Earlier this month, I was in a collision with another vehicle while driving. There was only minor damage to my car — scarcely a scratch on the bumper. The other driver, however, found her late-model Toyota totaled at the scene.
This situation presented me with two options. I could take out my insurance card and assume any responsibility I may have had in the incident — which as a decent person with no plans to commit a hit-and-run, I chose to do. But with my fully functioning car, I could have also run from the situation and left the other driver to handle the broken heap by herself.
With the release of an approximately 1,300-page grand jury report detailing years of sexual abuse of minors by members of the clergy in a handful of Pennsylvania dioceses, the Roman Catholic Church has found itself facing a similar set of options — to either take responsibility or ignore the problem.
I am a Roman Catholic through and through. I inherited my faith from my mother, who inherited it from her father, and so on through my family history. I consider the church my home. I work for the diocese, lead Bible studies and coordinate outreach for our campus ministry.
Yet I’m left at times to wonder if my children will know this same heritage. Will I share the faith that has meant so much to me with my daughter, and she with hers?
This question hung over me as I sat in Mass on Aug. 15, the day after the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania released the disturbing report. It was the morning of the Solemnity of the Assumption of Mary, a holiday that requires church attendance from all practicing Catholics. Comments about the report, which identified more than 300 “predator priests,” seemed conspicuously absent from my own pastor’s preaching that day. Instead, and most ironically, we sang of Mary, celebrating that she was pure, lowly and undefiled.
The young victims of clerical abuse had their innocence stolen from them by the men who were ordained to guide them toward God. These children, who were ignored and silenced by their would-be protectors, were left to feel intense pain at the hands of the very church that is meant to heal its flock of such injuries.
There is nothing the church can do to fully erase the pain of these victims. Even I, someone who has never felt anything but safe and protected in the church, am loathe to forgive the institutional body for its deceit. Horrors such as these create waves of impact. They obviously have devastating effects on the victims and their families, but the effects also ripple outward in smaller waves into the rest of the Catholic community.
The appalling actions of these men carry consequences for all those who identify as Catholic. It is my character that is called into question when people spot my Pope Francis water bottle sticker. It is my faith that is shaken every time a new scandal comes to light. And most gravely and horrifically, it is my money in the collection basket that has gone for years to fund cover-ups and pensions for these so-called predator priests, utterly unbeknownst to me.
For too long, the institutional church has gotten away with this “hit-and-run” behavior. In 2002, the Church got several points on its record when The Boston Globe reported horrific sexual abuse in the Boston archdiocese. There’s no denying this. But just as in the world of motor vehicles, these points expired. Its record was beginning to recover after some years, but now, the cycle is repeating. We, the body of the church, must learn from the mistakes of our past and end the cycle of abuse and denial that has been operationalized in the Catholic Church in the United States for decades. Rather than a slap on the wrist and a few years of probation, it’s time for an exorcism.
The church has a responsibility to its members to publish all credible abuse accusations so that it can move toward repentance — one of the key tenets of Christianity. All responsible parties need to be identified and brought to justice. Those who have aided in this institutional pattern of cover-ups need to be eradicated from the corporate church.
It is the vocation of bishops and other leading clergy members to speak to their people, to reassure their flock. Many church leaders, however, have remained silent, choosing instead to hide behind lawyers and public relations representatives. But this is not the time for silence. This is the time for transparency.
I want my daughter to feel free to revel in the truth, beauty and goodness I’ve found from my Catholic faith. But before that light can be known, the intense period of darkness in which we now find ourselves must be overcome. And this work can only be accomplished when all evil powers are cast away and only those committed to a culture of dignity, love and mutual respect remain. This work can only be accomplished when the church stops at the scene, takes responsibility for the wreckage and cooperates in the discharge of just punishment.