Well, here it is. As the guy who has kind of settled into the occasional role of “Catholic Guy Who Explains Catholic Stuff”, there was no way I was going to be able to hide from this sordid mess that has consumed my Church over the last month or so.
How do I feel? I feel lots of things and have whipsawed between them as the news stories keep coming. So where do I start? Let’s open with anger and move on from there.
Yes, I am angry.
A few weeks ago I was cleaning out a storage area in my basement and came across the certificate I earned when I went through a youth protection program a number of years ago.
This program was mandatory so that I would be allowed to continue as a volunteer with my childrens’ Scout troops, sports teams and other activities at the Catholic parish grade school where my children attended.
I was a little irritated at the time, to tell you the truth. To be told that I, the father of three children, needed to go through some kind of youth protection program because a few wayward priests had been abusing children in places far away from me, well, it struck me as a bit of overkill. But I understood that it was necessary – after all we never know what lurks in the dark spaces of the hearts of some adults.
So I attended the class, paid the annual fees, read the monthly online articles (and took the quizzes that went along with them) secure in the knowledge that the Bishops had rooted an evil out of my Church. With the mess cleaned up we were now back on track so that we could focus on the important things, so the hassle was worth it.
But now we have all found out that the problem was not taken care of fifteen years ago. For those who have been living underground and are not familiar with the name Theodore McCarrick, he was a high-ranking Cardinal Archbishop of the Catholic Church. As the Archbishop of Washington D.C., he was immensely influential in church affairs. He, in fact, chaired the commission on youth protection in the early 2000s and may have been the most prominent spokesman telling us all that everything had been handled.
Except that everything had not been handled. McCarrick, it turns out, had been actively grooming, seducing and forcing himself on young seminarians and priests under his authority for decades. You can read elsewhere what kinds of things “Uncle Ted” did to those young men. It is sickening. Worse, he may not have even been caught if an incident involving a minor had not bubbled to the surface.
Doubly worse, it has not just been about McCarrick. Although it did involve him in three different New York and New Jersey diocese’ over the decades, priestly abuse of young men has also been happening in many other places as diverse as Honduras and Lincoln, Nebraska.
These allegations were all the more of a gut-punch to me as the father of a young man in formation with the Dominican religious order and on the way to ordination as a Catholic priest.
As a Catholic and even more as a father, I am – – well, you pick the word. Outraged? Angered? Pissed? Furious? Livid? Put them all together and boil out most of the liquid and you might get about 50% of the way to how upset I am about all of this.
We Catholics have a tendency to be respectful of and obedient to our priests and bishops. I know I have been – which is why I was so ready to believe them when they told me fifteen years ago that all of this was behind us.
This story continues to develop and every time I have started to write something some new bombshell hits. After McCarrick came the Pennsylvania grand jury report which disclosed decades of abuse by clergy and coverups by bishops.
After that came the explosive eleven page statement by Cardinal Vigano, the former Nuncio (ambassador) to the US from Rome. In it he makes claims that numerous high-ranking churchmen in the U.S. and in Rome (up to and including Pope Francis himself) had known for years about McCarrick’s predatory history but did little or nothing about it (and in some cases cleared the way for his advancement).
Beyond expressing my anger, I feel the need to let readers know what to be watching for as this crisis continues. And it is a crisis. The word “crisis” may be overused today, but this one qualifies. It would not surprise me that we are watching the most serious problems within the Catholic Church since the Reformation of Martin Luther’s era.
First, there will be many, many more reports of sexual abuse coming our way. Most of them will be old (pre-2000) but a few of them will be new. This was the case with the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report and it is reasonable to expect that both the scope and the age of the reports will be similar to other places as they are investigated.
There will also be much said about what certain Bishops did or did not know and did or did not do in response. We are going to hear that some Bishops did a reasonable job of dealing with predatory clergy – and that others did not, whether through incompetence or, in a few cases, actively protecting them from the consequences of their evil actions. These things will be difficult to hear and will test the faith of many Catholics.
Also, listen to how individual Bishops and specific news sources deal with the allegations that come along. We Catholics have been enduring the same “conservative v. progressive” civil war that has been playing out in American society at large. Whatever the new allegations, watch: do people ask if they are true? Or will they question the honesty or the motives of the ones making the allegations? Sexual abuse by those in positions of power upon those who are not is not a partisan issue. It is an evil and must be pulled out by the roots no matter where those roots lead.
And it is becoming apparent that this process is going to have to involve some deep, deep housecleaning, both here in the U.S. and in Rome. We are about to experience an ugly process of cleansing and purification. At least we had better.
As an attorney, I deal a lot with the burden of proof. This is the bit of legal procedure which looks at one party and says “you go first – convince me.” Fifteen years ago I was content with the idea that those alleging abusive clergy had the burden of proof. “Father So And So is doing something wrong? What evidence do you have of this?”
But I think we have reached a point where the burden of proof has shifted. My Bishop and all the rest of the Bishops are no longer in a place where they can sit there quietly and wait for others to prove that something bad has happened. We are in a different era now. Now it is the hierarchy that carries that burden to prove to the rest of us that (to use a sports metaphor) they are running a clean program.
Prove to me that members of the clergy are not making or tolerating sexual overtures to seminarians or other young men. Prove to me that someone making such an allegation has a safe place to go where an independent fact finder will investigate and take action if such a thing has happened and where the “whistle-blower’s” confidentiality will be protected where appropriate.
Prove to me that if action has to be taken that it will be real action that will expose and root out the problem. Prove to me that Bishops, priests and other clergy who are not living their vows of celibacy are being dealt with in appropriate ways. At this place in time we are the ones who gets to sit with arms crossed, waiting to be convinced that we are getting the straight story and not some line of ecclesial, clerical bullshit.
Some Bishops will understand this and will take active steps to investigate activities in their own diocese. Some have already begun. Others will not and will dissemble or try to get lost among the other Bishops who are all looking around at each other wondering what to do. Many of them will be clueless “company men” who do not understand the import of the moment we have reached. Some will be shown as men who have either abetted abusers or been abusers themselves. A few will show themselves as genuine, fearless reformers. By their fruits we shall know them.
I want to finish with two final points. First, all of this boils down to a very few of the ordained who have been habitually sexually active in spite of their vows of celibacy, which were freely made. For more than a generation there has been a tendency inside the Church to acknowledge what the Church teaches on sexuality while finding ways to ignore or undermine it. When a Bishop acts this way there tends to be a corrosive effect on how likely priests and parishioners are to follow suit. I believe that there is going to have to be a reckoning here. Nobody has a right to be a priest or a Bishop in the Catholic church. If you do not believe what the Church has taught for two millennia, you don’t have to. But be honest with yourself (and the rest of us) and find something else to do.
Second, most priests (and even most bishops) are men of faith who do their best to live a life worthy of Our Lord. They know that they have given up much but they are willing to stick to the vows they made at their ordinations. It is fair to expect (if not demand) transparency from the hierarchy. It is also fair to understand that every Catholic priest is a human and subject to failures in the ways that we all fail. But it is not fair to assume that every Catholic priest is a molester of youth or a closeted exploiter of attractive young men. The good priests need our prayers and support because their lives are going to be very, very difficult for awhile.
This is all going to get a lot worse before it gets better. And the sooner the Bishops take out the trash (a metaphor I do not use lightly) the sooner the Church can get back to what it is supposed to be doing.
Artwork: Antonio Vassilacchi’s 1592 painting entitled “The Apotheosis of the Benedictine Order”. Original located in the Basilica of St. Peter in Perugia, Italy. An essay that points out the overlay of the face of evil among the clergy in the painting is found here.