The first instance of child sexual abuse by a Roman Catholic priest reported in the United States was made public in 1985.
Three popes and 34 years later, the Vatican finally issued rules for dealing with priests engaging in sexual abuse.
Or did they?
In February 2019, a global summit of Roman Catholic bishops was held at the Vatican to address the problem of sex abuse by clergy. Pope Francis called for an “all-out battle” against abuse. However, the meeting produced few specific measures, created a schism between United States bishops and most other bishops throughout the world, and has caused a “wait and see” attitude from skeptics as to whether the measures developed will be enforced.
The new church laws, presented by the Pope on May 9th, 2019, requires all dioceses to set up a “public, stable, and easily accessible” process for reporting allegations of abuse that protects victims of abuse and anyone who reports these abuses. The measures address abuse by priests but require that accusations against bishops and cardinals be reported directly to the Vatican, which must decide within one month whether to investigate, take immediate disciplinary action, or close the case.
Anne Barrett Doyle of BishopAccountability.org, a Boston-based group that tracks abuse cases, was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying, “[the church’s new laws] have three obvious weaknesses: they stipulate no penalties for ignoring the law, mandate no transparency, and it doesn’t require that abusers be removed permanently from the priesthood.”
You read that right: priests found to have engaged in abuse won’t be removed from ministry.
The American bishops voted to remove from ministry any priest found to have committed sexual abuse or engaged in other criminal activity. The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of New York recently published a list of priests, both dead and alive, who committed sexual offenses and other crimes, along with a list of those awaiting adjudication of their cases. Those found guilty have been removed from ministry and now publicly outed. These American bishops should be applauded for their transparency.
However, bishops in most other countries have been reticent to follow the American church’s lead to permanently remove priests from ministry who are found guilty of crimes.
When I was a young boy, I was an altar server. Favored by my pastor, who was a good and honorable priest (like many others), I was often selected to assist the bishop when he came to administer the sacrament of confirmation at our parish church. I often marveled at how large the bishop loomed in full vestments, the miter on his head making him seem much taller than his actual size.
Having the privilege of being in the sacristy, I also saw the bishop after he had removed his vestments. I was always surprised at how much smaller the bishops looked “unvested.” Today, I, and probably most of the other 1.229 billion other Catholics around the world, am left to wonder how much smaller these prelates of the church can morally, ethically, and spiritually get.
Some of these bishops have stated that the abuse scandal isn’t a big problem, almost wistfully hoping that if they pretend there is no problem, then there is no problem. Others are quick to report that only seven percent of the clergy are abusers, attempting to make the problem seem insignificant. But let’s look at that number in its true context.
There were, at last count, 414,313 Roman Catholic priests throughout the world. Seven percent of that number is 29,000. As a parent, I would not leave my children alone with a priest knowing that there is a one in fourteen chance that the priest is a sexual abuser.
But seven percent is a bogus number when we look at all the crimes.
For every priest who is a sexual offender, there might be one or two of his confreres who probably knew what is or was going on and yet said nothing. Beyond that, there are the priests who sat on the clergy personnel boards in each diocese, who knew a priest was a sexual offender and continually transferred them to other parishes. Let’s call these men for what they are: aiders and abettors.
Lastly, we have our leaders, the small bishops, who have directed, ordered, and allowed the abusers to be moved in the aforementioned transfers. They are accomplices to crimes.
So while the bishops minimize the problem of sexual abuse to seven percent, they negate other questionable and possibly criminal activity within their ranks. The real number is closer to 20 percent, or 82,000, and creates a scenario in which we can only trust one out of every five priests to do the right thing. But the bishops openly state they will not remove the abusers and abettors and accomplices from the priesthood.
What has warped the minds of these men?
The patriarchy! So bent on keeping the order of priesthood an all-male and celibate society, they have thrown away their moral compasses and set their church adrift. They have reserved the sin of sexual abuse for themselves to decide in defiance of the law.
The shortage of priests was first identified back in the late 1960s, and the church did nothing to address this issue except pray that vocations would increase again and fill their large seminaries.
Pope Benedict indicated that celibacy wasn’t the reason for the priest shortage. Rather, he said the shrinking family sizes throughout the world and parents who have different expectations for their children were more likely the reason. Parents’ expectations? What about priests as role models?
Exactly how does that parental conversation go? “Hey, Johnny, you should hang around the church to see if you’d like to dedicate your life to be a priest. Now, there is a chance you’ll be molested and a larger chance no one will report it, but, hey, if you don’t mind that, maybe someday you can be a bishop!”
When the prayers for vocation went unanswered, the small bishops took on a mission to hang onto every single priest they could, and this included priests who were sexual abusers, drug addicts, and common criminals.
We can only wonder what the Roman Catholic Church would look like today if the bishops who were part of the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965), which turned the altars around to face the congregation, had turned their thinking around and allowed women to join their ranks as priests, bishops, cardinals, and, who knows by now, maybe even popes.
One has to believe, as the number of priests rose with the acceptance of women, how much less tolerant of these crimes the bishops might have been. With their numbers plentiful, there would be no need to retain those who preyed on the congregation. One also has to wonder how differently and promptly a collective group of men and women priests and bishops would have reacted to the abuse problem.
