A Canadian expert on the Vatican examines the sex abuse scandal
MICHAEL W. HIGGINSMay132002
THE CHURCH MUST CHANGE
A Canadian expert on the Vatican examines the sex abuse scandal
Canada and the World
MICHAEL W. HIGGINS
Paul Shanley was a priest with dark desires: he wanted to have sex with young boys, and he was rarely bothered by the emotional destruction he left behind. Neither, according to his victims—and there are dozens—was Shanley’s boss, Bernard Law, the powerful cardinal of the Boston diocese. In the early 1980s Shanley told Church investigators that he had raped a number of children in his parish. But instead of calling the police, Church officials shuffled Shanley from parish to parish, even as he continued to prey on children. Several lawsuits have been filed against Shanley and the Boston diocese, and last week he was arrested and charged on three counts of child rape.
Since fan. 1, more than 175 Catholic priests have resigned or have been suspended in the United States after being accused of sexually abusing children. Outrage over the revelations forced Pope föhn Paul II to sum-
mon his U.S. cardinals to a special meeting last month at the Vatican, where they resolved to develop a national policy to deal with the sexual abuse of minors. And last week, the crisis continued to widen as Los Angeles Archbishop Roger Mahony, leader of the largest archdiocese in the U. S., was sued by four men who as children were allegedly abused by a priest under his jurisdiction. The lawsuit also names the bishops of all 195 U.S. dioceses, alleging the existence of secret files of “scandalous material, ” including evidence of abusive priests.
Michael W. Higgins, a specialist in Vatican affairs and president of St. Jeromes University in Waterloo, Ont., has written widely on the Church, and is co-author of Power and Peril: The Catholic Church at the Crossroads, which was published in February. Maclean’s asked him to comment on the scandal and the underlying issues.
Peter Steinfels, a former editor of the U.S. Catholic biweekly, Commonweal, and one-time senior religion correspondent for the New York Times, captured the scope of the crisis facing the Roman Catholic Church. “Most scandals are ugly, absorbing and quickly forgotten,” he wrote in the April 19 edition of Commonweal. “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.”
Steinfels is not a theological renegade. He crafts his language with care, neither extravagant in his charges nor apocalyptic in his judgments. When he worries, all in the Church have cause to be alarmed. For
the stakes are high—very high. Yet it is debatable whether Pope John Paul II truly grasps the enormity of the scandal. Certainly, as he indicated in his opening address to the U.S. cardinals last month at the Vatican, he does understand that “so much pain, so much sorrow must lead to a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier church.” Are the heartfelt sentiments at the core of these pontifical reflections sufficient for the tasks ahead? The Pope is right when he says “a great work of art may be blemished, but its beauty remains.” But does he appreciate the surgery required to remove the blemish, to lance the tumour poisoning the lifeblood of the Church?
The pontiff, I’m convinced, doesn’t fully comprehend the nature of the particular evil of serial sex abuse, predatory behaviour and clerical malfeasance. He doesn’t get it. In one sense, the notion that a man who has stared the monstrous evils of Nazism and Communism in the face is somehow incapable of grasping sexual pathology does seem hard to believe. But John Paul, who has struggled against almost insuperable obstacles to provide pastoral and
moral leadership in an epoch steeped in blood, may simply find the allegations too devastating to believe. After all, priests, the Pope has said, are “true ministers of mercy—God counts on us in order to work his wonders in human hearts.” That the vulnerable and most innocent among us could be preyed upon is too grievous for the Pope to contemplate.
But the dark reality of priestly criminality must be faced. Although Rome’s recognition of the extent of the problem in the U.S. is comparatively new, the American hierarchy can claim no such ignorance. Throughout the 1980s and the early 1990s several priests were accused of sexual abuse and either left the Church or were reassigned. Some were quite prominent, like the Franciscan Bruce Ritter, the celebrated founder of New York Citybased Covenant House, which offers shelter to troubled teenagers.
In 1992, the U.S. Church also established five general principles for dealing with accusations of sexual abuse, including
immediate suspension of anyone suspected of the crime, compliance with the civil law of the state and full co-operation with criminal investigations. But adoption of these principles and their enforcement is entirely dependent upon the bishops of each of the 195 autonomous dioceses that make up the U.S. Church.
