Last Sunday after attending Mass, I was reading The Pittsburgh Catholic newspaper and stumbled upon a very good review of a book covering the priest sex abuse scandal. Robert Lockwood gives an overview of the book, “Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal" which is authored by Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson.
The book does provide a solid response to the over-the-top sensationalism that has created more heat than light in understanding sexual abuse of minors yesterday and today. But the authors also present a clear-eyed look at where the church was, what happened and where the church is now in responding to the tragedy of sexual abuse.
While they don’t pretend to answer why sexual abuse happened within the church, they make it clear that it did happen, the church as a whole did not respond properly in the past, and that it is vital that reform and renewal take place to ensure that it does not happen again.
They do make certain strong points in regard to the sensationalism that surrounds the issue today.
There is a not-so-thinly-veiled accusation in media, particularly The New York Times, that Joseph Ratzinger — as a German archbishop, as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as Pope Benedict XVI — was at best negligent and, at worst, attempted to cover up and protect abusive priests.
The authors make the definitive case that this is a “defamation of one of the church officials who has understood clearly the scale of the crisis of sexual abuse and who has labored to end it and to reform the church in such a way that it can never happen again.”
At the same time, they point to the extensive progress — virtually ignored in media — that the church has made to address the issue, particularly in the United States.
The church in the United States provides a “road map to reconciliation, reform and authentic justice,” through a dynamic program to ensure a safe environment for young people that is a model not only for the church universal, but for any entity, secular or religious.
The abuse crisis, as it is reported on today, is primarily focused on the church in Europe. But as the authors note, the sexual abuse of minors is a “global crisis” that exists in virtually any entity, secular and religious, anywhere in the world.
The authors provide a brief historical context to the existence of sexual abuse in one form or another dating back to the earliest days of Christianity, a legacy of a Roman culture that accepted the sexual exploitation of children. They cite one of the early Church Fathers, Basil of Caesarea (d. 379), who stated that any priest or monk who molested a young boy should not only be dismissed from the clerical state, but publicly whipped.
“What is manifest,” Erlandson and Bunson note, is that “church authorities have grappled with the problem since the earliest days of the Christian community,” though abuse has never been extensive within the clergy, nor confined to the clergy. Seeing the sexual abuse of minors as somehow a distinctly Catholic institutional issue is to dangerously ignore how deeply entrenched it has been in the human condition.
The authors cite four factors that created the “modern” sexual abuse crisis within the church. The first factor is the scale of the crisis. While the numbers are small, they are universal with cases of abuse in Catholic environments taking place everywhere from Brazil to Newfoundland.
Second, the “modern” crisis became very public. In the past, sexual abuse of children was generally kept private. Whether the environment of abuse was in the home, public schools or the church, cases rarely became public because neither the family nor the institutions wanted it public.
Third, for whatever reasons civic authorities themselves stayed out of the picture. It was a crime, but one that was rarely prosecuted.
Finally, the authors argue, many in church leadership simply refused to believe “that such a profound evil could be lurking in parishes, schools, hospitals and chancery offices — not to mention standing at the altars or sitting in the confessionals of the Catholic Church.”
Today’s crisis — in the sense that the crisis has once again dominated media in America — began with the release of two in-depth government reports in May and November 2009 of abuse that took place in Ireland.
The first report documented decades of abuse inflicted on children in residential institutions run by 15 religious orders. The second report, focusing on the Archdiocese of Dublin, found “a systematic willingness on the part of Catholic leaders to ignore terrible cases of abuse and sexual misconduct — in the hope, mainly, of protecting the good name of the church.”
The report documented that four different Dublin archbishops refused to deal with the abuse problem for nearly three decades, from 1974 to 2004.
Coverage of the scandal in Ireland resulted in the same kind of media scrutiny elsewhere. A case in the Archdiocese of Munich led to media charges that Cardinal Ratzinger had been involved in keeping an abusive priest in active ministry. A case from the 1970s in the Archdiocese of Milwaukee — involving a priest who molested deaf children — led to charges that the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith under Cardinal Ratzinger had impeded the priest being removed from ministry.
In both cases, it became clear — after the headlines — that Cardinal Ratzinger was not involved in any cover-up or keeping a priest from being removed. However, media had begun to take aim at Pope Benedict, which is where the story stands today.
The authors are at pains to refute the charges against Pope Benedict. Not only do they point to his innocence, but they make the strong case that the rooting out of abusive priests, and bishops who hid abuse, and safeguarding against future misconduct, are part of an ongoing reform and renewal that the pope has been shaping and directing.
They note that immediately after his election, Pope Benedict proceeded on the case of Father Marcial Maciel Degollado, founder of the Legionaries of Christ, a worldwide and influential religious order. Accused of sexual misconduct with seminarians of his order, he was removed from ministry.
The book details Pope Benedict’s ongoing campaign to rid the church of what he calls “filth,” and to put in place universally a screening system to make certain that abusers will never be ordained again. At the same time, he has accepted resignations one after the other of bishops who failed to address the issue of abuse within their dioceses.
“Pope Benedict, both as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and as pope, has played a historically pivotal role in the Vatican’s response to the crisis: From leading the CDF’s efforts before and after 2001 in reviewing the case files of suspect priests to his own efforts to address the issue forthrightly as pope, Benedict has grown into a leadership role just when the church has most needed him,” the authors conclude.
“He has met with victims. He has rebuked the abuser priests. He has challenged the bishops. He has overseen a series of procedural reforms that have allowed the church to respond more quickly when it is necessary to restrict, suspend or even laicize a priest,” they state.
Pope Benedict has made it clear, the authors state, that “avoiding scandal” cannot be the response by the church to claims of abuse, that victims and their families must be the church’s deep pastoral concern, and that “this crisis is first and foremost a spiritual challenge to the entire church.”
The authors acknowledge that the church has been unfairly singled out for condemnation and that “there are many agendas at work in the current round of controversies.” They rightly dismiss any implication that abuse exists uniquely in the church, or that church practices such as celibacy, or church doctrine of a male-only clergy, are contributing factors to abuse.
The sexual abuse crisis, they write, requires “accountability that the pope has already established (and) must be continued.” Those who have abused children must be held accountable in both civil and church law. And this accountability must continue to be extended to church leadership.
They state that the Vatican itself should acknowledge its own failure in the past to recognize the scale of the crisis and its own slow pace in responding.
The authors write that the Vatican should also make certain that the norms and policies established in the United States, and England as well, should be principles implemented universally.
The review and screening that has been established in the church of the United States for anyone involved in dealing with children should also become an example for any entity, government or institution that deals with children.
Finally, they state, “the renewal of the priesthood and religious life must continue, with the ultimate aim of renewing the entire people of God in their relationship with Christ.”
This is a strong, courageous and necessary book.
This book is a must read for me.