A Moral Challenge For All Catholics

FOR CATHOLICS, the second shoe has fallen. The first fell two years ago when

The Boston Globe laid bare the bishops' protection of abusive priests. The

second fell last week with reports of the National Review Board that indicated

the real scope of the Catholic failure.

The nightmare was even worse than we thought. From the church's own numbers

(and therefore, if anything, undercounted), we know that more than 10,000

minors were violated. We know that more than 4,000 priests committed the crimes,

more than 4 percent of all priests who served. And though the reports ignore

this, we know that the vast majority of bishops protected the priests instead of

the children.

Catholics cannot hear this news the way other people do. For us the

devastation and anger involve also a measure of personal remorse. It is not only that

our entire church stands indicted -- from its system of authority to its

clerical culture to its tradition of secrecy to it basic teachings about morality --

but also that each of us has reason to feel implicated. I am not talking

about a generalized corporate guilt here, nor do I mean to take away from the

particular responsibility of individual perpetrators. But this massive failure

could not have happened if we the church had not enabled it.

We Catholics are close to our priests. We depend on them for intimate

expressions of the deepest human emotions, from birth to marriage to illness to

death. They give us our daily bread -- or weekly or monthly -- in the Eucharist. We

tell them our secrets and ask forgiveness. Yet for 50 years -- the period of

the studies just released -- we have been turning a blind eye toward the

pervasive corruption that infected the priesthood. Good priests have been turning a

blind eye toward the pathologies of some of their colleagues and toward the

refusal of bishops to deal with those pathologies. It is true that we did not

"know," but the scale of the criminal behavior suggests now that we should have


When we cooperated in the climate of dishonesty that pollutes the church's

teachings about sex, not making an issue, for example, of the absurd birth

control prohibition, we were shoring up, in Garry Wills's phrase, the "structures

of deceit" on which abusive priests depended. When we declined to hold bishops

accountable for their excessively autocratic exercise of authority in small

matters (forbidding girls from serving at Mass) and large (closing parish

schools without consultation), we supported the power system that bishops were

protecting in protecting abusers. When we failed to make an issue of the unjust

discrimination against women embodied in the male-only priesthood, we were part

of what allowed patriarchal clericalism to reach its present state of calcified

corruption. When we passively accepted the hierarchy's refusal to implement

the Vatican II reforms aimed at empowering the laity, we gave the abusive

priests a place to hide and their sponsoring bishops a way to keep them hidden.

This history puts a moral challenge before Catholics. Having participated in

much of what led to the church's past failure, will we enable a future

failure? The dreadful reports have been issued. The settlements with victims have

been mostly arrived at. The apologies have been made. "The terrible history

recorded here today," Bishop Wilton Gregory said last week, "is history."

If anyone presumes to ask about the sources of the abuse scandal, bishops

talk vaguely about homosexuals, an obsessive media, or even the permissive 1960s.

They baldly assert that celibacy has nothing to do with the priesthood's

problems, and as for women, the bishops remind us that the second-place status of

females was set by Jesus. That question is still closed. Meanwhile, on

subjects ranging from gay marriage to the closings of parishes, bishops have resumed

their old autocratic habit of giving orders from on high. In all of this the

bishops show every sign not only of wanting a return to "normal" but of

thinking it is possible.

But what if "normal" is the problem? Are Catholics going to enable this

refusal to deal with the church's real crisis? Are Catholics going to pretend that

deep questions of moral teaching, lay empowerment, homophobia, and sexism have

not been raised? Are Catholics actually going to allow the avoidance of

consequences by the particular bishops who enabled abusers to continue their crime


We Catholics assure one another and the world that across 50 years we did not

see what was happening in so many rectories and in so many church-sponsored

youth activities. But we can no longer claim such moral blindness. The

corruptions of our church have been made plain. Not surprisingly, the corrupt

leadership shows no sign of wanting to deal with those corruptions. The issue now

squarely belongs to the Catholic people. What are we going to do?

Correction: In my column on Feb. 17, I referred to the barrier between Israel

and the West Bank as a "high cement barrier that will run hundreds of miles.

. . " As readers pointed out to me, the cement portion of the wall/fence will

not run the whole distance. Barbed wire will also be used.

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