AT FIRST GLANCE, some positive developments have emerged in the Catholic Church’s ongoing response to the clergy sex-abuse crisis. A wider range of Church officials than previously expected will convene in Rome this week to discuss the scandal. It looks as if the ground is being cleared for Bernard Cardinal Law’s resignation. Indeed, on Monday the Los Angeles Times reported that several American cardinals "planned to urge the Vatican" to ask Law to resign. And Pope John Paul II has issued a clearly worded statement condemning the abuse.
"Like you," the pope told Church leaders Tuesday, "I have been deeply grieved by the fact that priests ... whose vocation it is to help people live holy lives in the sight of God, have themselves caused such suffering and scandal to the young.... The abuse which has caused this crisis is by every standard wrong and rightly considered a crime by society; it is also an appalling sin in the eyes of God. To the victims and their families, wherever they may be, I express my profound sense of solidarity and concern."
Despite these positive developments, the hierarchy of the Catholic Church remains in denial about the magnitude of the problem. Take the pope’s address to bishops. "It is true that a generalized lack of knowledge of the nature of the problem and also at times the advice of clinical experts led bishops to make decisions which subsequent events showed to be wrong," he said.
This simply is not true, as Phoenix reporter Kristen Lombardi first showed more than a year ago. In 1985, the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, of which Law was then a member, was presented with a groundbreaking report outlining the extent of the clergy sex-abuse problem and the need for Church leaders to stem the tide. A "generalized lack of knowledge" about the problem wasn’t the issue, although the pope apparently still believes it was. Rather, the problem was Church leaders’ decisions to ignore reality. Furthermore, the pope’s reference to the "power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which ... can work extraordinary change" and his recent call on priests to be "perfect" show that the Church still doesn’t get it when it comes to how to deal with those who commit acts of sexual abuse. If these men could have decided to be perfect in the first place, they surely would have, and the Church wouldn’t be in its current mess.
Church leadership is clearly unwilling — and unable — to deal with the widespread clergy sex-abuse problem. This reckless resistance — as shown by a refusal to take unconditional responsibility for the abuse or to take steps to ensure it never happens again — is part of an internal-governance and accountability problem within the Catholic Church. This plays out in other damaging ways that go well beyond the clergy sex-abuse scandal. Many have called for the Church to re-examine its demand that priests remain celibate, but in fact the entirety of the Church’s teachings on sexuality needs re-examination. These teachings are completely at odds with the way life is lived today — and not just in the United States. Birth control, homosexuality, abortion — the Catholic leadership mouths one thing while the laity does another. Today, the Catholic Church is alone among Christian denominations in declaring birth control sinful. Beginning in the early 1900s, Protestant denominations changed their teachings on the issue in response to changing reality.
To be sure, the Church, as Vatican officials have pointed out in recent weeks, is not run via public-opinion polls. Nor should it be. But the rampant hypocrisy within the Church on these important issues is symptomatic of the rotten underpinnings of the Church’s teachings on sexuality. In the long run, Rome would be foolish to ignore the voices of American Catholics demanding change ranging from Law’s resignation to reconsideration of the celibacy issue. While there is little evidence Rome will listen, it ignores the voices of the laity at its peril.
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