Twisting the Sword with Relish: The Church’s Crucial Reckoning

Twisting the Sword with Relish: The Church’s Crucial Reckoning

“I gave them a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it with relish. I guess if I’d been in their position, I’d have done the same thing,” said President Richard Nixon in a famous 1977 interview with David Frost. Though Nixon was, of course, lamenting his resignation in the face of almost certain impeachment, the Catholic Church faces its own reckoning today—this one, too, being self-inflicted and well-deserved. The question facing the Church’s membership, then, goes as follows: Will we take the sword and twist it with relish, or will we sharpen its blade and turn it against the nefarious actors operating under the guise of the collar, expelling them forever from the sacred, if broken, trust that ought to be the Church?

Just as in Nixon’s case, the Catholic Church has given all of us—dependable critics and ardent supporters alike—a mighty sword to wield over its scandal-ridden, dishonored head. Indeed, ever since the release of the heartbreaking Pennsylvania grand jury report on August 14, each of us, particularly us Catholics, has learned of yet another nasty recurrence of clerical sex abuse. Articulated with poignance and cutting candor, the Pennsylvania report renders a scathing reproach to clerical abusers, in addition to those gutless, soi disant “leaders” who shamelessly covered up thousands of cases of abuse for decades.

Indeed, if the Church fails to demonstrate sincere contrition and introduce concrete, transparent plans for prevention of future sexual and physical abuse of minors, we ought to impeach its leaders and anyone else standing in the way of reform. Most saliently, however earnest prior Church efforts may have been, they clearly failed to do the job. Just last month the Pennsylvania grand jury report announced over a thousand cases of abuse, highlighting a systematic perversion of power spanning decades and exploiting the most vulnerable among us: children. And that staggering figure accounts for only the reported and documented instances of abuse. The members of the Pennsylvania grand jury estimate that thousands more cases have gone unreported.

Myriad thinkers—most of whom are admittedly smarter and more credentialed than I am—have spilled ink on this subject, offering their thoughts, delivering their rebukes, and endeavoring to recommend the way forward. In general, there seems to be one point that inspires universal agreement: we cannot allow this evil to endure. Perfectly capturing the essence of the issue of clerical sexual and physical abuse, James VanSickle, himself a victim, said in testimony before the grand jury: “This is the murder of a soul.” VanSickle aptly crystallizes the key point relating to sexual and physical abuses: its scars are deeply personal and unending. While physical pain, by contrast, eventually fades, emotional abuse—and sexual assault—often yields pain and hurt that outlasts any damage physical beating alone could inflict. The Church must recognize this harsh reality by admitting to its grievous faults and unscrupulous covering up of evil over decades. Here, words do not begin to suffice. Surely, expressing contrition and resolving to do penance and sin no more constitute grounds for a proper start. Nonetheless, the Church must address why such rampant and flagrant abuse persisted across dioceses, through generations, and among, in many cases, the poorest and most vulnerable American communities under the Church’s auspices. (This is not to say that the well-documented clerical abuse that transpired contemporaneously elsewhere, namely in Ireland and in Latin America, is secondary. I merely seek to highlight the most recent appalling domestic scandal.)

For decades clerical sex abuse has tainted the Church, ensnaring in scandal the institution to which some one billion Catholics turn for moral and spiritual guidance. The first major wave of publicity about clerical sex abuse—which broke in 2002 thanks to the Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalism of The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team—rocked the Church, prompting justifiably harsh condemnation. In too many cases to count, erstwhile supporters—even some of Catholicism’s staunchest loyalists—stopped filling the pews. Likewise, today, Catholics and others reel in pain over the grand jury’s findings, presented without varnish in its 1,400 page report. The report is essential reading in order to grasp fully the desecration of trust perpetrated by hundreds of priests.

Among the loudest and most compelling voices for justice, the Church and its leadership write and speak often on the salience of social justice, noting correctly its positive impact on humanity and its unrivaled ability to ground and transform the soul. To its credit, the Church invests millions of hours and dollars, and considerable human capital, in its quest to uphold the dignity of all, a central tenet of Catholicism and indeed Christianity itself – a common uniting principle found to be prominent in all variety of faith traditions. That said, however, despite the talk, the Church has abdicated its moral authority. Any institution that allows and subsequently covers up the systemic sexual abuse of young boys and girls cries out for a reckoning. Upholding the dignity of all does not exempt children; on the contrary, children should be protected, nurtured, placed on a pedestal as sterling models of promise and purity. Predators within the Church exploited these tender qualities. Too many elected to do the work of Satan.

