The Catholic Church’s Need to Recognize Its Own Sins

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March 28, 2010 by Daniel Stack

1790 A human being must always obey the certain judgment of his conscience. If he were deliberately to act against it, he would condemn himself. Yet it can happen that moral conscience remains in ignorance and makes erroneous judgments about acts to be performed or already committed.

1791 This ignorance can often be imputed to personal responsibility. This is the case when a man “takes little trouble to find out what is true and good, or when conscience is by degrees almost blinded through the habit of committing sin.” In such cases, the person is culpable for the evil he commits.

Catechism of the Catholic Church

The clergy sexual abuse scandal which exploded into consciousness in early 2002 has of late been back in the news with revelations that Pope Benedict had received memos regarding a pedophile priest’s transfer (source: New York Times, March 25, 2010: “Memo to Pope Described Transfer of Pedophile Priest”).

There’s similar stories that have been going on since the story broke – priests, bishops, and cardinals who transferred problems around, who chose not to hear unpleasant facts, who did not heed allegations.

At the end of the day these are just excuses. The information to know about this abuse was present. When faced with the choice between protecting the reputation of the Church and the innocence of children from depraved sexual acts, time after time the Church chose to protect its reputation. And in the end it failed in both. Children were molested and the Church’s reputation has been tarnished, quite possibly beyond the ability of its leaders to repair.

Pope Benedict XVI made an attempt over the past week in an apology to the victims in Ireland. However, I think it falls short. It states that those in charge in Ireland made errors but it does not, at least in my mind, indicate the sinfulness of those errors. At a certain point something becomes beyond a mistake – at a certain point you just should have known better and made a choice to do wrong. Consider this excerpt from his letter:

You have suffered grievously and I am truly sorry. I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. Those of you who were abused in residential institutions must have felt that there was no escape from your sufferings. It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church. In her name, I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel. At the same time, I ask you not to lose hope. It is in the communion of the Church that we encounter the person of Jesus Christ, who was himself a victim of injustice and sin. Like you, he still bears the wounds of his own unjust suffering. He understands the depths of your pain and its enduring effect upon your lives and your relationships, including your relationship with the Church. I know some of you find it difficult even to enter the doors of a church after all that has occurred. Yet Christ’s own wounds, transformed by his redemptive sufferings, are the very means by which the power of evil is broken and we are reborn to life and hope. I believe deeply in the healing power of his self-sacrificing love – even in the darkest and most hopeless situations – to bring liberation and the promise of a new beginning.

And in his addressing bishops:

11. To my brother bishops

It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred. All this has seriously undermined your credibility and effectiveness. I appreciate the efforts you have made to remedy past mistakes and to guarantee that they do not happen again. Besides fully implementing the norms of canon law in addressing cases of child abuse, continue to cooperate with the civil authorities in their area of competence. Clearly, religious superiors should do likewise. They too have taken part in recent discussions here in Rome with a view to establishing a clear and consistent approach to these matters. It is imperative that the child safety norms of the Church in Ireland be continually revised and updated and that they be applied fully and impartially in conformity with canon law.

To be honest, I don’t doubt his sincerity. But it really still seems to fall short. This is not a mistake. At least not just a mistake. It is a mistake which had horrific consequences, consequences which could and should have been anticipated.

At some point the Church as an entity must acknowledge its own sinfulness. It seems the entire institution failed to do the right thing. It is more than an error in judgment – an error in judgment is something which happens in isolated cases. But in country after country we see the same pattern emerging. Priests abused children sexually. The local hierarchy turned a blind eye to the problem, at best moving the problem around. At a certain point one must question what was it about the entire institution that led to this same sin being committed over and over again, all over the world. I fear it is a sickness deeply embedded in the church.

At the very least it is a cause for some very deep self-examination. What is it about our structure that led so many bishops to make the same tragic decision? I’m a self-confessed liberal Catholic, I have my own theory on this. I don’t believe that celibacy is something that leads people to acts of perversion. I lived a celibate life for longer than I cared to without descending to such depravity. However, I do question whether there was a need for more diverse opinion. Would the same decisions have been made had there been parents making them? If there had been women in decision-making roles? I’m personally in favor of married priests and the ordination of female priests. But there are solutions short of that — I question whether such people truly have a voice in such decisions. I believe they should. Beyond a voice, they should have authority. Even were one to assume (which I do not) the superiority of celibate men as spiritual leaders, that does not go to follow that they made the best leaders for matters of personnel. At the very least there should be a deep self-examination to seek out the flaw in the Church’s character that allowed this abomination to occur.

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