Planning a Day of Fasting and Penance

National Catholic Reporter
December 27, 2006

Pope Benedict XVI's personal preacher, it was reported recently, asked the pope to declare a day of fasting and penance to atone for the "abominations" committed inside the church "by its own ministers and pastors."

The moment passed with relatively little fanfare, and that is unfortunate, because it is certainly noteworthy that a figure so close to the pope Father Raniero Cantalamessa would acknowledge that the crisis is severe. The church "paid a high price," as a result of the scandal, he said.

Father Cantalamessa also suggested that "a day of fasting and penance" take place "at local and national levels, where the problem was particularly strong, to publicly express repentance before God and solidarity with the victims." We have some suggestions that we'll dare to pass on about how such days of repentance might occur.

But, first, it is also worthy of note that 22 years after the first national story about the crisis appeared in these pages, the Vatican this year is not only taking notice but also finally taking significant action. Father Cantalamessa's works come in the wake of Benedict's own assessment to bishops in October that the sex abuse scandals had damaged trust and confidence between people and clerical leaders and that "the wounds caused by such acts run deep."

And those words followed Benedict's swift action in 2005 to remove Father Marcial Maciel, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a conservative religious order, from public ministry. To the outside world, it was a light sentence for one repeatedly and credibly accused of molesting youngsters in his charge over the years. But for anyone familiar with the slow and cautious pace of ecclesiastical justice and the awful record of the recent pope on this matter, the disciplining of Father Maciel, a favorite of Pope John Paul II, was momentous. It sent a clear signal that 20 years of papal indifference and refusal to look honestly at the facts had come to an end.

One of the dangers of reporting this story aggressively and consistently over the years is the possibility of getting lost in the church's wounds. The church, after all, is far more than the sex-abuse scandal. But since the pope's own man has made a case for the seriousness of the matter and suggested that public repentance is in order, we'll risk a few more thoughts on the subject.

By all indications, Benedict became convinced by the facts that he had begun to read in the files from the United States on other cases and, in the case of Father Maciel, by the preponderance of evidence that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith had gathered from former seminarians and priests in the United States, Spain, Mexico and elsewhere.

In other words, he put aside his earlier presumptions that the crisis was the work of anti-Catholics and irresponsible media, and he apparently turned down the volume on those who were trying to convince the world that the solution to the problem was simply a matter of "fidelity" and that Father Maciel was a victim of either imaginative or lying scoundrels. To the church's benefit, Benedict took the time to see for himself and began actually looking at the data, even before he became pope.

The evidence was, apparently, compelling.

So we would suggest one more step for those in the Vatican who finally "get it" and who see the significance of some public declaration about what went on. Before the wheels get rolling on a symbolic gesture that will dissipate into the air as quickly as many others have, consider what is at stake and what our traditions require of us.

Let us, finally, tell the truth.

What is it? Much of it is contained in documentation that remains tied up in legal proceedings and protected by members of the hierarchy, the very ones being called on to publicly repent.

This issue, as the Vatican is now well aware, has become a crisis not so much of sex abuse as of abuse of authority and trust. The pope has said as much and Father Cantalamessa's words reveal as much. The truth is the first step in healing the breach.

If any entity in the world can demand that the truth finally come out, the Vatican can. There are several ways this can be done. One way is to require bishops to assemble the truth in the form of documentation that is contained in chancery office files, the kind of information that some communities have been successful in acquiring through grand jury proceedings.

Bring on legal and other experts to comb through the correspondence and depositions in order to develop a narrative of what happened. Then the dioceses can report back to their respective communities on the dimensions of the crisis, where the system failed, who failed it and how.

Further, the Vatican can decide what sanctions might be placed on those responsible for abusing the power of their offices and the trust of the community. (But please don't allow those responsible, as occurred in the case of Cardinal Bernard Law, to remain on significant Vatican congregations so they can continue to influence the leadership and direction of the church.)

Another way to learn the truth is to consult Dominican Father Thomas Doyle. We know that in many clerical circles he is considered a pariah. We would simply ask that you talk to him, read what he has written. If his language is a bit heated at times, understand that he has been banging his head against institutional denial for more than two decades.

Understand, too, that he is one of the rare priests who, when confronted with the awful reality of clerical sex abuse, thought not of his career, or saving face, or protecting the institution. He thought of the children in light of the gospel and decided he could not cooperate with a cover-up. Talk to him. He knows an enormous amount. He gave up a promising climb up the clerical ladder to be true to his conscience. Honor his integrity.

With such information in hand, the entire church can then engage in meaningful penance and reconciliation because we'll know what we're doing penance for; who we're forgiving and for what and with whom we are reconciling. All of those steps fit well into a sacramental tradition with which we are all familiar.

If we finally do the difficult work up front, the forgiveness and reconciliation and penance will certainly be humbling, but also deep and meaningful. If not, we'll simply skip to another empty ceremony that will only hint at the reality and the truth.


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