Transform the Church

Cape Cod Times [Massachusetts]
February 28, 2004

The sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church is so endemic that a church council must establish a new order.

In the past 50 years, 32 priests who served in the Catholic Diocese of Fall River, which includes the Cape and islands, have been accused of molesting minors, according to a clergy sex-abuse report released last week.

The 216 claims made against those priests cost the church $16 million to settle. The costs in human suffering are incalculable.

Nationwide, about 4,450 of the 110,000 clergy who served since 1950 have been accused of molesting minors. That's about 4 percent of all Catholic priests, more than double earlier estimates.

To better illustrate the widespread and pervasive nature of this crisis, an investigative team at the Dallas Morning News reported in June 2002 that two thirds of the bishops in Roman Catholic dioceses in the United States have in some way protected or concealed offender priests or brothers.

This is more than a priest-predator crisis. This is a leadership crisis. It's also a crisis in the Church worldwide, not just the Catholic Church in the United States.

"If we are to attack this problem root and branch, let's be clear that the roots are in Rome, from where the policy was enforced that protection of the institution's reputation from scandal took priority over nearly anything else," said the Jesuit writer and scholar, Raymond Helmick.

"That is not to say that the pope did it: This is the sort of thing that comes from bureaucracy," Helmick said, writing in Human Development magazine and reprinted recently in the Bulletin of the Boston Theological Institute. "Nor should we be surprised. This is the way of large institutions, as examples ranging from Enron to the U.S. government constantly teach us. Bishops, too timid to even criticize, have simply followed institutional procedures."

This institutional or systemic problem is best personified in Cardinal Bernard Law. If anyone thinks that Rome was unaware of the crisis Law encountered in Boston long before it erupted, then he or she knows little of the Catholic Church.

So what must be done to correct this leadership-institutional problem? In Helmick's mind, nothing short of a church council, similar to Vatican II, is necessary to confront this catastrophe.

"Our ills are so endemic to the system that it is mere evasion to heap all the blame on individuals," he said.

Among other things, the very governance of the church must be transformed.

Currently, Helmick argues, church governance is modeled after Roman law, the secular system in place as the early church began to expand.

"That law is Roman but has essentially no Christian character to it," he said. "It is the law of the Empire, and its governing premise is that the will of the sovereign is law. That this should become the basis of Canon law is entirely anomalous. It is the very system of domination that Christ so explicitly rejects for his followers."

A fundamental flaw in Roman law is that "there is no room in it for the accountability of those who govern to those whom they govern."

Helmick asks: "Are we capable, then, of constructing a system of internal order for our church that would genuinely spring from sources within the Christian Gospel tradition?"

The Second Vatican Council attempted to begin this discussion in the first chapters of "Lumen Gentium," the Dogmatic Constitution of the Church. "(B)ut they have since been negated, first by a distrustful period of anxiety, and then by a concentrated period of clawing back from any tendencies toward the accountability of those who govern," Helmick said.

That is why another church council must be convened to finish the work of Vatican II and to respond to a crisis no less significant than the one so poorly managed by the Catholic Church in the 16th century.


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