Skip to main contentAccessibility feedback

Three Great Lessons of the Abuse Scandal

Three very significant lessons can be drawn from the sex abuse scandal within the Catholic Church.

  • The first is often considered but seldom mentioned due to fear: The secular attack on the Church is profoundly hypocritical.
  • The second lesson has come to light again relatively recently, though it is a truism in the Church: The manner in which most local bishops handle internal problems is determined by the example set in Rome.
  • The third has not been mentioned often enough, though I believe it is finally starting to sink in: A renewal of ecclesiastical discipline is essential across the board.

These three lessons deserve careful consideration.

Lesson 1: The Response to the Abuse Scandal Is Fueled by Hypocrisy

There is no need to reiterate the obvious points that sexual abuse is always a grave moral evil, that it is particularly deplorable in organizations claiming to offer moral leadership, and that it is most deplorable of all in the Catholic Church, which makes unique and unparalleled claims about truth and grace. But I also observe the following:

  • The prolonged and unremitting secular attack on the Catholic Church for a sexual abuse problem overwhelmingly in the past
  • The confiscation of the ecclesiastical wealth of the Catholic people (who, in general, have no guilt in this matter)
  • The changing of statutes of limitations to permit vast financial settlements in cases where the perpetrators are long dead
  • And the effort to implicate the pope despite the complete absence of evidence

All of this, even in those cases where justice is served, is a monumental hypocrisy. What we have here, in essence, are people who favor sexual licentiousness—and who hate the Catholic Church because of its very condemnation of sexual licentiousness—exploiting one of the few remaining sexual taboos for the purpose of discrediting and breaking the Church.

I’ve been fighting an ecclesiastical culture that has permitted consistent abuse of the rights of the faithful, including sexual abuse, for over 40 years. Though hardly alone (Catholic Answers comes to mind), I take a back seat to no one in this. So, if your view of the results of the sex abuse scandal is that the Church is getting exactly what it deserves, I would be sympathetic:

  • if you could demonstrate any similar effort against other institutions, including public schools, where the rates of abuse are higher than in the Church,
  • or if guilty priests, religious, and bishops were being held personally responsible rather than the Church as a whole,
  • or if the same people who are attacking the Church were also calling for a return to sexual self-control and sexual restraint in order to address the problem at its root,
  • or if those of us who point out the large role homosexuality has played in this abuse were not excoriated for daring to suggest there is anything disordered about homosexuality.

No, this is a clear case of the pot calling the kettle black, enjoying it, profiting from it, and getting away with it big time.

So the first lesson of the abuse scandal is that the extent to which the Church is under attack is determined in large part by the hatred many people feel for the Church’s stance against the prevailing sins of the surrounding culture, including sexual sins. Surely far more people have been discomfited by the Church’s insistence on traditional sexual morality than have suffered at the hands of those priests and bishops who have failed to live the gospel in this particular way. But the secular world regards insistence on sexual morality as another form of abuse, doesn’t it? How delightful, then, to be able to exploit the chinks in the Church’s own armor!

Lesson 2: Bishops Act as Rome Acts, not as Rome Teaches

Unfortunately, recognizing this hypocrisy—and knowing that we will have to live with it—is no excuse for not resolving the very real problems that we have. The problem of sexual abuse within the clergy was permitted to go unresolved for a very long time. Once individual Catholic bishops became aware of it, why did so few of them act decisively? Actually, there are several reasons. I will argue that the most important purely institutional reason was the weakness of the curial culture in Rome in responding to widespread secularization within the Church—but it is important to recognize at least three other more positive factors that also played a role in what has since proven to be an extended inadequate response:

  1. The first of these positive factors is the learning curve. The dominant professional psychological opinion when sexual abuse was at its worst was that offenders could be sent for treatment, rehabilitated, and returned to service. It was understandable, then, that there should be a period in which this approach was tried.
  2. The second positive factor is a perfectly proper reluctance on the part of the Church to involve the civil authority in internal Church affairs. There is a long and vital tradition of the independence of the Church which is necessary to its spiritual mission. Sorting out when to turn a priest over to civil authorities can be difficult.
  3. The third positive factor is the desire, not only on the part of Church leaders but often on the part of victims, to handle such matters as quietly as possible. The culture of forming victim groups and demanding reparations was not nearly as strong in the 1970s and 1980s as it has since become, especially in the area of sexual abuse.

