Five Years Later

Catholic Online [United States]
December 27, 2006

Five years ago, the clergy sex-abuse scandal erupted on the front pages of The Boston Globe. In the ensuing firestorm, bishops resigned, dioceses facing big lawsuits went bankrupt and hundreds of priests were suspended from ministry. The scandal has consumed much of the church's focus and energy since 2002 began.

After implementing the most stringent policies ever for addressing abuse, the church may have seen the worst of it. While some dioceses are still dealing with significant numbers of cases and resultant financial concerns, the ire has waned, the lawsuits have slowed and priests recently ordained have seemed to be avoiding cause for scandal. It's time to take stock of what has transpired.

First, the formation of seminarians and priests today is more closely scrutinized. The Vatican has recommended against admitting homosexual candidates. Compliance varies among dioceses, but a Vatican-led study of U.S. seminaries planned primarily for reasons other than the scandal and other advice has urged the bishops to re-examine their seminaries.

Second, the universal church has grown aware that it isn't just an American crisis. It calls for palpable signs of repentance and evidence that the bishops finally "get it." Pope Benedict XVI's preacher of the papal household, Capuchin Father Raniero Cantalamessa, recently called for a churchwide day of repentance for crimes committed against its youths its most visible role models.

Third, it isn't just priests. Slowly, society is looking at how public schools, hospitals, daycare centers and others respond to child abuse in their midst.

The picture isn't pretty; the same rash judgments by psychiatrists and self-protective instincts on the part of corporations and organizations afflict other institutions. As crime reports attest, sexual abuse is a big social problem impacted by the shattering of families, the oversexualization of culture and the rise of Web-driven pornography.

The church has repented of its lapses and has taken steps to step up its institutional response to abuse. Perhaps the biggest lesson it is still learning is transparency. The church today can't operate as if it has some sort of protected status in society. It must, both from a gospel mandate and for self-preservation, become more transparent not only in to abuse cases, but also on finances.

The policies adopted in 2002, although criticized as too stringent and insensitive to the rights of the accused, are a manifest expression of the belief that the church must hold itself to a higher standard. If our ordained and lay leaders do not live by the teachings they profess, the consequences for human souls will be dire.

The church has made strides, but the same cannot necessarily be said about the rest of society. The media have not examined other institutions, and social problems keep spiraling out of control. Although the church has repeatedly asked forgiveness for its members' actions, the psychiatric profession has not apologized for the years of bad advice it gave to bishops, principals and others.

Other institutions have not gone through the intensive self-scrutiny of the church, which to some extent has been made a scapegoat by a society unwilling to look at itself in the mirror. Even as the church continues to pay for the sins of its leaders and take bold steps to address and prevent abuse, it must now lead the way for all U.S. institutions to face up to this injustice in their own midst and join in eradicating it from our culture.


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