Because no overarching body had responsibility for monitoring the situation, it was only a matter of time until the poison rose to the surface. It did so in Boston. It now appears, for reasons that have still not been provided, that Rev. Paul Shanley was still exercising his ministry even though well-substantiated allegations of sexual abuse against him were known to Cardinal Law. The integrity of the cardinal and his advisers has been called into question as they were bludgeoned daily by new revelations of clerical sins throughout the early months of 2002. Robert Kiely, the Loker professor of English and American literature at Harvard University, says Catholics are learning to cope. “Many ordinary Catholics,” he says, “have figured out, day by day, little by little, how to keep the faith while around them
priests disappear and bishops bury their heads in their business.”
How do you begin to restore trust, if there isn’t honesty and accountability of leadership? Credibility and integrity are on the line in Boston and elsewhere in the U.S. I believe this is where Rome must step in and act decisively, and the Vatican does appear capable of adjusting its strategy. Look at the speedy resignations last month of Bishop Anthony O’Connell of Palm Beach, Fla., Bishop Brendan Comiskey of Ferns, Ireland, and Polish Archbishop Juliusz Paetz. The circumstances are different in each case: O’Connell admitted that as a rector of a seminary he molested a student and Paetz is accused of making sexual advances toward priests and seminarians. Comiskey resigned after saying he did not do enough to prevent sexual abuse from occurring at the hands of the clergy in his diocese. No less should be expected of Cardinal Law.
Along with sex abuse, the debate around the baptismal font (the ecclesiastical equivalent of the water cooler) has increasingly shifted to discussions about celibacy and the existence of a gay subculture in the clergy. This is unfortunate. I don’t believe celibacy is the problem and neither is the ministry of many sterling gay priests who are faithful to their vows. Still, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, a Catholic, is speaking for many in her usual acidic forthrightness when she argues that “the one place the Church needs to go to save itself— shedding its dysfunctional all-male, all-celibate, all-closed culture—is the one place it’s unwilling to go.”
There are undoubtedly reasons for examining the tradition of celibacy as a requirement for ordination, but in my view the demands of celibacy did not lead to abuse of so many children. The current crisis has been generated by serious lapses in leadership in dealing with pedophile priests, and by the failure of the Church’s hierarchy to be candid with the faithful and punish the offenders. But there are many in the Church who will now seize the opportunity presented by this clerical catastrophe to call for the end of patriarchy and the admission of women to priestly ranks. As well, there will be those from the other end of the theological spectrum who will see this moment as a summons to purge the Church of its post-Second Vatican Council laxity, curb the
liturgical and moral excesses that have diminished the Church’s effectiveness as a sign of contradiction in our secular culture, and enforce a new code of clerical and religious distinctiveness in the Church’s ranks.
There is no preventing these debates from occurring across the Church, and the potential for further polarization is real. Failure to respond to the new questions being asked will be a strategic error with serious implications. But what is important now is for the U.S. hierarchy to recover its credibility by being genuinely contrite, earnest in dialogue and peacemaking in approach.
As they prepare for their June meeting in Dallas, where they will attempt to develop a strategy to deal with priests accused of sexual assault, the U.S. bishops would be well advised to examine the Canadian record. In the late 1980s, the abuse of children at Mount Cashel Orphanage in St. John’s shook the Catholic community. (In 1991 and 1992, nine Christian Brothers were found guilty of sexually assaulting dozens of children, and since then over 40 victims have been compensated.) On July 18, 1990, Alphonsus Penney, Archbishop of St. John’s and the senior Catholic cleric in Newfoundland, held a press conference at which he announced: “I apologize and express my sincere regrets for failing the victims and their families in their moment of acute pain and desolation. I take full responsibility
and have submitted my resignation.”
That resignation, discerned in pain and executed with dignity, was accepted. It was the right decision. In addition, the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops set up its own Ad Hoc Committee on Child Sexual Abuse that published its report, “From Pain to Hope,” in June, 1992. This report contained some 50 recommendations, many of them bold, all of them urgent. In addition to demanding that police be notified as soon as allegations of abuse arise, the report suggests that rectors of seminaries monitor the psychological development of candidates studying to become priests, for signs of aberrant sexual behaviour.
Whether Cardinal Law resigns or not, the U.S. episcopate is vulnerable, naked even, in ways it has previously never experienced. The bishops have an uphill battle to reclaim their traditional high ground and they need the co-operation and the trust of the Catholic laity to achieve it. In addition to the words of the final communiqué they issued at the end of their Vatican summit, urging “reconciliation and the renewal of ecclesial life,” the bishops should add yet another “r” word: reform. If, as that communiqué states, the U.S. prelates truly “see the present time as a moment of grace,” they must respond with courage and spiritual temerity. And Cardinal Law himself should open the windows of his archdiocese to the mighty gusts of reform by resigning. ESI
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