Catholic Church should rebuild the trust that has been lost in recent years

COMMENTARY

Nobody likes reading about clerical sexual abuse. Yet for well over a decade now, in diocese after diocese, the actions of abusive priests and negligent diocesan officials have been brought to light—and appropriately so. Unfortunately, these revelations have come not from church leaders but from grand jury filings, government reports and press exposés. Almost without exception, the official response has lagged well behind reportage. Chanceries have reacted as though stunned by accusations that they have in some cases known about for decades, appearing combative and defensive while struggling to answer lurid allegations.

Recent weeks have proved no different, as the Irish church has been rocked yet again by a government report on clerical abuse. An investigation of the Diocese of Cloyne found that between 1996 and 2009—after national standards were set for dealing with abuse allegations—such reports were ignored, handled improperly or never reported to civil authorities. Fallout in Ireland, traditionally one of the world’s most Catholic countries, has been severe. In a rare public rebuke, the Archbishop of Dublin, Diarmuid Martin, chided his fellow bishops for withholding reports on sexual abuse of minors, telling them, “Hiding isn’t helping.” Ireland’s Prime Minister Enda Kenny, a Catholic, accused the Vatican of covering up the “rape and torture of children.” The Vatican recalled its ambassador, Archbishop Giuseppe Leanza, to Rome for consultation and to assist in formulating the Vatican’s official response before moving to his next post in the Czech Republic.

The sexual abuse crisis has devastated many, beginning with individual victims and their families. The morale of laity and clergy alike has been severely undermined, as has the moral authority of many bishops. Impressions of coverups and malfeasance have tainted the highest levels of church governance, triggering frequent and justified calls for mass resignations of bishops and, more recently, indictments of chancery officials. Lagging behind the story has made matters worse, fueling the impression that the church is hiding something, shielding abusers to protect “the institution” instead of vulnerable children.

As Ireland smolders in the report’s wake, a hopeful yet far less noted development has emerged in Germany—a nation also weighed down by abuse allegations. Germany’s Catholic bishops have begun taking steps to rebuild the trust that has been lost in recent years. In July they voted unanimously to grant independent investigators access to their files on sexual abuse by clergy—some cases as far back as 1945. No doubt their findings will raise serious questions about how allegations were handled and will reveal systemic failures in protecting children. Though prior damage cannot be undone, the country’s bishops are acknowledging that they need outside help to combat this problem. In so doing, they are also being proactive, not reactive.

Bishops around the world should follow their example. If the church’s own claims about abuse are true—that it is damnable yet distressingly widespread, infecting families and schools as often as churches—then there are certainly allegations against priests and religious that have yet to come to light. To date, the crisis has hit hardest in North America and Western Europe. Far fewer allegations have surfaced in other regions, including Central and South America, India, Africa and Asia. But all of these have enormous Catholic populations, and it would be foolish to presume that these locales have been free of abuse and mishandled allegations. Indeed, this is one instance in which the catholicity of the church will likely prove a liability, not an asset.

Recent years have shown that as a topic in the news, sexual abuse by clerics is resilient. Once in the headlines, it remains there indefinitely. Unless the church begins to respond differently, as the German bishops are trying to do, sexual abuse will continue to be the main story about the Catholic Church for years, even decades, as accusations surface around the world.

Countless bishops, including Pope Benedict XVI, have spoken of the crisis as an opening for repentance, conversion and purification in the church. We continue to hope that it will be so and pray that the many victims of abuse will be healed in the same measure that they have been harmed. For this hope to be well founded, however, church leaders must stop playing defense around the issue of abuse. Rebuilding relationships of trust between the hierarchy and the faithful will take more than promises from church leaders that they are trustworthy. They must prove it. This will require resignations in cases of mendacity and negligence. In more cases, it will demand that bishops be the bearers of their own bad news about abuse. This will be an act of humility, even a painful one. But there is no alternative.

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Bad Faith: The Catholic Hierarchy’s Pointless Campaign Against LGBT Rights

Commentary…

In early July, Archbishop Jose H. Gomez of Los Angeles opposed a modest piece of legislation that requires schools in that state to include lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgender people, and other previously excluded groups, in their social studies curricula.

The archbishop argued that he was merely supporting parents’ rights to make decisions regarding their children’s education. But Catholics who pay attention to our bishops’ energetic campaign to thwart any legislation that legitimizes (or in this instance, even recognizes) same-gender attraction are familiar with this ruse.

Our hierarchy has a habit of invoking noble sounding principles but applying them only when they can be used against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington did something similar last year when he announced that the legalization of same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia had forced him to stop offering health insurance to the spouses of new employees of Catholic Charities. The marriage equality law, he explained, would force him to extend benefits to gay and lesbian couples, and since this violated the church’s teaching on marriage, he could not do it.

