August 29, 2018 // Perspective

Letter to an angry friend

My friend, thank you for writing.

You have every right to be angry. The recent revelations about sexual abuses and what Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo calls the “grave moral failures of judgment on the part of church leaders” are tremendously disheartening.

In terms of scale, the revelations about Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick, now resigned from the College of Cardinals, and the grand jury report on six dioceses in Pennsylvania are dwarfed by the revelations of sexual abuse by clergy that came out in 2002 and its aftermath.

But many people have said what you told me: This feels worse. The wounds from earlier scandals have not fully healed, and the recent revelations have a kind of multiplier effect: Our anger becomes cumulative. Our patience even shorter. Our sense of betrayal larger.

In many ways the “clergy sexual abuse” crisis has always been a “trust in leaders” crisis. Priests moved around. Cover-ups and lies. Now a shepherd who was a predator, and allegations that others knew and did nothing.

As one woman told me, “Cardinal McCarrick said all the right words. He was practically a poster boy for the bishops’ 2002 charter and its aftermath. Yet all his words were lies. How are we to trust any of them now?”

I find it hopeful, however, that bishops are speaking out. Bishops from Albany, Fort Worth, Pensacola-Tallahassee, Oklahoma City and Anchorage are releasing their own statements expressing shame and calling for investigations. Some call for a greater role for the laity. They have been plain in their criticism and their sorrow.

The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal DiNardo, has committed himself and the church to “pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority.” Because the real authority to investigate and punish bishops resides in Rome, he adds that where the authority of the Catholic conference is limited, “the conference will advocate with those who do have the authority.”

Bishops are speaking up, but I am not sure how many Catholics are hearing them. The secular press pays little attention, and there are fewer diocesan news outlets these days. Bishops are having a harder time getting their voices heard. One theologian went so far as to tell me that the bishops have lost the communications war.

Meanwhile, when the Boston scandals broke in 2002, social media was in its infancy. Today, social media is driving a great deal of the anger and frustration, and all sorts of accusations are floating about that confuse and dishearten people further.

You are right that we need a thorough cleansing of the church. My hope is that this is an opportunity for purification and renewal. This great institution we once called holy mother church cared for her children. She built parishes for the care of their souls, hospitals for their bodies, schools for their minds. Today our mother is grievously weakened by self-inflicted wounds.

For purification to take place, we need saints, not programs. We need exemplars, not platitudes. We need leaders who model the faith, not just CEOs.

One thousand years ago, St. Peter Damian faced sexual abuses far worse than anything we have seen. He challenged both bishops and priests. He challenged popes. Pursuing transparency, reforming procedures, admitting painful truths — these actions all carry risk. But to ignore the moment is far more dangerous. We need to pray for our church, pray for her purification, and our own.

I find these words of St. Bridget of Sweden particularly powerful:

“Show me the way and make me ready to follow it. It is dangerous to delay, yet perilous to go forward. Answer my petition and show me the way. … Give peace, O Lord, to my heart!”

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