The Pope and Sex Scandals: The Damage Can't Be Underestimated

BlogHer Original Post

Many Roman Catholics are upset, hurt, angry, disappointed. And when they look to the Vatican for leadership, many feel that Pope Benedict has not fared well.

The sex scandals just don't stop. The New York Times announced that the Pope knew of abuse and concealed it. Others point to reforms he has made in screening applicants for the clergy, in seminaries and in formation of groups to deal with allegations.

Pope Benedict XVI Celebrates Easter Vigil Mass In St. Peter's Basilica


Maureen Dowd said, also in the Times:" At the moment, the only thing between Catholics and God is a defensive church hierarchy that cannot fully acknowledge and heal the damage it has done around the globe. How can the faithful enjoy Easter redemption when a Good Friday service at the Vatican was more concerned with shielding the pope than repenting the church’s misdeeds?"

Let's understand something about the Catholic Church. It used to be the equivalent of a World Power. It has often seen itself as a self-contained entity, complete and entire in itself, much like a government. After all, the pope has diplomatic immunity (so far) as a head of state -- The Vatican. When priests have been disciplined for sexual abuse, it has been largely internal. Many church leaders seem to have been surprised, back when the abuse scandals started to surface, to hear that they should have reported these priests to the police. Why? They had the means to handle things internally! It was (and is) an odd mindset. It is not feeling one is "above" the law, but rather that one IS the law. After all the Catholic Church and its complex structures existed long before the USA.

Further, Catholics have felt comfortable staying within the church even if they disagreed with certain policies/principles of the church -- such as freedom of choice, birth control, the role of women. It is not unlike feeling as though one can stay on as an American even if one does not support the war, or some government policy. When you are Catholic, it isn't about being a member of something. It is about being a Catholic, like being an American. It isn't like other Christian choices. The culture is very different. It can be more like an identity.

Genie, a BlogHer Contributing Editor, writes of this in her blog. She describes taking people to a memorial garden outside her church in Oakland, built by survivors of sexual abuse by priests. She is troubled deeply by the latest scandal, and has held on as a Catholic for many years. Her uncle is a deeply honorable priest. But she is shaken again with the latest tide of accusations, and says:

" I've managed to reconcile, for years, my pro-choice beliefs, my support for marriage equality, my assertion that there is zero reason that women should not be priests, with my ability to still attend Mass and be fulfilled by its ritual power...
I am a woman who always harbors hope for good, for better, for change. But I noted, this year, that I didn't bother attending Ash Wednesday Mass. That I ignored Easter. That I ate meat on every Friday in Lent. I noted, this year, that I've stopped singing at the Cathedral, that I don't go to Mass anymore, and that even thinking about the current Pope spikes my blood pressure."

The scandals and the effect they have had on the laity cannot be underestimated. My sister-in-law went to Catholic school all through high school. She said "These were the guys we looked up to. They had God's ear in a special way -- they were the conduits from and to God. They were holy men, and we knew we could trust them absolutely. They were representatives directly from God to us. We recently found out that Monseigneur XXYY was a pedophile. He used to hug me as a kid. Do I feel betrayed? Hell, yes! That and sick to my stomach."

A lot of people are affected by these scandals. There is a great deal written about the direct victims and the perpetrators, as there should be -- but the news effects every Catholic. It changes the way they look at their priests. They wonder now. Some are wondering if they should stay in the Church. Some are wondering what this means about faith in general. We are just now getting a glimpse of how many people have been rocked by this scandal that keeps on scandalizing.

In some dioceses in Massachusetts, where I live, a state in which the Catholic Church has high legal bills combined with lessening attendance, many Catholic churches are being closed, consolidated with other parishes. Many people are grieving, feeling uprooted. They turned to their pope for guidance and for a feeling that the scandal was well in hand.

That is why the media should be scrupulous in its reporting. Lots of people are being deeply affected. But is there still anti-Catholic prejudice in America that complicates fair reporting?

Jennifer, of Conversion Diary is a convert from atheism to Catholicism. When asked to sum up her opinion of recent events, she boiled down what she said could be volumes to this succinct statement about the complexity of the issue at hand:

I think that sexual abuse is the single most despicable act known to humanity, and I hope that anyone in the Church who knowingly participated in such acts in any way is brought to justice. I also pray that those who are observing and commenting on these scandals, especially people in the media, guard themselves against letting the excitement of discovering instances of hypocrisy in an unpopular religious institution lead them to veer from the dispassionate pursuit of truth based on unbiased data. Because when we do that, we risk turning a blind eye to the same evil taking place in other parts of society.

