Catholic school. Mass on Wednesday. Church choir rehearsal. More Mass on Sunday. Dragging that reluctant cousin to Mass on Easter. It’s the story of thousands of Catholics all over the world (and certainly sounds like my childhood), but right now, some of the only images that get conjured up when priests, communion, or Rome are mentioned are “pedophile” and “cover-up”. Whether these are fair thoughts is a matter of debate, but the recent reports about a Wisconsin priest and the Vatican’s failure to address serious issues of pedophilia shines the light on an even bigger problem: accountability to its followers and the general public.
This month isn’t the first time that the Church has been accused of having pedophiles among its ranks, or the first time the Church has been forced to ride out a scandal. But this issue goes all the way to the top: Pope Benedict XVI, formerly Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger. There are allegations that the then cardinal blatantly ignored calls from bishops to strip Fr. Lawrence Murphy of his priesthood after allegations of molestation began to emerge from his former pupils.
It’s not clear how active a role the current Pope had in the scandal, but that’s less of a concern than the fact that someone in the upper echelons of the clergy didn’t immediately relieve the priest of his duties. Now, there’s plenty of reasons for that, but none are really adequate.
First, any sort of de-frocking would require a public explanation. That would be embarrassing. Second, there is a shortage of priests: hate to leave a congregation without a shepherd. And thirdly, because the priests committed a sin they should focus on spiritually healing for the offenders. Most people would argue that any of those excuses aren’t quite adequate to justify preferential treatment to protect the boy’s club of priests, bishops and cardinals.
What’s your priority?
But the Pope, even then, was passionate about other issues outside of the church: sin, morality and especially the growing sexualization of the world population. Since he has become Pope, Benedict has released many statements and edicts about premarital sex, condom use in AIDS-ridden Africa and the role of pornography in modern society. But is that really what’s important here?
I highly doubt it. Should the fact that John Kerry believes in a woman’s right to choose be of more concern than the fact that children are being raped by the people who are supposed to protect them from the evils of the world?
…that was a rhetorical question.
Followers of the church generally look to their priests for guidance. But the scandal has rocked congregations around the country, and the Northwestern Catholic population is no exception. Fr. John Kartje of the Sheil Catholic Center says that “most of the students who have come forward to ask questions about the current allegations have been victims of sexual abuse,” although he was quick to point out that the abuse was not at the hands of a priest or religious leader.
On a local level, priests seem to be regretful of the situations which arose in the past. “Defensiveness is not an option,” says Fr. Kartje about how the church has dealt with the scandal. “We need to look at ways to make sure these things don’t happen again.” He speculated as to why such cover-ups happened in the past. “The primary motivation if there was a cover-up was probably fear,” he said.
He is quick to stress that the church has changed since the 1970s, and that accountability is more of a priority. “Increasingly there is a system for saying ‘This is how we deal with inappropriate situations,’” said Kartje. The church is now focusing on making sure that these types of issues are more appropriately dealt with in the future.
Fr. Kartje said he wasn’t sure what complete answer to the problem was, but that the church should always be a refuge for it’s followers. “If we need to reduce the number of priests, that’s what we need to do,” he said.
Is it too late to save face for the Church? Probably not. But the clergy is going to have to make a very public apology and a very real effort to fix a now infamous problem among their ranks. Some have suggested dramatic theological changes and others a replacement of the oversight bodies that govern priests, bishops and the like.
The most dramatic proposed solutions call for Pope Benedict XVI to step down as the representative of Jesus Christ on Earth. It’s not likely that this is the path the Vatican will pursue, but it might be the best option. Benedict isn’t the most popular pontiff in recent history, and every sin needs a scapegoat.