This column is being written on the eve of a much-publicized summit meeting of bishops from around the world whom Pope Francis has summoned to Rome to discuss the sex abuse scandal but will appear after it. No matter how that gathering turns out or what the media make of it, the thoughts that follow will stay the same.
A couple of weeks ago my parish’s weekly bulletin plugged a session titled “Why Stay Catholic?” Very likely many parishes around the country are having similar sessions as reports of Catholics leaving the Church multiply.
In a way, it’s hard to blame people who pack up and quit. The media pummeling over sex abuse that the Church has received for months—years, in fact—has taken its toll on morale, and the widely held perception that the authorities are dragging their feet on reforms certainly doesn’t help.
But quit the Church? No. Here are some reasons why not.
First, the Church in the United States has made enormous strides in owning up to the existence of this problem and doing something about it.
Yes, bishops of an earlier generation were calamitously slow in responding to the evil as it spread in the 1960s and 1970s. And yes, it took devastating media coverage of abuse and coverup to galvanize the hierarchy into adopting mandatory reforms 17 years ago. And yes again, the bishops have yet to adopt a system for holding bishops accountable. (They tried last November, but the Vatican said not yet.)
But the fact is that the system put in place in 2002 has worked. The names of abusers currently being released by dioceses throughout the country are ancient history, not current offenders. The 12 months ending June 30, 2017 brought only six verified allegations of newly occurring sexual abuse of a minor by a Catholic priest in the United States. Since four of these situations concerned the same individual, that means only three priests overall were involved.
On another front, the Pope’s action in removing ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the priesthood in the face of his gross misdeeds was an obvious, necessary step. Still very much on the table, though, is who facilitated McCarrick’s rise to the heights of the hierarchy even though his perverse conduct was widely known, or at least rumored, in some clerical circles. Pope Francis has promised a scouring of the Vatican archives to find answers, which are likely to extend through the last three pontificates, including his own. The results of that investigation can hardly come too soon.
Meanwhile, the question of what role, if any, homosexuality in the clergy has played in the sex abuse scandal and other troubled areas of Church life cries out for examination. Publication of a book by a gay French journalist alleging a heavy homosexual presence within the Vatican itself underlines the need both here and in Rome for serious fact-finding, though certainly not a homophobic witch hunt.
In short, despite real progress in the United States in providing significant safeguards against future abuse of minors, the Church—in America, at the Vatican, and many other places—now faces an urgent challenge: to find fact-based answers to several pressing questions involving sex and the clergy and to adopt whatever new reforms the facts may dictate.
For some Catholics, this may be a reason to quit the Church. For others it is a reason to stay—and, in staying, to be part of the growing body of concerned, loyal Catholics lobbying for reform. My vote is with the latter group.
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