There is Sin, and then There is Gay Sin

To take this argument seriously, one has to overlook the fact that Catholic Charities already offered benefits to the spouses of employees who had not been married in the Catholic Church, or who had been remarried without benefit of an annulment. These are also clear violations of the Church’s teaching on marriage. But Wuerl’s harsh and unloving stance is typical of a hierarchy that behaves as though there is sin, and then there is gay sin—and gay sin is much worse.

Catholics faithful to the scriptural admonition to love mercy, do justice, and walk humbly with their God, have become increasingly alienated by bishops who seem obsessed with pushing a narrow anti-gay agenda to the exclusion even of simple charity. Our bishops were in the small minority of religious leaders who failed to speak out when a wave of anti-gay bullying, some of which led to suicides, swept the country last year. At a time when seemingly every organization in the United States was finding a way to tell young lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people that “It Gets Better,” our hierarchy, to our shame, was silent.

In their zeal to deny any form of legitimacy to same-sex relationships, the bishops have neglected more urgent pastoral duties. Catholic schools and parishes are closing by the dozen in dioceses across the country, yet somehow the hierarchy and its allies in the Knights of Columbus have found millions of dollars to spend in one state after another opposing marriage equality, or its weaker cousin, the civil union.

Leaders Without Followers

The rhetoric our bishops employ in these campaigns is hardly pastoral. Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York, referred to same-sex marriage as “an Orwellian nightmare” and an “ominous threat.” He compared his state’s government to North Korea’s during New York’s recent debate on marriage equality. Then, upon losing the debate, this prince of the Church, with a palace on Fifth Avenue, proclaimed himself a victim of intolerance.

We are well acquainted with the history of anti-Catholic bigotry in this country, and keenly aware of what our forebears in the faith suffered at the hands of hateful fellow citizens. But we find it reprehensible when that legacy is invoked by those who themselves advocate discrimination and repression. If you are the Catholic parent of LGBT daughter or son, you know firsthand that it is your child’s sexual identity, and not a belief in the Immaculate Conception, that puts them at risk for beatings and taunting. Archbishop Dolan and his colleagues should stop pretending that they face anything like the intolerance that our children do.

A Gay-Friendly Church?

The one fortunate aspect of the bishop’s campaign against LGBT people is that it has been singularly ineffective. Polling by the Public Religion Research Institute makes clear that almost three-quarters of Catholics support either marriage equality or civil unions, and that we back legal protections for LGBT people in the workplace (73 percent), in the military (63 percent), and in adoptions (60 percent) by significant margins.

We are, in other words, an extremely gay-friendly church; and while it has taken a while for this fact to filter out beneath the bluster of our bishops and their lobbyists, political leaders have begun to take note. A Catholic governor and Catholic legislators made marriage equality a reality in New York. A Catholic governor and legislators passed civil unions into law in Illinois. Heavily Catholic Rhode Island passed a civil union bill over the protests of Bishop Thomas Tobin of Providence, and a Catholic governor has promised to permit same-sex couples to marry in Maryland, if the legislature will only put the bill on his desk.

A few days after Archbishop Gomez announced his opposition to the legislation requiring California schools to give an accurate recounting of the nation’s history. Gov. Jerry Brown, a Roman Catholic, signed it into law.

Those of us who support equality for LGBT people in civil society do so not in spite of our Catholic faith but because of it. We learned in childhood that Jesus moved freely among the outcast and the marginalized, that he warned his followers to judge not lest they be judged, and that he taught that our neighbor was not the priest who passed the beaten traveller on the other side of the road to avoid ritual impurity, but the hated Samaritan who bound up his wounds, and paid for his care.

We learned later that the Church’s teachings on social justice compelled us to act as advocates for fairness, justice, and individual dignity, that its teachings on politics instructed us to vote for the common good, and that in making moral decisions, we were to follow the promptings of our own well-formed consciences.

There are times, it seems, when our hierarchy is so committed to cultivating political power, and deploying our Church’s resources in contemporary culture wars, that they expect us to forget all of this. We won’t.

As Philadelphia Burns

Last week, the Vatican announced that it had appointed Archbishop Charles Chaput of Denver as the new archbishop of Philadelphia. The clergy abuse scandal that has badly damaged the hierarchy’s credibility is still spinning out of control in Philadelphia, and Pope Benedict XVI clearly thinks that Archbishop Chaput is the right man for a difficult job.

We would only note that in his previous post, he supported a parish priest who expelled a girl from a Catholic school because her parents were lesbians. The archbishop argued that parents must be able to cooperate with Catholic schools in the education of their children, and that those who do not embrace Church doctrine cannot do so.

This was not an argument he employed against Protestants, or non-Christians, or children whose parents had remarried after a divorce. It was employed exclusively against lesbian parents. Because in the theological universe that our bishops are constructing to support their personal biases, there is sin, and then there is gay sin, and gay sin is so much worse.

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