The Costs of Failure

By Rev. Richard P. McBrien
The Tidings [Boston MA]
December 26, 2003

The Archdiocese of Boston announced earlier this month that it plans to sell one of its most symbolic properties, the cardinal's residence on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue and 28 acres of surrounding land. The sale is designed to help pay the $85 million settlement with some 540 victims of sexual abuse by members of the Boston clergy.

The new archbishop, Sean O'Malley, decided not to use the four-story mansion as his personal residence, but instead has taken a third-floor suite in the generally run-down cathedral rectory in the city's South End.

The announced plans to sell the official residence fulfills a pledge that Archbishop O'Malley made when he came to Boston last summer, namely, that no parish assets or funds from the archdiocese's annual appeal and capital campaigns would be used to pay legal settlements connected with the sexual-abuse scandal.

The issue of celibacy needs to be aired and honestly examined, and the church must be open in principle to adopting the most pastorally sound solutions -- solutions that are in keeping with the traditions of the whole Catholic Church.

Apart from some neighbors worried about how the land might eventually be developed, the announcement was greeted favorably even by some of the strongest critics of the archdiocese's previous administration. Others viewed it in bittersweet terms.

While the residence no longer serves any essential purpose in the work of the archdiocese, its sale represents a sobering turn of events for the once-proud Church of Boston.

The residence was originally conceived and built by Cardinal William O'Connell, who served as archbishop of Boston for 37 years, until his death in 1944. O'Connell thought of himself as an ecclesiastical monarch, and regarded his residence as a kind of Roman villa in keeping with his exalted status.

His grand style and authoritarian manner are captured in the title of one of his biographies, Militant and Triumphant (University of Notre Dame Press, 1992), by James O'Toole, currently a professor at Boston College.

Even those for whom the cardinal's residence holds no emotional attachment have winced upon hearing the news of the proposed sale. It serves as one more dramatic reminder of how seriously the reputation, stature, and financial condition of the Catholic Church in the United States have suffered because of the sexual-abuse scandal.

The scandal had already cost other, lesser-known dioceses, like Dallas, Texas, millions of dollars in settlements long before the scandal assumed national proportions in Boston two years ago this coming month. It is now cutting deeply into the financial muscle of other dioceses around the country, and there seems to be no end in sight.

The scandal has been the source of acute embarrassment for all categories of Catholics, has evoked the anger of people across the entire spectrum --- liberals, conservatives, and centrists alike --- and has generated calls for reform in the way the Church conducts its business.

To be sure, there are certain types of Catholics (calling them "conservatives" debases a good and dignified term) who condemn any and every attempt to link the scandal with the need for structural change. But structural changes are, in fact, required if the Church is to avoid a repeat and/or a debilitating continuation of this crisis.

Vocational recruitment, seminary admissions policies, education, and spiritual formation, the process of approving candidates for ordination, the system under which priests function in parishes --- all of these issues pertaining to the clergy are structural matters that need to be looked at and addressed accordingly.

The matter of obligatory celibacy for diocesan priests also requires careful consideration, notwithstanding the insistence of high-ranking figures that the issue is non-negotiable. However, the Catholic Church has had a married clergy for more than half of its 2,000-year history, and thousands of Catholic priests in Eastern-rite churches are married today.

Did the rule of celibacy cause the sexual-abuse crisis? There is no evidence of that. Is it an important factor in the crisis? Only an ecclesiastical ostrich would deny it.

The issue of celibacy needs to be aired and honestly examined, and the church must be open in principle to adopting the most pastorally sound solutions --- solutions that are in keeping with the traditions of the whole Catholic Church (not just the Roman Catholic Church), in the whole of its history, not just the past six or seven centuries.

But the sexual-abuse scandal raises other concerns as well: about the system by which bishops are selected and promoted within the hierarchy, about the role of the laity in the internal governance of the church, and about the process by which the church's official teachings on human sexuality are formulated.

As it begins a new year, the Catholic Church has the choice of dealing with this ongoing crisis piece-meal or comprehensively. For many observers, that choice is hardly a difficult one.

In the end, it will be a matter of leadership, or lack thereof.

Father Richard McBrien is the Crowley-O'Brien Professor of Theology at the University of Notre Dame.


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