The Anchoress, a well-known and articulate conservative Catholic blogger, cautions us that what the media says may not be true, and that bandwagons are being thoughtlessly hopped upon:

These cases are so extremely disheartening, so shaming for all of us in the pews -who are a “family” of sorts- and the headlines are so insistent, the noise so incessant, that it becomes easy for some to take their eyes off the prize and just throw up their hands, surrendering to the narrative. Modern communication has the means to make a minority seem like a majority with astounding ease. The ubiquitous TV screens all saying the same thing in every public venue have become the equivalent of a public gallows; people’s reputations and life’s work are capable of being put to death so easily -without benefit of a trial- and there is no undoing it.

When I started writing this article, I thought it would be a discussion of the events at hand. The outcry from Catholic bloggers, however, could not be ignored. It is their pain that speaks to the extent of damage done by these hidden crimes. The focus moves from Christ and the real work of the church to the shock of discovering so much horrible mess. This is exacerbated by the shock of not having it visibly and aggressively handled. The re-surfacing of abuse in Europe, and new stories about the abuse of 200 deaf students in the US are salt in unhealed wounds.

Her Bad Mother, another BlogHer Contributing Editor recalls receiving First Communion as a child and lamenting to one of her classmates, a boy, about the stern clergy. He said to her, "God doesn't care what those guys do." Later it came out that her priest had been a sexual predator. After years of struggle about leaving and then returning to the Catholic Church, she says:

"This is all so appalling, so terrible, because the Church’s refusal to take responsibility for the horrors committed on its watch and its refusal to take responsibility for not addressing and eliminating those horrors when it could makes it seem as though, in the words of my young fellow catechumen, “God doesn’t really care about what those guys do.” When the Church insists that the reputation of the Church is more important than the well-being of innocents, when the Church puts the Church first and insists that this is what God wants it to do, God is on its side, if you criticize it you criticize God and also Jesus and all the saints and probably your grandmother, too, well, it sets itself up as the earthly representative of a God that no good person should want to follow. And in so doing, it destroys faith. Or, at least, it shakes it really violently.
... I need to believe in a better God, and in a better kind of faith, whatever that means."

Michele Lelby, a Catholic guest writer in the Washington Post said:

A priest who abuses 200 children is allowed to remain secure in the bosom of Mother Church, allowed to die and be buried in the dignity of the priesthood, presumably allowed to take communion until his last day. But a regular everyday Catholic who commits the sin of using birth control must refrain from taking communion. It doesn't make sense.
So as Holy Week began, we looked to the Pope's Palm Sunday sermon for a message of hope and humility, of penance and reconciliation. Instead we got the big brush off, when Benedict referred to this whole debacle as "petty gossip" even as the scandal reached the throne of St. Peter itself ... Most Easters, I make a special effort to watch the news to see the Pope emerge from St. Peter's to bestow his blessings on the amassed faithful. This Sunday, I can't help but see the Pope through different eyes - and perhaps, for the first time, through tears of anger, sadness and shame.

A friend of mine, age 50, was making dinner one night for a group of us. This was back when the scandals had just started. We were talking about how violated people should sue. He stooped cooking for a second, turned over his shoulder and said -- "I decided not to." We were stunned into silence. "YOU? You were molested?" "He's dead now. There's no point." He turned back over his shoulder and stirred the pot for a while while we watched him, waiting for him to speak. He stopped stirring, looked straight ahead. "I was an altar boy. I trusted him." He was quiet for a while. "He can't hurt anyone else. Not now. Not ever again." Then he looked at us and said -- "Ready to move on? Let's have dinner." So we did. We never spoke of it again.

It even affects people we would never imagine. These scandals have touched millions and millions in ways we can only guess.

Institutions defend themselves. It's what they do. It is part of their imperfection. But, we look to the church to be better than other institutions; we hold it to a higher standard. Sexual crimes and their concealment are a series of nasty boils that need to be lanced and cleaned out, no matter how ugly and vile are their contents.

If I had remained Roman Catholic, I would want what I want now -- for the pope to expose the truth to the light of air, so that there can be healing. I'd want him to seek civil justice for civil crimes. And I pray that is what happens.

What do you think should be done by the Vatican? If you are Catholic, has this affected your faith?

 

 

 

 

~~ Contributing Editor, Mata H. also prays and hopes for justice at Time's Fool

Recent Posts by Mata H

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