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Entries from March 2019

Summit at the Vatican was a Large Leap Forward

We are a little more than a month since the conclusion of the Vatican’s summit on combating the sexual abuse of minors by clergy and the history of covering up such abuse. What can we conclude about the meeting and about the trajectory for the Church, here in the U.S. and abroad?

It is deeply regrettable that so many ecclesial activists on both the left and the right have denounced the summit for what they perceive as failures. On the right, that the summit did not identify homosexuality as a principal cause of sex abuse has been seen as the major failing, even though there is no credible study indicating that homosexuality is in any way an indicator for abuse. Most sexual abuse of children happens in families, not churches, and involves girls as well as boys. Only outside the home, is most abuse same-sex, and most studies conclude that this correlation is because abuse of a minor is a crime of opportunity, and the perpetrators have easier access to children of the same gender.  

As David Gibson pointed out in this space in January, it has been especially frightful to see how conservative Catholic media, which never paid much attention to clergy sex abuse before, now has glommed onto the issue as a means of attacking Pope Francis. This is especially strange in the case of Theodore McCarrick, the ex-cardinal who was at the center of the dossier issued last summer by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano.  McCarrick has been promoted three times and then made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, not Pope Francis. McCarrick retired seven years before Francis was elected.  

Criticism of the summit, and of Pope Francis’ handling of the issue more generally, from the Catholic left has been just as wrong-headed. Some have claimed the summit accomplished nothing, but if you talk to any of the participants, that is to say, the people who are in a position to accomplish something, they felt that real progress was made. When the pope calls everyone to Rome and clears his schedule to address the issue, bishops worldwide understand that this is a priority. Additionally, the content of the meeting was widely praised by the participants: the talks were powerful. The participation of women was notable and, hopefully, now normative.  

There has also been an effort to hijack the issue of clergy sex abuse to address other issues that some partisans on the left want to see highlighted. Celibacy is not the problem, as our friends in the Southern Baptist Convention are discovering as they begin to grapple with the issue. Some blame patriarchy, but patriarchy gets blamed for the common cold these days. 

So, if the partisans of both left and right are wrong, what are we to make of the current situation of the Church and its efforts to confront this problem? What did the summit achieve?

First, the leaders of the universal church recognized that listening to victims changes the focus. If you identify, first and foremost, with a fellow priest, who was a perpetrator, you tend see the crime of sex abuse as a sin against chastity. If you identify with the victim, you see that a sin against justice has occurred. Those bishops who have met regularly with victims have long understood this, but some bishops and some cultures have not. The role of victim-survivors in the summit was critical. Lest we forget, Pope John Paul II never met with victims of clergy sex abuse, not once.

Second, the day after the summit, the pope met with the heads of the different dicasteries of the Roman Curia. The curia is not known for transparency or accountability, which are the two most necessary qualities the Church needs if it is to succeed in confronting the culture that allowed, and even encouraged, the covering up of the abuse. Accountability and transparency were central focal points for the summit, and the pope will need to continue to push his closest aides to fashion protocols for handling allegations of episcopal malfeasance and to publish those protocols. If necessary, the pope must enact appropriate legislation. The curia has fine tuned the art of slowly killing initiatives over the past 500 years, and they cannot be permitted to kill these accountability measures. Only on paper is a pope all powerful. He must persuade the curia or they will kill the reforms.

Third, the presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences went home with an explicit mandate: Develop culturally appropriate norms for confronting abuse and reporting it. Different countries have different legal regimes within which they operate. Sexuality is always deeply inculturated and so the context for abuse might be different. But, they must develop norms that must be approved by the Holy See. Here in the U.S., the development of additional norms will occupy the bishops at their June meeting.    

As I have argued in my column at NCR, 2018 was not so much a sex abuse crisis as an ecclesiological crisis. The steps taken to protect children since 2002 have largely worked, but the reckoning by the hierarchy for their criminal covering up of abuse—that was allowed to slide. No more. Despite the critics, the summit at the Vatican was a large leap forward in confronting the hierarchic culture that permitted the cover up to continue. The reckoning will be postponed no longer.


Michael Sean Winters is a journalist and writer for the National Catholic Reporter.


Let the Ordinary be ordinary

These past few years have witnessed the refreshing and hopeful comments and kindnesses of Pope Francis. His words are always followed by sincere gestures of affection and mercy. He leads by living example. Unfortunately, that example is not having either a cerebral or emotional impact on many bishops, especially in this country. In fact, there are a few who enjoy ridiculing Francis’ words of mercy as merely vacuous. Those few bishops clearly tarnish the ministerial work of those who find comfort in Francis’s ministry.

This dismissive attitude speaks eloquently to the quality of these critics and their disdain for Francis. It is a disdain clothed in a princely vesture rather than in the common tweed of a diverse community of believers. The amazing thing is that the Spirit works despite this self-aggrandizement by so-called servants of the People of God. The faith of the laity in the gospel message is deeply rooted, although tested these days. Such faithful loyalty cannot be an excuse for simply tolerating the absence of transparency, the exorbitant lifestyles, or cover-up machinations by the anointed overseers.

