The sin must be named

National Catholic Reporter

October 28, 2005 


With the release Oct. 12 of a 155-page report describing decades of sexual abuse by clergy in the Los Angeles archdiocese, there now exists compelling and preponderant evidence that at least three living cardinals of the Catholic church in the United States have been complicit in what any reasonable observer would term criminal activity.

If the church in the United States is to survive with any integrity, bold new steps must be taken to get at the truth of this scandal. The way the truth so far has been squeezed out of reluctant members of the hierarchy is demoralizing to the faithful and demeaning to a community that calls itself Christian.

In Boston, thousands of pages of documents ordered released by a judge in January 2002 allowed the faithful and the wider world an unedited look at the language of members of the hierarchy, led by Cardinal Bernard Law, who knowingly transferred priests accused of terrible sexual abuse of children. Law was ultimately drummed out of the Boston archdiocese and installed as archpriest of a Roman basilica. He retains his membership on seven powerful Vatican congregations and two councils, and likely is still exerting considerable influence over the affairs of the U.S. church.

In Philadelphia, where a grand jury subpoenaed 45,000 pages of documents and interviewed some 100 witnesses during a three-year period, a 418-page narrative released Sept. 21 details a deliberate strategy of protecting priests, including some who raped a number of children, keeping the priests beyond the reach of the law until the statutes of limitations ran out. The report investigated 63 priests. Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, both a canon lawyer and civil lawyer who oversaw much of the shifting of priests, now keeps an office at St. Charles Borromeo Seminary. He, as well as his circle of advisers and assistants, apparently is beyond the reach of the law.

In Los Angeles, Cardinal Roger Mahony has fought all attempts to change that state’s statutes of limitations to permit victims of sex abuse to pursue their cases. He has spent millions in legal fees to prevent law enforcement officials from gaining access to internal church documents that would provide details of how he and his predecessors managed the sex abuse scandal.

It was only on Oct. 12 -- and only as a means of coming to settlement -- that Mahony released a 155-page report describing decades of clergy sex abuse in that diocese. The report, a summary of the “proffers” or facts the church concedes in its negotiations with alleged victims, outlines the careers of 126 archdiocesan and religious order priests and the accusations made against them, going back more than 50 years.

Philadelphia church officials first responded to the report there by impugning the motives of the district attorney. Eventually, that tactic was abandoned, and Cardinal Justin Rigali issued several apologies. Los Angeles officials were far more nimble in their managing of the bad news. Said archdiocese spokesman Tod Tamberg, “At first, it [sex abuse] was treated as a sin, then in the 1970s and 1980s therapy seemed the way to go. Finally, there was the horrible realization of the repetitive nature of sexual abuse and it became clear that ‘zero tolerance’ was the only way to ensure the safety of children.”

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All of that is true, of course, but only to a point. Because at the time it was being treated as “sin” or “by therapy,” lawyers, not bishops, were becoming the dominant strategists; their tactics, not the instincts of a pastor, took over. The bishops knew early on that they potentially had enormous legal problems. This paper warned of that possibility in 1984. As Notre Dame de Namur Sr. Maureen Paul Turlish notes on (see story), the bishops received the Mouton-Doyle-Peterson report, “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy,” in 1985. They chose to ignore it as they chose to ignore repeated warnings, individually and corporately. All of the cardinals named above were warned. So were others.

In example after example, Catholics can look around the church and know that bishops have deliberately protected men who, in any other context, would have been criminally charged and placed on trial.

Granting the most benign motives -- that bishops were acting with compassion toward troubled priests and on behalf of what they thought were the best interests of the church -- it is clear now that such motives were misplaced at best and resulted in the perpetration of evil at worst. It can also be argued that while child sex abuse occurs throughout society, it is a rare institution that possessed the regional and national networks -- not to mention the exalted reputation -- that allowed the church to protect perpetrators and bury the scandal for so long.

What happens now? What is the community to do when its leadership is so deeply compromised, and when apparently no one can hold those leaders accountable? What does it mean to a community when its leadership lives not just above civil law, but beyond the reasoning and experience that grounds the sacramental system essential to the life of the community?

If some truth has been told in this awful saga, and if some justice has been done, it is only because most of the bishops have been dragged to those points through public pressure and embarrassment. What results is a truth that lacks the power to transform and a justice that fails to heal or redeem. It is the kind of reckoning one expects from the immature or from someone who doesn’t understand the destruction that occurs when the community’s trust is so deeply betrayed.

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Cardinal Justin Rigali inherited an awful situation, a legacy of abuse and deceit at the highest levels of the Philadelphia archdiocese. We trust that his immediate response to the grand jury report was the work of lawyers, not a pastor, and that his subsequent apologies and the pastoral letter he sent back to his church while he was attending the Synod of Bishops in Rome is more indicative of what’s in his heart.

He speaks of an archdiocese beset “by sins and failings which have scarred the lives of many young people and have deeply pained and scandalized the faithful.”

He pleads, in anguished tones, for the archdiocese to turn to prayer, particularly before the Eucharist and in such settings as Forty Hours devotion and Benediction. “During these hours of prayer,” he writes, “we will pray for the victims and their families. We will ask Jesus to heal hearts, minds and memories, and to open the way to deep peace and serenity for all.”

He concludes by asking his people to commit themselves to “reparation for sins and to the renewal of our lives of Christian service.”

An archdiocese jolted by the kind of news that Philadelphia Catholics have absorbed in recent weeks certainly needs to turn to prayer.

With all respect for the power of prayer and the centrality of the Eucharist to the community, however, reparation for sins, the church itself teaches, does not occur magically. The sin must be named, and the sinned against, in this case the victims and the community at large, must be asked for forgiveness.

In speaking of the “disclosure of sins” in the sacrament of reconciliation, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states: “Through such an admission man looks squarely at the sins he is guilty of, takes responsibility for them, and thereby opens himself again to God and to the communion of the church in order to make a new future possible.”

While that refers, of course, to individual confession, doesn’t the same hold true for institutional sins that block the path to a new future? That understanding of sacramental theology -- which none of us limits to just the encounter in the confessional, but which we also experience daily in relationships in every sphere of our lives -- is deep in our bones. We know that when a bishop asks forgiveness it is an empty request unless we know why he asks.

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The Catholic community not only needs to know, but has a right to know what was done. We have stated before that across the country there are dioceses in possession of the same kinds of documents that have been the focus of legal attention in Boston, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. Those communities should not have to wait for the angry persistence of victims, their lawyers and frustrated prosecutors to force the truth into the open.

In every diocese where such a history exists, the bishops ought to invite in a panel of respected Catholics, give them access to all the files and charge them with constructing as detailed a narrative as possible -- without violating confidences or naming priests who have not been credibly accused -- of what occurred in each local church. Then the community will know what to forgive. It is an effort that should be coordinated on a national level with a commission headed by someone with the stature of a Fr. Theodore Hesburgh, the former president of Notre Dame University, who has the essential credibility and experience.

Catholics want their leaders back, whole and unafraid of what might leak out or what a prosecutor might force into the open.

The studies and audits that resulted from public pressure have provided an outline of the dimensions of the problem. It is time, now, to flesh out the outline, to get on with the real work of reconciliation, to disclose fully and take responsibility for what went on. Without that step, the path to the future remains blocked.

© National Catholic Reporter, 2005 

NCR received first place for best editorial on a national or international issue in a national newspaper for its Oct. 28 editorial “The sin must be named,” from the Catholic Press Association.