THE CHURCH'S SEX-ABUSE CRISIS : What's Old, What's New, What's Needed-And Why

By Steinfels, Peter | Commonweal, April 19, 2002 | Go to article overview

THE CHURCH'S SEX-ABUSE CRISIS : What's Old, What's New, What's Needed-And Why


Steinfels, Peter, Commonweal


There are scandals and then there are scandals. Most are ugly, absorbing, and quickly forgotten. A few change history. The current flood of revelations about Catholic priests sexually preying on minors and the failure of Catholic officials to expose these outrages is taking on the dimensions of a history-changing scandal.

Seasoned observers of Catholicism are straining--and failing--to find a comparable event against which to measure the current crisis. Polls of Catholics register their massive loss of confidence in their leaders. Interviews surface raw anger. Catholics report friends and family members who have started attending other churches. To be sure, most parishioners express shock and sorrow while declaring their faith unshaken. No doubt they mean it. After all, the faith of Catholics has survived a lot of shaking in the past four decades. But that rock-bottom confidence does not reflect the continuing tensions between faith and doubt that are now the daily reality for millions of religiously thoughtful Catholics. Nor can even the most steadfast escape the impulse to take some distance from a soiled church.

It is no exaggeration to say that years of pastoral work have been undone in a few months. All the matters that the Vatican and its supporters in the United States have considered perils to the faith--theologians without mandates, gender-neutral language in the liturgy, the casual relativism that equates all world religions--are like so many tempests compared to this tsunami.

Yet the current scandal, I would argue, is not what it seems. Horrid facts have been mixed with half-truths, half understood. Revelations, accusations, admissions, denials have rolled down day after day like an avalanche of mud, to the point that sorting through and examining the claims and the issues have become almost impossible. One is left only with a general impression of betrayal and malfeasance on a grand scale and with a general reaction of disgust.

And isn't that sufficient? When one reads the graphic descriptions of predatory acts, when one tries to absorb the lifelong damage to so many victims, when one considers the violations of trust, the invasions of family homes and relationships, the besmirching of fellow priests, and the dissipation of resources contributed by the laity and desperately needed for other purposes, the connection between the scandal and its enormous impact appears straightforward and without need of further puzzling. Don't the facts speak for themselves?

No, they do not. Some "facts" are wrong. Some facts that are right are being jammed, consciously or unconsciously, into a framework where they don't quite fit. And then there is the fact that we scarcely know how to absorb--the forest rather than the trees--smack in front of our eyes and yet so much at odds with what has now become an almost reflexive fear of the worst. I mean the fact that the vast majority of incidents we have been reading about are at least a decade old, many much older, and were dealt with in the early 1990s.

With emotions at the current pitch, it is hard to say these things without being accused of whitewashing the church or denying the suffering of victims. Yet the possibility that the current sexual abuse scandal has been widely misunderstood does not mean that it is overblown. On the contrary, it may show that the crisis the church now faces goes even deeper than we imagine.

What today's scandal makes plain is the underlying and pervasive erosion of trust that has come to characterize the relationship between large portions of the Catholic laity and their bishops. That estrangement, so manifest in the reaction to the sexual abuse stories, reveals the true condition of the American church: not a hothouse of sexual secrets, but a church tragically devoid of leadership and seemingly indifferent to squandering the gifts of the best-educated and most fully engaged Catholic laity in the church's history.

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