The Catholic Church Needs to Face up to Its Failings
By Michael Coren
March 3, 2016
|The late Rev. Bruce Ritter is shown during a news conference in New York in December 1989. Ritter, who founded the Covenant House shelters for homeless teenagers, was forced to resign over accusations of financial and sexual misdeeds.|
Something deeply significant occurred at the Academy Awards this year. Beyond the glamour, the talent and the entirely valid concerns about lack of diversity, Spotlight was named best movie. Frankly, I didn’t think it would happen. A film about the child rape crisis within the Roman Catholic Church was given international acclaim and acknowledgement.
Let me take you back to 1989. I was working for the CBC, making documentaries. One of them was about Covenant House, the essential and entirely noble shelter in Toronto that cares for street kids. With origins in 1960s New York, Covenant House now has international branches.
One of its founders, and very much its public face, was the Franciscan priest Father Bruce Ritter, and after spending weeks speaking to people who worked at the centre and to many of the kids who lived there, we flew Ritter from New York to Toronto.
He was, shall we say, a difficult man. He was rude to the crew and to me, highly demanding and insisted on only meeting with boys at Covenant House. “No girls, no,” he told us. It was explained by his handlers that he was uncomfortable with girls and thought it might look awkward. I didn’t believe a word.
The entire interview was strained but we struggled through it. “Wow, not exactly a humble and nice man,” I said to another Franciscan. “That’s not really his charism,” was the reply. “His talents are elsewhere.”
I had gone home by the time the evening imploded. Ritter had left Covenant House with a 16-year-old boy. When this was discovered there was a rushed trip to Ritter’s hotel, where it was demanded that the boy was brought to the lobby immediately. The explanation given was that the young, vulnerable man was “receiving counselling from Father Ritter.”
Complaints were made of course, and it would later be discovered that the Archdiocese of New York had received other such concerns; but Ritter was, it seems, beyond reproach.
Within six months, however, he was forced to step down from the presidency of Covenant House over public allegations of sexual and financial scandal. The subsequent investigation concluded that while none of the individual charges of “sexual impropriety” could be proven beyond doubt, the “cumulative” evidence was “extensive.”
Ritter left the Franciscan order but retained his priestly faculties and still said daily Mass. He was defended then and even today by some who argue that he was a victim of false and anti-Catholic slander. He died in 1999.
What also occurred was that those who made claims against the man were themselves attacked and their characters trashed. In a scenario that had been used myriad times, complainants had to fight to be heard and accepted. Ritter was a saint, we were told, and saints have always been attacked by those who resent goodness. A cloud of denial and disguise lowered upon the episode and it was only strong journalism — the Boston Globe is not unique — that cut through it all.
And here is the point. The Roman Catholic Church has indeed done much to try to prevent further sexual abuse, but the problems are more fundamental and systemic than that. While most priests would never harm a child, and many are fine men, the culture of enforced celibacy and, forgive me, sexual immaturity, is profoundly damaging. Many experts estimate that perhaps half of all clergy break their vows of celibacy and while their partners may be adults, it creates the need for dishonesty and hiding. The abuser uses this dark insularity to his advantage.
When we mingle this with clericalism, a reverence towards the ordained that prevents criticism, a vehemently all-male and anti-democratic authority structure and a powerful self-defence mechanism it leads to all kinds of problems. Remember, abuse is not only sexual.
I left the Catholic Church almost two years ago and while I was not especially critical of it, saw for myself how personal attacks by certain influential clerics and members of the laity can be terribly damaging. Yet there is still so much hope for Roman Catholicism and so much that is loving and pure. But it has to be honest about itself and its failings, otherwise the next scandal is only a matter of time.