Dedicated faithful and spirit-filled priests labor daily within their local communities and suffer needlessly because of such scandalous living. It is these priests who are more often confronted by the doubters, the offended and those who have abandoned the church. Through no fault of their own these priests are compelled to defend the indefensible.

Hypocrisy is the antithesis of integrity.  Many of these anti-Francis bishops preach in their gilded robes with aides fluttering around them. They are narcissists flattered by their courtiers. Yet it is in the parish pews, the hospitals, the shelters and the classrooms that the beauty and simplicity of the gospel message becomes credible. It is where the priests are living, working, preaching and witnessing. How many of our American bishops dwell in inner cities by their address and their lifestyle. Pope Francis regularly visited the slums of Buenos Aires. It was because he was among the poor and the disenfranchised that the Gospels were refreshed for him. He was not to be found in the luxurious and redecorated homes that—more often than not—are far above the median lifestyle of the people within his archdiocese.

This is a time of transformation and cleansing. The Pope could not have chosen a better name for himself by which to witness. Yet the appreciation of his selection is so easily missed or denied by many American bishops. The Renaissance-tinged times with all their gilded trappings and privileges need to be removed. The laity needs to refrain from falling prey to the silliness of financially supporting the Church’s works of charity as their Ordinaries divert funds for their personal lifestyle, refuse financial transparency and arrange for costly abuse cover-ups. It is simple: the privilege of office must be replaced with humble service in ministry.

The laity, priests and religious have an absolute right to know and challenge the Ordinary when gospel values are superseded by personal priorities and colleague protection. Why should an Ordinary receive any more in salary or retirement than the priests within his diocese? Why should an Ordinary live above his people?

Priests have been removed with seemingly facility. Yet Bishops’ predatory and cover-up behavior has been tolerated by their brother bishops. There is no smell of the sheep while clothed in the rich raiment of a Renaissance prince. The hierarchical culture of Game of Thrones is seen for its power and prestige. Why should not an Ordinary simply be ordinary? It is in the Gospels after all.


Dr. John J. Petillo is president of Sacred Heart University.


A Kairos Moment

As I write this, we are entering the desert of Lent. A dark Lent it looks to be indeed in the Church. Every day, it seems, there are more revelations of betrayal and crimes committed by the hierarchy worldwide. Australian Cardinal Pell is sentenced to six years in prison, convicted of sexual assault of two choirboys. Cardinal Philippe Barbarin is found guilty by a French court of covering up sexual abuse by one of his priests. The bishops’ summit in Rome on the protection of minors is being reported as a dismal failure. It wasn’t the devil that made them do it, as Pope Francis suggested, but rather, writes Jamie Manson in the National Catholic Reporter, “These men destroyed [the Church] all by themselves by enforcing a warped view of sexuality, making the preservation of their patriarchal rule their first priority and trading in cover-ups , lies and institutional blackmail.”

Sick to death of this rot poisoning the institutional Church, I have never been so tempted to leave. I find I cannot bring myself to go to Mass. I am not alone in this. A survey last year by America found that a majority of American Catholic women are disengaging from the Church, especially young women.  Jessica Mesman Griffith, for example, recently wrote of her own estrangement in the blog Sick Pilgrim: “When I realize trauma therapy has become a kind of religious practice for me, I miss church. I am every bit as lost as all the churchy folk warned I would be without it. But I cannot bring myself over the threshold.” I too miss church. For consolation, I read the psalms. On Shrove Tuesday, one takes aim and hits the mark of my heart. I went about as one who laments for a mother, bowed down and in mourning. And yet, as I mourn, words from Isaiah come to mind: I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The prophet speaks for God: I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? Something is happening here. Michael Higgins, in the first column of this forum, “A Catholicism Under Siege,” wrote that we are in “a Kairos moment.” Kairos: one dictionary defines it as “a time when conditions are right for the accomplishment of a crucial action: the opportune and decisive moment.” To say this is Kairos time, a Kairos moment, is to say that we must act, with wisdom, before it is too late and the moment has passed.

I keep coming across this idea of Kairos time. Marybeth Chuey Bishop engages it creatively in “Doing the Time Warp at 2 a.m.,” an entry to her blog In Ordinary Time that revisits Rocky Horror Picture Show’s song Time Warp (“It’s astounding! Time is fleeting!”). Unable to sleep, she pulls out her grandmother’s rosary as a soporific. The rosary is broken, which leads Bishop to reflect: the beads take us in a “predictable circle” of the life of Jesus. “But what if it’s broken? What if the end doesn’t come back to the beginning in a stable, but is able to spiral through time, Kairos time instead of Chronos? What if it reached … all the way here?”