The church ambles on, thinking it can last forever and ignoring the signs that tell them their days are numbered.
And if that weren’t enough, Pope Francis, in a speech on May 25th, 2019, made an all-out attack on a women’s right to abortion, stating abortion was like “Hiring a hit man.” This speech follows a large anti-abortion rally in Italy where some of the Italian small bishops were largely in attendance.
These bishops and Pope Francis continue to remain at odds, hold in contempt, and infuriate the one group of people who could save the church: women.
Hit men?? There is a sad joke that asks, “What’s the difference between the Catholic Church and organized crime?” The punchline is, “One is organized.” Like the Mafia, the church has thumbed its nose at the law and continued to take and make money while maintaining an all-male presence in the world.
Which brings me to recognize a group of people the Catholic Church has collectively abused, even though it will never be admitted as such.
I grew up poor. On many occasions, my mother would call my aunt Shirley on a Friday and ask to borrow 20 dollars to feed her five children (we would eventually be seven) and to give carfare to my father to get to work. The 20 bucks had to last a week, until my father got paid the following Friday. I was 10 years old when I became the designated person in charge of going to receive aunt Shirley’s generous gift, one that she gave waveringly and never asked to be returned.
With 40 cents in my pocket that I would exchange for two tokens, I would ride the subway from the Bronx to Hell’s Kitchen, where my aunt lived. It was a treat to see her because she always made a fuss over us kids. I’d go down on a Saturday evening, and she’d fix me dinner. She’d make me a cup of tea, and, while she prepared the food, we would talk. There was nothing I couldn’t tell my aunt Shirley.
As I sat at the table, I’d often notice a scratch pad where she had listed out what bills she would pay that week, with the money paper clipped to the list. Invariably, there would be a “$40 to Con Ed,” with the $40 scratched out and changed to $20, or “$20 to the Deli,” where she had an account, scratched out altogether. Instead, she would give those 20 bucks to my family.
We’d spend the evening playing cards and watching TV, and then we’d go to bed. Early on Sunday, we’d wake up, and she would make me scrambled eggs and toast. We had to eat early because in those days you had to fast for an hour before receiving communion. We followed the church’s rules because we believed in the church.
As we both dressed for Sunday Mass, my aunt would take out her purse. I would notice that she had no more than 23 or 24 dollars in that purse, and then she’d hand me the 20 dollars to put at the heel of my sock. The subways were a lot safer back then, but still not that safe.
In church, my aunt would open her purse again and take out two of her remaining dollars and place them in the basket. She gave of herself, her lunch money, and her entertainment money. She would even surrender her carfare and would walk the nine blocks to and from work so that my family could eat and the church, a church she deeply believed in, would take and use her money for good causes.
That’s a two-dollar donation made every Sunday, along with millions of other dollars Catholics, who gave so the church could do works of mercy and kindness, multiplied over time with interest and investments.
Starting in 1985, it was used to hire expensive lawyers to broker settlements in sex abuse cases involving priests. I do not begrudge the victims the money they won in those settlements—to me, whatever it was, was not nearly enough. But, I must note that my aunt gave all she had and the church used her money to buy their way out of crimes. And yet, today, some men, some very small men with high positions in the church, continue to think there is no problem.
There are gospel stories, John 2:13-16 being one, where Jesus clears the holy temple of money-changers, accusing them of turning the temple into a “den of thieves” through their activities.
Who would Jesus chase from his holy temple today? Perhaps the small bishops who exchange money for sins and then insists that the “den of sinners” can remain in ministry.
It’s time we stopped feeding the beast that is the Roman Catholic Church, and when we do, we will hasten its inevitable demise.
Pope Francis has been a little too vocal lately on other issues, almost trying to throw up a smoke screen of controversy in order to cover for the ridiculous defiance of the law by his small bishops.
Just today, June 5th, 2019, Pope Francis called for an edit to the Lord’s Prayer. He said we should change “lead us not into temptation” to “let us not fall into temptation.”
So, let me understand, we can change a prayer given to us by Jesus almost 2,000 years ago, but we can’t change man-made church rules on celibacy and women being priests? It’s nice to know the leader of the Roman Catholic Church is concerned with translations and semantics but not with lawbreaking and transparency.
Pope Francis started his reign as Pope with a liberal and, to most Catholics, hopeful sense that he could reunite his church. He has done little in the last month to lead us to believe that it’s more than “business as usual” at the Vatican.
Even his one of his strongest allies and friends, Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, had to plead with the Pope to take a stance on the abuse issue and stop stalling. O’Malley is no saint in the eyes of the many people in Boston, but at least he took the fight to the Pope.
He and Cardinal Dolan of New York, and I’m certain other American cardinals and bishops, have chosen to stand alone and somewhat in defiance of the Vatican’s new rules on abuse and have been far more transparent on handling abuse cases.
Maybe it’s time our brave American cardinals and bishops make our American churches more inclusive by accepting women priests and electing new leaders who don’t shrink at their church’s problems.
By that I mean, maybe it’s time for the American church to sever its ties with the small-minded church of Rome and breathe back to life a church of the people, who can have faith, like my aunt Shirley had faith, and set that church on a path to do good and serve its people—all of its people.