It’s “in the eating,” as the old proverb says. But in the midst of the ongoing scandal of sex-abuse coverup in the church I want to point to a few people in high places who I think “get it” and are saying so. We need to wait and see if there’s follow-through, but I take these as potentially-hopeful signs for our church.
The first person is Archbishop Charles Scicluna, the former Vatican chief prosecutor of clerical sexual abuse. At a recent meeting of the presidents of the European bishops’ conferences he said that “lovely” words and promises are not enough – concrete, concerted action is needed. He told reporters that the February meeting of bishops in Rome called by Pope Francis “is also a response to the expectations of the people that after documents and words, we also want action.” Amen to that!
The second person is Cardinal Marc Ouellet, Prefect of the Congregation of Bishops. At that same conference he is quoted as saying, “We have to speed things up and do something more effective […] I believe that much more must be done within the Church. I am thinking of priestly formation, more prudence in choosing bishops, we’d need the participation of more women in the formation of priests in teaching, the discernment of candidates, for affective balance.” He summed it up: “Bad governance by bishops” is also an issue. Amen to that, too!
I take comments like these as small but hopeful signs that people with real power to reform the church are getting the message which so many lay people and parish priests have been trying to send: Yes, the abuse of children is a terrible crime and sin, and needs to be prevented, and punished when it occurs. But (as the famous Watergate saying goes), “The coverup is worse than the crime.” This is in no way to diminish the suffering of people who were abused, nor to minimize their right to justice; but as an organizational matter the actions of bishops who covered up for abuse did more damage to the church’s reputation, and to many more people, than the abusers themselves.
After the first nationwide scandal of 2002, the church in the U.S. made effective changes in its policies for preventing, detecting, and disciplining abuse by all church workers under the rank of bishop. It did not, and has not so far, done much to address the malfeasance in office of the bishops who transferred known abusers, silenced through non-disclosure agreements people who were abused, and did not inform parishioners when known abusers were assigned to their parishes. From the comments of Archbishop Scicluna and Cardinal Ouellet I take guarded hope that this may change, and that the deeper issues might at last be addressed.
What are those issues? As I see them: the selection and formation processes for seminarians and religious; the selection of candidates for ordination (as priests and as bishops); the supervision of clergy while in ministry (including bishops); and the inclusion of wider perspectives (most notably, that of competent lay women and men) in church governance overall and especially in the promotion of people to offices of great responsibility. The conditions of ministerial life should also be examined carefully and (probably) significantly changed to enlarge the pool of candidates at all levels.
And most of all, church officials have to stop talking about these issues and start acting.
Maybe Archbishop Scicluna and Cardinal Ouellet and some others “get it.” They sound as if they do. If so, they need to be supported and prayed for. But they also need to be watched, to see if actions in fact match their words. The proof of the pudding is in the eating.