Nonetheless, it must be admitted that:

  1. with respect to the first factor, Church authorities were very slow to learn;
  2. with respect to the second factor, the Church failed to eliminate the need for civil involvement by handling the problem effectively in-house; and
  3. with respect to the third factor, it seems clear that the desire to handle things quietly was often motivated by a desire to preserve the personal reputations of the priests and bishops involved rather than by pastoral concern for victims. Even worse, punishment of abusive priests was sometimes staved off by the threat of exposing other priests and bishops if the matter were pressed.

This brings us back to the weakness of the prevailing ecclesiastical culture, starting with the administrative curial culture in Rome.

A Little History

The Western cultural implosion of the 1960s rapidly infected even the Church herself, causing a huge number of Catholic bishops and religious communities to take up what had been going on in universities and seminaries even earlier: a preoccupation with contemporary ideas and a frequently pathetic accommodation with the world in order to make the Church seem “relevant” again. This was essentially modernism as an ecclesiastical movement. It shattered discipline almost overnight, and over the next 20 years it undermined the faith and mission of countless dioceses, religious communities, and social agencies—including some cardinals and curial departments in Rome.

It has taken the popes a long time to bring order out of the resulting chaos. John XXIII perceived the need for renewal of the Church and called a Council to effect that renewal, but he could not have realized in the early 1960s how deeply the rot within the Church had penetrated, how quickly the Catholic intelligentsia would succumb to the new cultural euphoria, or how easily the effort at reform could be hijacked for essentially secular purposes. Vatican II produced wonderful documents which the Church as a whole is only now becoming capable of implementing, but they were almost completely ignored in the years immediately following it.

Paul VI, who completed the Council and promulgated its decrees, became discouraged by the internal disarray in the Church during the remainder of his pontificate. He specifically stated on his ninth anniversary that he had been unable to respond administratively to the crisis, and that all he was able to do for the Church was to suffer.

We pass over the pontificate of John Paul I, which lasted only a month. John Paul II brought a new strength to the papacy and restored much of its credibility, but he does not appear to have been an effective administrative disciplinarian. It is clear that he did not lack courage, and it is also true that in the end, he left Benedict XVI with a considerably larger number of bishops around the world who are likely to respond properly to disciplinary instructions in the future. But John Paul himself wondered whether he had exercised sufficient discipline, or whether he could have effectively done more. Instead, he concentrated on inspiring a new generation of bishops, priests, and laity through his teachings and his sheer presence. Perhaps it was the only strategy possible at that stage, but in any case administrative discipline was seldom effectively utilized during his pontificate.

The point I am making is that throughout the 60s, 70s, 80s, and beyond, while concerned laity were on their knees begging their bishops to govern their local churches according to what the magisterium taught, these same bishops knew that there was a substantial difference between what Rome taught and what Rome effectively insisted they do. In fact, what Rome taught was often inadvertently undermined by the administrative example and administrative signals which routinely emanated from the curia as to how local bishops should actually respond to the many concrete challenges the Church faced, especially those from within her own ranks.

The Wrong Signals

A recently reported example proves the pattern. As late as 2001, the head of the Congregation for the Clergy, Cardinal Dario Castrillon Hoyos, wrote a letter to a bishop in France praising him for refusing to turn a pedophile priest over to the civil authorities; moreover, Castrillon Hoyos also intervened in at least one other case to forestall the public punishment of a pedophile priest by a local ordinary who was preparing to take decisive action. I have already enumerated several positive motivations that may have contributed to this approach, but it remains a perfect example of curial business as usual at the time. Rome was setting forth proper teachings on sexual and other moral matters, but in the face of widespread chaos—and fearing to harm the Church’s reputation while hoping that guilty priests would reform—the Vatican was seldom willing to crack down on those among the clergy who violated her teachings, including those guilty of sexual abuse. Actions—or the lack of them—spoke louder than words.

