The Church's Challenge

By Eileen P. Flynn
New York Post [United States]
Downloaded February 26, 2004

February 26, 2004 -- CATHOLICS and all Americans will get sobering data tomorrow: The National Review Board will tell us what it has learned about how many priests sexually abused children in the 195 U.S. dioceses over the last half-century.

The report also covers how many credible charges were brought by minors and how much money was paid in settlements.

When I was going to Catholic schools from the 1940s to the '60s, and taking my children to Sunday Mass in the '70s and '80s, I never imagined that the Church in America would be contending with such a hideous pile of muck. But, here we are, finally about to face the full extent of what has happened and wondering how we can move on.

It is not easy to envision how the Church will emerge from this crisis. Everyone realizes that significant hurdles remain to be cleared:

First comes the need to correct flaws in church governance. Those of us who watched as the scandal played out know that the crisis is less about a small percentage of criminal priests and more about the egregious negligence of the bishops who supervised these priests and let them continue in ministry.

The first breakthrough in the sex-abuse crisis was when leaders among the bishops admitted that the reassignment of priest molesters would not have happened if lay people had collaborated with the bishops in personnel administration. Bishops recognized that moms and dads would never have allowed multiple abusers to be reassigned, and they confessed that they were guilty of dreadful mismanagement by continuing to staff Catholic facilities with known sexual molesters.

In keeping with the mandate of Vatican Council II that lay people exercise meaningful roles in the governance of the Church, bishops promised that things would change, that they'd implement this directive of Vatican II. But two years after the abuse scandal erupted, the folks who sit in the pews still have not been included in oversight of either Catholic parishes or dioceses.

Except for the lay review boards that have been established to investigate allegations of clergy sexual misconduct, there has been no structural change.

Catholics know that their choice is between continued passive membership in the Church and leaving the institution that has been their spiritual home. The resulting frustration and anger exacerbates the woes Catholics feel in the aftermath of the crisis.

The National Review Board's report will give us data about what happened, but it won't address the important question of how the bishops could have exhibited such moral blindness. The hierarchy preaches a clear and uncompromising sexual morality, but failed miserably when it came to dealing with sexual misconduct in their own house. Why were Catholic bishops not horrified at the harm suffered by children at the hands of priests? Why did they let it continue - indeed, by using Church funds to buy the silence of victims, enable it to continue?

Were the bishops impossibly dense or incredibly arrogant? As Catholics ponder the National Review Board's data, this question will certainly surface. If the bishops who reassigned offender priests did it out of ignorance of what was going on, then the hierarchy will need to show how it has matured and can be counted on to act in a reasonable and responsible manner going forward. If, on the other hand, the bishops who reassigned abuser priests did it because they considered themselves above the law, then they need to give up their mitres and scepters and do penance.

The bishops who remain as leaders of the Catholic Church after the dust settles need to start engaging in straight talk about what ails the Church in the United States. There are not enough priests and there are not enough recruits for the priesthood so that, going forward, churches will have to be closed and Catholics will be denied the sacraments. Failing to talk about this problem now will cause dire consequences down the road. And dire consequences are now something well understood by Catholics.

Eileen P. Flynn ( is is a professor at Saint Peter's College, Jersey City, and author of "Catholics at a Crossroads: Coverup, Crisis, and Cure."