Patricia McGuire
University president

Patricia McGuire

President of Trinity Washington University.

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Via Dolorosa

Q: Will Pope Benedict be so damaged by the clergy abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church in Europe that his papacy never recovers? Or does the crisis offer him an opportunity to distinguish his leadership from John Paul II's wildly successful years as Pope?

At the Easter Vigil Mass last Saturday night, I sat with my mother in the church we still consider our "home" parish outside of Philadelphia.

The high gothic arches and expansive marble sanctuary of St. Colman's always has a way of bringing back memories of those pre-Vatican II days when my brothers were altar boys mumbling Latin kneeling beside the priest, while I glumly watched the backs of the celebrant and acolytes from my pew far down the aisle in the "girls" section.

We could not really understand what was going on up there when the priest faced the altar and softly prayed in hurried Latin, but we knew it was important because Sister Bridgetta glared at us if we dared whisper.

Much has changed in the Church. I found myself slightly envious of the girls who now participate as altar servers, and a married deacon now delivers a terrific homily, while a beautifully dressed woman who once might have been Sister Bridgetta is a Eucharistic minister

Yet, my thoughts at this Easter service were pessimistic about how the Church's style of governance has remained too much the same as in those olden days when we could not see what was going on right before our eyes.

Mishandling public communications about the child-abuse scandal for most of the last decade is the least of the Church's problems. It is not disloyal to our faith for Catholics to feel justifiable outrage and horror at the thought that priests abused children in the most heinous ways possible. Indeed, far from being an act of disloyalty, our anger is an expression of how strong our faith truly is.

The pain of the scandal is deepest among the most faithful Catholics: those who believed everything "Father" said, who sent their young boys off to the sacristies with carefully starched cassocks, who genuflected and kissed the bishops' rings. These pillars of the Church -- especially millions of women who did so much of the service work for the Church, the mothers and grandmothers and teachers of the boys who were or might have been harmed -- they are the ones who feel most betrayed.

Such feelings cannot be fixed by better P.R. and more clever "spin" by the Pope's surrogates (though it might be advisable for them to take the vow of silence for a few weeks since their "defense of the Pope" speeches have only enraged more people.)

The thousands of crimes of child abuse by priests all over the world are indefensible. There can be no "P.R. response" to the massive evidence of evil actions except for what the Church itself, through its leaders, can do to acknowledge, confess and do penance for this horror. There is no room for arrogance or defensiveness or displays of episcopal umbrage at the media or anyone who calls for atonement.

Unfortunately, the hierarchy's response to the original sin of child sexual abuse was so slow and fraught with dissembling that the first and most evil crime -- child abuse -- grew into a second and, perhaps, more perilous kind of offense for the bishops and Pope themselves -- the appearance, if not the reality, of a cover-up of the first crime. The wave of public revulsion over priests abusing children became a tsunami when the laity and others realized that bishops participated in protecting the offenders in some misguided belief that the Church should shelter its own miscreants.

As I have puzzled over the wholly inadequate nature of the hierarchy's response to the original sin of child abuse by priests, I have come to the view that these men simply may not have comprehended the depth of the evil done to children by members of the priestly club.

I have heard bishops defend priests as good men who work hard, who do not deserve opprobrium generally, all true. I have heard cardinals recite statistics about the fact that the percentage of priests who have abused children is no greater than, and perhaps less than, the percentage of men who abuse children in the general population. I have no reason to doubt these statistics. But most of what I have heard from the hierarchy is all about the priests.

With the exception of Cardinal Sean O'Malley in Boston, who is one of the great bishops of our time, I have rarely heard a church leader speak with profound sorrow, humility and truly insightful understanding of the victims of the deviants, the children whose innocence was taken by predators wearing collars. Pope Benedict came close on his visit to the United States in 2008, but recent events have diminished the good effect of his words at that time.

This scandal is not about the priests. It's about the child victims who were forced to live with their own hellish versions of the Via Dolorosa through decades of silence and denial. Unless and until the hierarchy proves that it understands what happened to children at some very profound level, the church will continue to wander in the forest of accusation, doubt, anger and erosion of moral authority.

Pope Benedict XVI and Catholic bishops are now feeling their way along their own Via Dolorosa. The Pope will not resign, of that I am quite certain.The church will not collapse; Catholics remain deeply committed to their faith even while expressing sorrow and anger at the failings of the organization and its management -- the scandal is not about a problem of faith, but an abuse of power in a human organization.

Whether this moment is sufficiently powerful to force significant change in the organization depends upon the willingness of Pope Benedict and the bishops to seize the moment as a graced opportunity for aggiornamento --- refreshing and modernizing the organization would be a powerful act of contrition, an admission that the structure and governance style of the organization itself created the environment that allowed so much evil to flourish in the ordained workforce.

Aggiornamento would be a stunning word for Pope Benedict to utter, but if he were to acknowledge and embrace the need for organizational change as the best means to wipe the stain of the sin of child abuse from the soul of the Church, he might earn a legacy as Pope Benedict the Great.

During the Easter Vigil last Saturday night, I happened to open the hymnal to the Stabat Mater, the verses that were sung in Lent during the Stations of the Cross, the Catholic ritual that is the re-enactment of the Via Dolorosa. The opening stanza seems to capture the global sorrow of the Catholic Church today: "At the cross her station keeping, Stood the mournful mother weeping, Close to Jesus to the last."

Amen.

By Patricia McGuire  |  April 7, 2010; 12:00 AM ET  | Category:  Responding to scandal Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Dr. McGuire is absolutely right. The victims (while met in courtrooms and legislative hearing rooms) are not treated with compassion by the church in the church; the wish is, they would just go away. Until they are welcomed and helped to heal by the presence and prayers of the faithful, led by the bishops and the clergy, the church will not heal. The mournful mother stands weeping, close to Jesus to the last.

Posted by: ConnieMel | April 9, 2010 7:06 PM
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Dr. McGuire is absolutely right. The victims (while met in courtrooms and legislative hearing rooms) are not treated with compassion by the church in the church; the wish is, they would just go away. Until they are welcomed and helped to heal by the presence and prayers of the faithful, led by the bishops and the clergy, the church will not heal. The mournful mother stands weeping, close to Jesus to the last.

Posted by: ConnieMel | April 9, 2010 7:05 PM
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