It is important to recognize that the flaws in this prevailing curial culture went far deeper than covering up sexual abuse. This was a culture that consistently failed to correct the abuse of the rights of the faithful with regard to such things as the proper celebration of the liturgy, the teaching of sound Catholic doctrine, and the supervision of those organizations claiming to be Catholic (diocesan offices, parishes, Catholic schools, religious communities, retreat houses, Catholic charities and hospitals, Catholic media, Catholic lay groups, and so on). I don’t mean to imply that the pope or most cardinals favored everything that went on. In fact they frequently made clear in their teaching and other public statements that they did not favor it. But there was no sense of outrage and no effective culture of correction. It was way too easy for bishops and priests around the world to receive the teachings as so many irrelevant ideals.

Lesson 3: Ecclesiastical Discipline Is Essential

I picked an example from 2001 in the preceding section because this was the year when the Vatican approach to sexual abuse began to shift. As head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Cardinal Ratzinger disagreed with the prevailing manner in which these cases were being handled (or ignored), and he had already been fighting for some time for better policies and more effective administration. In 2001, he convinced John Paul to remove authority over sex abuse cases from the Congregation for the Clergy and give it instead to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Ratzinger began working as rapidly as he could to handle such cases decisively, but even he did not have sufficient clout to deal with highly protected clergy, such as Fr. Maciel of the Legion of Christ, who had powerful protectors among other cardinals. It is significant that as soon as Ratzinger was elected pope, the Maciel case was reopened and finally resolved, as were other high-profile cases of a similar nature.

In contrast to the pattern of the previous 50 years, an effective disciplinary culture can even now change the rules and patterns of Catholic life by aligning both authority and standard practice with Catholic principles. Whenever this is done, the result is extraordinarily rapid change for the better, and a dramatic increase in spiritual progress. By now, with abuse scandals surfacing all around the Church (at least in the West), nearly every bishop has finally relearned the forgotten lesson which the future Benedict XVI began to try to recover in the 1990s: It is far better to come down hard on sexual abuse from the first—to exercise the proper canonical discipline—in order to minimize injury to others and to preserve the Church’s credibility as a witness to the true and the good.

But it is as yet unclear whether the lesson has been learned for anything other than sexual abuse. In other words, is it to be only sexual abuse which demands prompt administrative action? What about other violations of the rights of the faithful? What about liturgical abuse? The failure to teach sound Catholic doctrine? The abandonment of the call to holiness and the individual charisms in so many religious orders? The utter secularization of Catholic universities and social agencies? The twisting of Catholic moral theology to serve the sexual revolution? Going forward, will we see discipline maintained only when the hostile surrounding culture demands it, or has the hierarchy learned the need for discipline with respect to the Church’s mission as a whole?

In his letter to Titus, St. Paul wrote of the qualities of a bishop:

For a bishop, as God’s steward, must be blameless; he must not be arrogant or quick-tempered or a drunkard or violent or greedy for gain, but hospitable, a lover of goodness, master of himself, upright, holy, and self-controlled; he must hold firm to the sure word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to confute those who contradict it. For there are many insubordinate men, empty talkers and deceivers . . .; they must be silenced, since they are upsetting whole families by teaching for base gain what they have no right to teach. (Ti 1:7-11)

The moral lesson is that there must be zero tolerance not only for sexual abuse but for every significant form of abuse among the Church’s ministers, particularly the abuse of any of the rights of the faithful to the goods the Church offers for their salvation. The failure to discipline priests and bishops in their dispensation of the Church’s sacraments, her teachings, her grace and her inner life have all contributed to this disaster, and have wrought far too many other disasters besides, many of equal or greater magnitude. One of the great benefits to the Church of the sex abuse scandal is that the free pass has been withdrawn in this one area. But the greatest lesson of the crisis is the need for a proper and edifying discipline across the board. It is infinitely better to suffer for doing good than for doing, or even permitting, evil.

