Faith is the foundation of all religions: faith in God; faith in the institutions and their hierarchies; and, faith in promise that those who preach the word of God will live by the word of God.
Thus, when that faith is shaken by the criminal behavior of clergy whose spirituality is taken for granted, the need for drastic action to restore the credibility of the religious institution is clear.
Unfortunately, the Roman Catholic Church in America has a blind spot when it comes to dealing with priests who have sexually abused young boys and girls.
Since 1950, Catholic dioceses across the country have paid out more than $3 billion in settlements with victims, according to studies conducted by Catholic bishops and news reports. Liability insurance covered some of the payouts, but many dioceses have had to sell off major properties to cover the costs. About a dozen of the 197 U.S. dioceses have sought bankruptcy protection in face of abuse claims.
That history only serves to highlight the devastating grand jury report released a week ago on child sexual abuse in the Pennsylvania Roman Catholic Church.
According to the report, more than 1,000 children were molested or raped by over 300 “predator priests” in six Pennsylvania dioceses since the 1940s. The grand jury said a succession of bishops and other diocesan leaders worked to shield the church from bad publicity and financial liability by shuffling abusive priests around parishes rather than reporting complaints to police. That allowed hundreds of known offenders to return to the ministry.
The response from the hierarchy of the church was predictable: a lot of mea culpas, but no firm action to punish the criminals and assist the victims.
Here’s what the leadership of the Pennsylvania Catholic Church should have done immediately: Publicly come out in support of a change in state law to give the victims – now adults – a temporary opportunity to file lawsuits on decades-old abuse claims.
The bishops have successfully fought the change in recent years even as a handful of other states have passed laws that let victims sue the church.
Without a doubt, the payouts to the victims would be massive, but church leaders must know that merely expressing heartfelt sorrow is no longer enough.
RESPONSE FROM FRANCIS
Pope Francis has publicly pledged to end the cover-up of the child sexual abuse incidents in the American church and dispatched a letter to Catholics around the world Monday condemning the “crime” of sexual abuse and cover-up by priests.
He was slow to react to the Pennsylvania grand jury’s report, but he can make amends by launching a full-blown investigation by the Vatican into the actions of the bishops in Pennsylvania.
On Sunday, Bishop David Zubik of the Pittsburgh Diocese rejected calls for his resignation, saying he had followed every single step needed for responsible action after allegations of child sexual abuse.
Likewise, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, is also rejecting calls for his resignation after becoming entangled in to major sexual abuse scandals.
Cardinal Wuerl was bishop of Pittsburgh from 1988 to 2006 and is accused of protecting some child-molesting priests.
The cardinal is also facing widespread skepticism over his insistence that he knew nothing about years of alleged sexual misconduct by former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, his predecessor as spiritual leader in the nation’s capital.
McCarrick was alleged to have repeatedly abused both boys and adult seminarians, and in June Pope Francis ordered him removed from public ministry.
McCarrick subsequently resigned from the College of Cardinals and the pope ordered him to a “life of prayer and penance.”
The leader of the 1.2 billion Catholics worldwide has previously said he intends to take a hard line against clergy who prey on children and otherwise violate their vows of celibacy.
However, in light of the fact that bishops and archbishops who protected abusive priests have largely been given a pass, Pope Francis must take the Pennsylvania grand jury report as gospel.
He should make it clear to Cardinal Wuerl, Bishop Zubik and any other leader of the church implicated in the child sexual abuse scandal that he will strip them of their clerical duties and demand their resignations if they are implicated in the cover-up of the priests’ criminal activities.
The pope should also instruct bishops in Pennsylvania to endorse the change in state law to allow victims of pedophile priests to file lawsuits against the church.
The Roman Catholic Church in America has sinned, and penance is demanded.