In a homily given at the College of the Holy Cross’s Mary Chapel on Sunday, September 2, 2018, Fr. James Hayes, S.J. responded to the barrage of news reports coming out of Pennsylvania, offering the following trenchant observations: “When we draw near to God we ask God to send transforming grace to lead us through our anger and our rage. I have a good friend who stated, ‘I am done with the Catholic Church.’ I can understand that reaction, but I don’t recommend it. We need people to fight for reform. Jesus promised he would never abandon the Church. The gates of hell will not prevail against it. The Church is the body and the bride of Christ. A body can be renewed, and a bride reformed.” Fr. Hayes has it right. We need bold reformers to take on the Church’s rigidity and to insist on reform. While clerical abuse tears at the seams binding together our faith and religious conscience, we must press on. Demanding reform and insisting on accountability require unflinching boldness. These tasks involve the very essence of speaking truth to power, demanding answers, and calling out decades of corruption.

 So, is the Church as an institution—handicapped by its deep tradition of strict hierarchy—beyond repair? Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously explained that states function as “laboratories of democracy,” places to try out ideas, innovate, and assess whether policy ideas merit adoption on a broader scale. His advice, I think, proves instructive here, as well. 

As a leading Jesuit, Catholic institution, what is our place? How should we Crusaders respond to the deep, ugly scandal staining our Church? Doubtless, Catholic colleges and universities represent some of the most powerful—and widest-reaching—institutions in the Church, thereby commanding the attention and allegiance of millions of students, families, graduates, and benefactors. Thus, if these noble centers of academia and knowledge abdicate their obligation by not unequivocally condemning clerical sex abuse and demanding meaningful, effectual reform, we can hardly depend on anyone else to fill the void. Some actions Jesuit institutions can and should take are simple; revoking honorary degrees previously awarded to Bishops complicit in covering up the scandal comes to mind. Others still require more work, but, as it goes, greater reward. Answering Justice Brandeis’s charge, we should use Holy Cross and our 27 fellow Jesuit institutions of higher learning as laboratories for reform, vibrant campuses and hubs of intellectual life channeled to instigate change. Such a sweeping effort would showcase the very best of the academy putting itself to work to attempt to right the severe wrongs befalling the Church.

Frankly, failing to denounce this heinous crime would amount to a monumental dereliction of duty not only for Church leadership, but also for the leaders of distinguished Catholic colleges like ours. On this we should all be united. Just yesterday, September 10, at Mass, Fr. William Campbell, S.J., Vice President for Mission at Holy Cross, reminded us to atone for our sins of both commission and omission. In the case of clerical sex abuse, of course, the latter is arguably the worst of the two. Running out the clock for the express purpose of suppressing the truth of abuse until the statute of limitations expires is a cowardly act that both flouts the law and betrays a sense of entitlement—as if members of the clergy are somehow immune from the laws that govern our society. Abraham Lincoln memorably commented that he “always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” The response to clerical abuse requires both. We must work to ensure justice for the victims and their families, who have suffered dearly at the hands of an institution in which they had once placed boundless trust. Furthermore, we must punish those priests who caused victims a pain they will never escape. At the same time, our approach requires delicacy to make sure we show mercy to the vast majority of priests, most of whom are loyal servants of Christ and neither perpetrated nor supported the abuse. Our strict justice should be reserved for the Church leadership writ large for allowing evil to have a home in its blessed halls for too long.

With a heavy heart, sorrowful Catholics around the world regret yet another summer of scandal. Together, we must summon the collective strength of our convictions to administer justice and implement change. Perhaps more than anything else, the structure of the Church itself demands our scrutiny. Sadly, the old standard response seems to be the only one the Church has in its repertoire: conceal problems at all costs, and if exposed, downplay the damage. Eventually, express contrition and say the Church is an imperfect, sinful body. That is far from satisfactory. At the start of his papacy, Pope Francis said that deceit and hushed tones is the root of the evil within the Church. But whether the centuries-old Church will be amenable to strict oversight, outside verification, and independent arbiters remains to be seen. For its own survival and efficacy, its answer should be clear: get on board, stomp out the deranged members of the Church community who tortured so many for so long, and resolve to never let it happen again.

(The overhead photo, courtesy of the College of the Holy Cross, pictures St. Joseph’s Chapel.)

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