A Changing Ecclesiastical Culture?

Slowly, ever so slowly, the culture of at the highest levels in the Church is changing. This is evidenced most often by the increasing number of positive disciplinary steps taken by various bishops in their own dioceses, steps which mirror the new culture higher up. In a paradigmatic case, Bishop Lawrence Brandt of Greensburg, Pennsylvania recently banned the Sisters of St. Joseph of Baden from advertising for vocations in the diocesan media because they refused to accept the USCCB’s decision to oppose Obamacare because of its funding for abortion. Imagine how quickly the confusion would fall away from Catholic life if this sort of discipline were to become widespread!

Daily news reports reveal that bishops are getting rapidly tougher—rapidly better at ecclesiastical discipline—but many religious orders are so far gone that it is uncertain whether they can be brought back at all. It remains to be seen, for example, what Rome will be able to do about the widespread resistance to the Apostolic Visitation of American women religious, or about Jesuit higher education. But the very fact of the visitation makes it clear that the ecclesiastical culture is beginning to change. The same thing is evident in Pope Benedict’s increasing involvement in the repair of the liturgy. It is somewhat ironic that the elderly and supremely professorial Joseph Ratzinger is now emerging as the architect of a new administrative culture of correction in the Roman Curia and beyond.

The Church can never abandon the task of teaching, which is necessary to inform and inspire. But short of heaven, there will never be a Catholic golden age in which every minister of the gospel follows the good out of deep interior conviction. And the Church is always going to suffer quite enough from the hypocrisy of those who hate the light without being cavalier about self-inflicted wounds. In fact, it has a serious obligation to ensure that it suffers for the right reasons—for edifying reasons, for sanctifying reasons. To do good for souls, it must keep itself institutionally on point. To sanctify, the Church must do more than merely teach. She must rule.


Jesus Foretold It

Both sides of this situation were foreseen from the first. What was it Jesus said? “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung round his neck and he were cast into the sea, than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Lk 17:1-2). But our Lord also warned:

If the world hates you, know that it has hated me before it hated you. If you were of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you. Remember the word that I said to you, “A servant is not greater than his master.” If they persecuted me, they will persecute you; if they kept my word, they will keep yours also. But all this they will do to you on my account, because they do not know him who sent me. (Jn 15:18-21)

So we have the temptation, the sin, the cover-up, the scandal—all so very worthy of punishment. But at the same time we have the disproportionate and singular response on the part of people who normally care very little about sexual sin, who defend homosexuality, who hate the Church, and who wish to profit from her misery—all the people for whom the Church’s successes provide the primary motive for attack, while her failures provide particularly expedient means.

Is It Catholic or “Catholic”?

From the 1960s until very recently, the consistent approval bestowed on all mainstream Catholic organizations, no matter how far they had strayed from a true Catholic identity, has been the single most frustrating obstacle for those who have struggled to renew the Church. This approval has often put deeply committed laity (and many courageously faithful priests) in the nearly indefensible position of arguing that official Catholic status and episcopal approval are not enough to determine whether an organization is fully Catholic. How often have they had to say, “Yes, but . . .” when someone insisted that some group must be a good Catholic group because it was “in good standing,” was approved by the Church, advertised in the local diocesan paper, or had the bishop on its board of advisors?

Few people are naturally suited to the task of deciphering Catholic theological, moral, and social principles for themselves, and even fewer have both the courage and the ability to withstand either the complacency or the active resistance of the authorities. This struggle is much like running through waist-deep water. Progress is nearly impossible, and everybody else wonders what the heck you’re trying to do.

The result is that everyone is suffering now, both the guilty and the innocent. St. Peter foresaw this pattern and offered important spiritual counsel. “Keep your conscience clear,” he warned in his first letter, “so that when you are abused, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing right, if that should be God’s will, than for doing wrong” (1 Pt 3:16-17).

Did you like this content? Please help keep us ad-free
Enjoying this content?  Please support our mission!