Last fall I felt I had a glimpse of Kairos time at a symposium for the Catholic Women Speak Network in Rome, which was held to coincide with the Vatican’s Synod on Youth. Catholic women gathered together from all over the world, working to make women’s voices heard in the Church. Some of us were on a panel about sexuality, abuse and power. Like Higgins, Nontando Hadebe, a South African theologian, called for “radical change,” said this was a Kairos moment, like apartheid, time to take a stand. “God is a God of new things!” she proclaimed. “We want a radical reconstruction! We need to be having visions of what a Church looks like that doesn’t look like anything we know!” Hadebe had ideas: We must not look away from this abyss in the Church, “a culture of toxic brotherhood that comes at the expense of women and children.” There must be communal action by the bishops, a time of sackcloth and ashes, with every Catholic church and seminary shut down. All the Church is to speak out, as part of a prophetic theology, especially the marginalized voices of women: a Church that doesn’t look like anything we know… now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?


Jennifer Reek is a writer and teacher.


A Lenten Proposal for a Penitential Church

One joy as a Catholic is the liturgical calendar’s rhythm throughout the year—the way, for example, Ash Wednesday disrupts the daily grind of life. But this is the first Lenten season since the “Summer of Shame.” For many, part of the shock was that Catholics could no longer simply hope or believe that the 2002 Dallas charter had adequately addressed the problem of sex abuse, particularly regarding the accountability of bishops. Those details are well known to readers of this blog, and I have little to add to the avalanche of commentary both here and elsewhere. But even before this dreadful summer, the sex abuse scandal was in the news in April—shortly after Easter—when Pope Francis released a remarkable apology for his previous defense (and appointment) of Bishop Juan Barros Madrid, whose protection of Rev. Fernando Karadima ignored the stories of Karadima’s several victims. The pope’s apology was noteworthy—not just because it was a personal act of confession—but because any public apology from the See of Peter is rare indeed.

Perhaps the most remarkable example of a papal mea culpa occurred in 2000. On the first Sunday after Ash Wednesday, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for the sins of Catholics who betrayed the Gospel over the past 2000 years—further this act of contrition was not confined to a press release but integrated into a solemn liturgy.

We need such liturgical reminders of the stains on our Church’s history. We need these reminders consistently, because however much the Church is the Body of Christ, its members’ misdeeds create a culture that allows sin to flourish. Certainly, the decades-long cover-up of pedophile priests by the hierarchy demonstrates this.

Catholics, like all human beings, are prone to forget the more troubling parts of our past. When the media hype dies down, we tend to become distracted by other issues. The consistent news concerning the abuse crisis—from the USCCB’s failed meeting in November to the recent Vatican conference—has so far prevented this from happening. But the danger lurks. I do not know how long (if ever) it will take before the magisterium implements systematic reforms to protect children and adults, hold bishops accountable and prevents future abuse. Yet it does not take a great leap of the imagination to foresee that when the public frenzy dies away, the momentum for reform could slow, or even whither.

We need, as an ecclesial community, the blessed rhythm of the liturgical calendar to compel us to examine our collective actions repeatedly. We need, in other words, the disruption of Ash Wednesday. But such disruption should not be confined to the current crisis. Sin within the institutional Church and its members will not disappear even if the sex abuse crisis is adequately addressed. Pope John Paul II’s 2000 apology is a reminder that evil in the name of the Gospel takes on many forms.

True, the issue first and foremost on our minds is the sex abuse crisis, and there, the magisterium bears the brunt of responsibility. But there’s a danger if the laity think that communal sins are an exclusive problem of the ecclesiastical elite for two reasons. First, as my colleague Dan Rober reminded us on this blog, there are other issues, other injustices that we need to remember as a praying and worshipping community. Second, such an attitude, an “us” versus “them” mentality, splinters the Body of Christ between the lay and the ordained.

So, a modest proposal: As a standard part of the Ash Wednesday liturgy, each community should pray for all the times that our collective attitudes, actions and structures have failed to manifest the Gospel. Further, we should not be afraid to name our sins, whether it is sex abuse, racism, sexism, economic oppression or the rejection of a person who is unborn, LGBTQ, an immigrant, disabled or on death row, to list just a few possibilities. General prayers of communal repentance often do not awaken the conscience to issues about which one may be blind or recalcitrant.

Obviously, this raises a host of questions: Where in the liturgy should we place such a collective act of contrition? Should it only be during an Ash Wednesday mass or the shorter service for the disposition of the ashes? Perhaps, more basically, who would write this prayer? The parish? The bishop? The bishops’ conferences?

One blog cannot adequately address these issues. But Pope Francis has frequently admonished believers against inward-gazing self-righteousness. Ash Wednesday’s disruption brings a similar warning to our lives: be not too comfortable with yourself. Or, for that matter, with your Church.


Brent Little is an assistant lecturer in the Department of Catholic Studies at Sacred Heart University.