The ongoing Catholic Church sexual abuse debacle in Pennsylvania (and beyond) is a subject I’ve steered clear of. This is likely due to little more than a lack of the stomach required to tackle it, combined with the fact that, as a Protestant, I’m not nearly as well versed in all the particulars as others. But given the horror stories we’ve been hearing, the response from Pope Francis this weekend seems particularly remarkable. I understand why some people had been criticizing Francis for not responding more quickly, but now having read the letter (which you can view in full at the Washington Post) perhaps it’s understandable why it took a bit longer to prepare. It’s a lengthy missive and really doesn’t pull any punches or seek to deflect blame. This letter is a startling admission of failure on the part of the church’s leadership, though it still appears somewhat lacking in specifics as to what they will do about these atrocities in the future.
The Pope begins by quoting Saint Paul from 1 Corinthians 12:26. “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it.” He’s speaking not only of the suffering of the children who suffered abuse but their families and all of the members of the church who pay the price and suffer the effects of these crimes. Leaving no doubt as to where the blame should fall, the Pope quotes his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, repeating comments he made on the subject in 2005 when he was still a Cardinal.
I make my own the words of the then Cardinal Ratzinger when, during the Way of the Cross composed for Good Friday 2005, he identified with the cry of pain of so many victims and exclaimed: “How much filth there is in the Church, and even among those who, in the priesthood, ought to belong entirely to [Christ]! How much pride, how much self-complacency! Christ’s betrayal by his disciples, their unworthy reception of his body and blood, is certainly the greatest suffering endured by the Redeemer; it pierces his heart. We can only call to him from the depths of our hearts: Kyrie eleison – Lord, save us! (cf. Mt 8:25)” (Ninth Station).
He accuses the offending clerics of not only betraying their flock but betraying Christ Himself. The Pope is calling for penance and prayer, but clearly acknowledging that such measures won’t be enough. Perhaps even more revealing is his repeated mention of not only the sins of those who harmed the powerless but those who covered up those sins and helped the guilty escape punishment. The horrendous crimes revealed in Pennsylvania include high ranking leaders of the church who, it seems, were fully aware of the complaints being raised about some priests but turned a blind eye and moved them from one location to another. These are the crimes which it seems people are outraged over on the same level as they despise the pedophiles who preyed on the helpless.
But how will these men be held accountable? In terms of the law, many of these crimes are too far in the past to prosecute. If the church is going to “clean house” in terms of removing the offenders – both the abusers and those who covered for them – there are going to be a many job openings coming up. Will that even be enough for the public, though? I’m aware that this subject has been known in many communities for my entire life but rarely talked about. We have members in our local Methodist Church who are former Catholics who left the church precisely because of situations like these.
I don’t think the Catholic Church is in danger of completely collapsing and disappearing from the Earth, but they have a long road to travel before they win back the full faith and trust of their congregation. This letter from Pope Francis is a good start, but we should remember that a “start” is all it is. A lot of painful work awaits them going forward.