Sixteen years after The Boston Globe exposed the cover-up of sex abuse by clergy in the Archdiocese of Boston, I thought we had moved past this scandal, at least in the United States. Since then, the bishops implemented the Dallas Charter with a zero tolerance policy, helping to dramatically reduce the incidents of sex abuse. In parishes and Catholic schools throughout the country, background checks are routinely performed on anyone working with young people. Children are being taught how to report inappropriate behavior. It seemed our churches were becoming safer for young people.
It also seemed that we were regaining our voice in society. Pope Francis’s calls to consider the poor in public policy, to tend for the environment, and to abolish the death penalty were well received. We appeared to be making steady progress in promoting the life issues. Americans are increasingly identifying as pro-life and even the teaching on contraceptives was gaining a fresh hearing with the imposition of the HHS contraceptive mandate on the Little Sisters of the Poor and other Catholic institutions.
My illusions were shattered, however, with the revelation of sexual abuse by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. How could someone with such a horrific past ascend to such a powerful position in the Church? How is it that no one knew or that so many other bishops overlooked it? Particularly bewildering are the recent accusations by Archbishop Carlo Viganó that it was Pope Francis who shielded McCarrick from punishment. It is clear that zero tolerance has not extended to our bishops.
Even more painful was the grand jury report on clergy sex abuse in Pennsylvania. Hearing the victims describe their pain was heart wrenching. It is clear that although we have done much to prevent future abuse, the wounds of past abuse are still raw. Doing what we can to aid in their healing must be our priority.
Unfortunately, the reckoning for our Church over sexual abuse by clergy is far from over. Over the next few years, fresh allegations will be leveled and more grand juries will be convened. We will be forced to face the ugliness that our Church has covered up for decades. Even if we succeeded at airing out every case of abuse in the United States, we would still need to investigate abuse in other countries. So, we should prepare ourselves for a long, brutal slog that may not be completed in any of our lifetimes.
As helpless as we may feel, we need to move forward. Our first order of business must be ensuring justice for the victims. It may mean lobbying to extend the statute of limitations for cases of sexual abuse against minors so that they can get their day in court. It may mean supporting the independent investigation of bishops, dioceses, and the Vatican to bring to light who enabled such abuse. It definitely means no longer allowing our loyalty to the institutional Church to blind us to the people of God who are suffering.
In this Sunday’s first reading, the prophet Isaiah assures us that God is coming “with vindication; with divine recompense”. Indeed, God’s justice is coming for victims of sexual abuse not only in the Church but throughout society. In that justice comes healing: “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared.” Sunday’s Gospel reminds us that healing can often be a long, messy process. No doubt, the healing of victims and the healing of our Church will likewise be a long, messy process. When it is all over, we may very well be a smaller, poorer, and weaker Church — just the kind of Church Jesus can use to evangelize the culture.
Douglas Sousa, S.T.L.
Your children cry out to you for justice and healing.
Too often our hearts be hardened to their pleas.
Too often our need for control and power
blind us to the pain of your little ones.
Too often we seek first to protect ourselves
rather than protect those who are most vulnerable.
In your mercy, forgive the sins we have committed
against the weakest members of your flock.
Purge from our midst those intent on doing harm.
Give us wisdom and courage to make amends.
Let your healing flow out to those who are hurting
so that, as your Church, we may reflect your love
who live and reign forever and ever.