Church’s ‘Long Lent’ of clerical abuse

The Catholic Register - Archdiocese of Toronto, Ontario, Canada

March 19, 2022

By Anna Farrow

Entering the season of Lent can seem like a blessed relief. The harsh mark of ash on the forehead, the stark words of truth, “you are dust,” the stripping away of the distractions and pleasures of our earthly life to stare our mortality square in the face — all these can be received with a bracing joy.

But as Ash Wednesday passes and the Sundays of Lent are one by one ticked off, we begin to feel the full weight and heft of our sin. We embark on Lent thinking it will act like a spiritual cold shower. Before long we are reminded that we are walking the Way of the Cross, and this isn’t some spa treatment we have signed up for.

This year marks 20 years since a group of journalists, part of an investigative team at The Boston Globe dubbed Spotlight, broke the story of the widespread and long-standing sexual abuse of minors by priests in the Boston archdiocese and, more disturbing still, the actions of the Church hierarchy to cover for the offending clergy. 

The first Globe article was published in January 2002. By year’s end, Cardinal Bernard Law, head of the Boston archdiocese since 1984 and the senior ranking prelate in the U.S. Catholic Church at the time, had resigned his position. His action was precipitated by the release of some 3,000 pages of documentation that demonstrated Law routinely transferred known predator priests between parishes.

Fr. Richard John Neuhaus, founder and editor of the journal First Things, referred to this time as the Long Lent. He wrote those words in December 2002 and presciently opened his article with the sentence, “It is hard to know precisely where we are in the unfolding of the Long Lent of 2002.”  It turns out to have been a very long Lent, indeed, 20 years and counting.

We have been sucker-punched by revelation after revelation. The list of blows includes the names of Marcial Maciel and Theodore McCarrick. Maciel, founder and director of the Legion of Christ and Regnum Christi, was found to have been a drug addict, a serial abuser of young boys and men in his care, to have had relationships with at least four women and fathered six children. He was removed from active ministry in 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Theodore McCarrick, elevated to Cardinal and appointed Archbishop of Washington in 2001, the same year that the Spotlight team began their investigations in Boston, was revealed to have had sexual relationships with adult seminarians over a period of decades. In 2018, a New York Times article reported that there had been credible allegations of abuse against minor boys. In 2019, after a church trial found him guilty of sexual crimes and abuse of power, McCarrick was laicized.

It seems that no country or jurisdiction has been exempt from “the scandals”: Chile, Ireland, Honduras, the list goes on. Canada is not excluded.

On 7 August 2009, Raymond Lahey, then Bishop of Antigonish, Nova Scotia, announced that the Diocese of Antigonish had reached a $15-million settlement in a suit filed by victims of abuse by diocesan priests dating back to 1950. The next month, Lahey, on returning from a trip to Southeast Asia, had his computer seized at the Ottawa airport. Two years later he would plead guilty to possession of child pornography for the purposes of distribution. Lahey was laicized in 2012.

It is difficult enough to come to terms with our own, individual sin. As we mark the 20-year anniversary of the beginning of the Long Lent, it is indeed difficult to bear the weight of the collective guilt and shame that sits heavy on the Body of Christ.

At a parish recitation of the Stations of the Cross last Friday, it struck me hard. In those hours between Holy Thursday and close of day on Good Friday, Jesus bore it all. He is the Lamb of God who was obedient unto death.

In this Lent 2022, we must walk the Way of the Cross alongside our Lord, bearing the Cross that He allows us to carry and making the reparations we are allowed to make.

(Farrow is a Montreal writer.)