The scandals which have come to light in recent days have shaken the trust of the church’s most dedicated faithful. Such is the magnitude of the crimes involved, as well as the revelations that in the case of Archbishop McCarrick, many people – including some bishops – were apparently aware on some level of the rumors, yet failed to act or ignored those who did.
No matter where sexual abuse scandals have sprung up in the last 20 years, including now in Chile, Honduras, and the United States, this is always the pattern: (justified) horror at the actions of the abusers, followed by (justified) anger at the concomitant inactions of the enablers.
Something must be done. That much is clear to all. In times of crisis, this is our first and immediate response to grave injustice. But it takes a second step – real discernment – to decide what exactly is to be done. Examples in both ecclesial and secular realms should make clear that satisfying the natural desire to do something can often lead to other – sometimes worse – injustices. Only an interior act – discernment – can produce the exterior actions which promote justice and bring some degree of resolution to these inexcusable actions.
As a recently ordained priest, all I can really do is express my sorrow to the victims of child abuse and sexual harassment by clergy, as well as to those others who have been scandalized by the revelation of the accompanying efforts to keep the information from the public. Those who are angry have a right to be. Anyone with a functioning conscience should be angry.
This having been said, I think all of us in the church need to keep a few things in mind. One is the nature of information and hearsay. When a person claims – as some writers have – that “everyone” (meaning all the bishops in the United States) “knew” about Archbishop McCarrick, what exactly did they know? Did they all have first-hand knowledge of sexual abuse or harassment of seminarians? Did they have a direct report from a victim or someone speaking on behalf of a victim? Did they simply overhear a comment somewhere?
The first two instances should have prompted immediate action. That is the first important lesson of this crisis: the church still needs better ways in which clergy, parish staff, and the faithful can report suspicions and allegations of sexual misconduct without fear of reprisal.
But if the information fell into the third category, we must be cautious. Information comes at us sideways from all kinds of sources. We live in a culture which thrives on gossip and half-truths. This presents a major problem. How sure does one have to be that a major offense is going on in order to go to a higher authority with that information? Here is what St. Thomas Aquinas says of the situation:
“He who interprets doubtful matters for the best may happen to be deceived more often than not; yet, it is better to err frequently through thinking well of a wicked man, than to err less frequently through having an evil opinion of a good man, because in the latter case an injury is afflicted, but not in the former” (II-II, q. 60, a. 3, ad. 1).
Of course, he also says that sometimes a person’s name should be defamed for some urgent and greater good (II-II, q. 73, a. 3). How does one balance the need to interpret information charitably against the desire to put an end to extreme injustice?
These are complicated questions, which require that we take sin seriously instead of using it as fodder for gossip, which often happens. It can be very easy to be misled by a world which sees so many “victimless crimes” and “youthful indiscretions” where there are, in fact, radical injustices and life-altering consequences.
Those who desire to know “who knew what and when” about the McCarrick case – and similar cases – have good motives. But they too must be careful, lest justified anger in the face of injustice become an opportunity to hold every bishop in the world to an impossibly high standard, and then condemn all of them for it.
Yes, there is much reform to be done. We must be candid and open about what has happened, so that the true and the good may prevail. I remember words of Pope Benedict XVI, who spoke of his incomprehension at the fact that a man who celebrates the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass regularly could fall into the grievous sins which some did. Indeed, the cognitive disconnect is almost inhuman. And yet, in small ways, have not each of us experienced that disconnect at some point?
How many times has an encounter with Christ in the Eucharist washed over us with little real participation on our part? How many times have we treated confession like a “dry cleaner” instead of a moment of intense reconciliation with Christ and his church? How many RCIA groups produce Catholics without the kind of real conversion that can change our lives and that makes us truly happy?
As we recognize the need for conversion among certain leaders who failed, we should not forget to examine ourselves in the same rigorous way. But as we do so, we can remember one more awe-inspiring fact: that Jesus Christ still chose to use these men as instruments of his grace. He really chose and really did make use of such men to forgive sins; to ordain deacons, priests, and bishops; to make his very Body and Blood present out of love for his people. That is how much we are loved by God.
Meditating on this reality, perhaps we can see a way forward out of the spiritual depths to which we have fallen. Then we can understand anew the words of Saul to the Christian community in Rome, words which were as true and powerful then as they remain today: “where sin abounded, grace abounded all the more.”
Father Eric J. Banecker is parochial vicar at St. Pius X Parish in Broomall.
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