It’s been more than 16 years since the Boston Globe broke a story in January 2002, detailing the sexual abuse of children by more than 70 priests and the actions taken by Cardinal Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, to hide the crimes. American Catholics were stunned. As the scandal garnered ever more attention, other victims came forward and told their stories of abuse. For most Catholics, it was terribly dismaying; for many, it shook them to the very core of their faith. Some simply walked away, never to return.
Following the revelations, came outrage — and then courage. No longer willing to remain silent and adhere to the old beliefs that priests and bishops were all-powerful, lay Catholics (aided by lawsuits and media attention) began to speak up and insist on changes and oversight. From the Vatican down, the Church was forced to accept and deal with the fact that pedophilia existed inside the institution, and no confessional or transfer of a rapist between parishes was going to fix a damaged child or cure a pedophile priest.
Offenders were held accountable and many removed from contact with the public. The United States Council of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) instituted awareness training for everyone in its flock who worked or volunteered with children. I’m not going to pretend it doesn’t irritate me that lay volunteers who work with kids must now take training classes and submit to background checks because of the failures of our clergy, but I get it.
Eventually things returned to a new sense of normal. It seemed the terrible beast running loose inside the Church had been hobbled.
So, last week’s bombshell report by a grand jury investigation into the sexual misconduct of more than 300 priests in six Pennsylvania dioceses over the past 70 years was stunning. Not only were the numbers horrific — more than 1,000 identifiable victims and likely thousands more we’ll never know about — but the details of ongoing efforts of bishops, cardinals, and others inside the Catholic Church to cover up the crimes is nauseating. Priests were shuffled about, victims either persuaded or paid to keep silent, and police officers urged not to investigate complaints.
If we have learned one thing from the report, it’s that the enormity of the nightmare can largely be placed at the feet of the USCCB. The Rev. James Faluszczak, an Erie priest on extended leave, was abused as a child. During his testimony to the grand jury he said, “It’s that very management of secrets that has given cover to predators. ”
The 884-page report is just awful. It describes pedophile rings, rapes of children as young as 7, and countless other horrible acts. I won’t go into the sordid details. The introductory paragraph in the investigation’s report sums up the emotions of the group: “We, the members of this grand jury, need you to hear this…There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”
Everywhere. That’s a frightening realization. Six dioceses in just one state. Is Pennsylvania an anomaly? Or is there more out there that’s been covered up church hierarchy?
In an interview earlier this month with the Catholic World Report, veteran Catholic journalist Philip F. Lawler spoke to the issue. He says some of the key factors in the abuse scandal first began during the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s when the Church’s teachings on sexuality came under assault: “[S]eminarians were no longer trained to keep the battles for chastity…And of course there were other factors sapping priestly morale: the decline in Mass attendance, the defections from the clergy, and so forth. Quite a few priests lost their way, I’m afraid.”
The journalist says records show that during the 1980s, American bishops were “routinely ignoring and/or covering up clerical abuse.” And, although radical theologians and bishops would love to pin most of the blame for the abuse scandal on Pope John Paul II, “the evidence is quite clear: the bishops had authority to deal with the problem, and they didn’t.”
In fact, he says the Church’s hierarchy in the U.S. had a history of “covering up abuse by priests but also of bishops engaging in sexual misconduct with priests and seminarians.” Lawler warns that U.S. bishops are “hopelessly compromised in terms of credibility on this issue.”
On Thursday, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, president of the USCCB, released a statement apologizing and asking forgiveness for himself and his brother bishops. He fully admits to the failure of episcopal leadership as a root cause of the problem and calls it “a moral catastrophe.” DiNardo admits that all bishops are damaged by these sins and failures and it will take much work to rebuild the trust.
He also acknowledges the catastrophic harm that has been done to reputations of the vast majority of good and faithful priests who have been swept up in this scandal. Those good men of God have suffered needlessly.
It will take a long time to process this latest betrayal. But while some within the Church may be weak, the institution’s tenets and beliefs remain bedrock strong. And difficult as it may be to accept, one of those tenets is forgiveness.