The crisis of child sexual abuse by some clergy that is now embroiling Europe might tempt some faithful Catholics, and others, to deem it the greatest crisis the Church has ever faced, and from which it may not recover. This is an erroneous and short-sighted view.
A clear-eyed assessment helps reveal the verbal attacks on Pope Benedict XVI for what they are: cynical shots aimed at Catholics in order to shatter their faith and cast them adrift from their Church.
The sexual abuse scandals revealed in Europe last week recalled the similar blockbuster revelations in 2002 of abuse in the United States. Eight years ago, the Catholic Church in America faced up to the horrific sins and crimes of the past. The lessons it learned painfully and implemented carefully are thanks in no small part to Pope Benedict himself, even before his pontificate. They point the way forward for the Church in the various European countries now coming to grips with this human tragedy.
First, Church leaders must never tire of saying, on behalf of the Church, “We’re sorry.” That means communicating sorrow and regret at great length and in numerous ways over a long period of time, which began in this country in 2002 and continues today. Pope Benedict recently became the first pope to write an in-depth pastoral letter on this grave topic, addressed to the Catholics of Ireland.
Second, it follows that if the Church is to speak about the issue, it must also always listen to victims, to their stories, to their pain and their desire to heal and live full lives. In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, Cardinal Justin Rigali expressed numerous public apologies, gathered archdiocesan priests to hear testimonies from the victims of abuse themselves, met on many occasions with victims and tried to help meet their stated needs. Most other bishops have and continue to do the same.
Third, the Church in America took unprecedented steps to safeguard children by helping adults spot the signs of potential abusers in every sector of society. Background checks through law enforcement agencies and training are required by anyone wishing to work, volunteer with or be associated in any way with children and young people.
The crisis is not going away, nor should diligence to prevent it wane. But the Church has endured many crises in its long history, and our Holy Father is not the first to face harsh criticism. He has led the Church to confront this crisis and learn from it. Europe can only benefit from him and the lessons put in place on our shores.