A friend of mine sent me a news release about the Freeh Report on the Penn State/Sandusky child abuse scandal. He found it interesting that the report spoke of “a culture of reverence for the football program.” Given the pedophilia scandals with the Church, “a culture of reverence” is a pointed choice of words. Yesterday, while listening to NPR (yes, I am a liberal—NPR is the obvious station to which my dial is set) a commentator was speaking of the difficulties facing Penn State and when asked how something like this could happen, the speaker—without ever mentioning the Catholic Church by name—repeatedly spoke of “various other institutions” that have had similar scandals and similarly inadequate—which is to say, criminally neglectful—responses. It was pointed out that institutions defend themselves and define “themselves” not as the people whom they serve but as those who hold power in the institution. As I said, the speaker never even suggested he was referring to the Catholic Church, but I doubt there was a listener in America who did not immediately think of the Church.
Now I see that Penn State is radically reevaluating the legacy of Joe Paterno—to the extent that they are seriously considering renaming the University library and removing his statue from the campus. Will that happen? I don’t know. Should it happen? I don’t have an opinion. What is important is that Penn State is—despite the cries of protest by some alumni, trustees, and supporters—doing a thorough self-examination of its identity, its “culture,” and its structures of administration.
It is time that the Catholic Church do the same. We need a thorough examination of how power is exercised in the administration of the Church. Power—in the sense that we are using it here—is not one of the attributes with which Jesus endowed the Church, it is a product of historical evolution. Jesus certainly would not have expected the “successors” of his Apostles to be able to facilitate the levels of human suffering that prelates like Cardinal Law and Cardinal Bevilaqua and various other bishops imposed on the people entrusted to them by their valuing the institutional security of the Church over the spiritual, psychological, and moral health of the faithful.
There is much that is dysfunctional with the way power is exercised in the Catholic Church and an essential component in Church Reform must be to install certain checks and balances at every level. The Apostles were told by Jesus that they were called for service and not to act as “the princes of the Gentiles who lord it over those under their people and whose officials flaunt their authority” (Matt 20:25). Jesus warned the Apostles that “it cannot be that way among you; whoever wishes to be great among you must be servant to the rest.” Not only Cardinals like Law but bishops and pastors and priests and deacons and Religious Education Directors and School Principals and anyone else in a position of ministry must examine themselves seriously as to how they exercise authority. But self-examination is not enough. The last twenty years and the cover-ups have made it clear that this responsibility for integrity cannot be left to individuals but that there is a need for systemic change where accountability is not an option and where continuance in positions of authority for everyone from the top (and I mean THE TOP) down is dependent on responsible exercise of the authority entrusted to them.