. Forming “out-groups” and “in-groups” is destructive. We find it in politics, we find it in our churches. We need to build bridges and work to promote cooperation. Dunn argues that the most important people to the culture are those who leave and he uses it to suggest that when we fire people, we are defining the culture. In this context, however, I suggest that listening to those who have left the church would teach us something about what we’re missing. In Catholic schools, we find success in conducting exit interviews AND listening to those who stay.
- We Learn More From Winning Than Losing. Where are we finding success? Duplicate that. For example, I would argue that Bishop Barron is reaching more people than any other auxiliary bishop. Why not celebrate that? Why not duplicate? Where else are we finding high participation and engagement? It would seem like our tendency now would be form investigative teams to smoke out offenders. But if this is done at the exclusion of spotlighting our successes, we miss an opportunity to create a better culture. Again in our Catholic school context, we learn far more from the successful Catholic schools than from post-mortem autopsies of closed schools.
This is not an exhaustive list of how to build a better culture. It’s only a start. Let’s open ourselves to innovative thinking and set our minds to improving.
I recommend Fr. James Martin’s piece “Tracing the Origins of Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church” from December 2017 as well as the NY Times obituary on Richard Sipe who passed away last week. Bishop Barron’s reflections are also worth your time.