According to news sources, the Holy See is instructing bishops that it is “not necessarily” their duty to report accusations of clerical child abuse and that ultimately victims or their families should make the decision to report abuse to police. The document, produced by the Pontifical Council for the Family, advises bishops that while they must be aware of local laws that require allegations to be reported to civil authorities, as far as the Holy See is concerned the only duty of the bishop is to deal with the matter internally.
Now, despite the impression the news agencies are giving, the Vatican isn’t telling the bishops that they can break the civil law in those places where it is required for social workers, teachers, and other authorities to report abuse cases. And I can understand the dilemma of a bishop who becomes aware of an allegation against a member of the clergy or a Church employee but also is confronted with a victim or a victim’s family that is reluctant for the matter to be made public. But the directive obviously shows that some people in Rome are still tone-deaf to the crisis of credibility that is facing the institutional Church.
And, of course, this story follows up on the the suspension of clerical sex-abuse survivor, Peter Saunders, from the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Saunders was “voted off the island” by an all but unanimous vote of his fellow commission members. (There were sixteen votes against, one abstention, none for Saunders.) Now, again, this was not an executive decision from above but a decision by peers. And we have all served on committees where one member keeps gluing up the works with his or her own agenda. But again, however justified the commission members might be, it is a matter of tone-deafness that brings considerable scandal on the Church and undermines our credibility.
And now we have the president of a Catholic University, fortunately in this instance a layman and not a priest, comparing under-performing students to “bunnies” who “should be drowned.” Boy, where in the Gospel do you get that???? I realize that good academic management requires weeding out those who will not succeed so that more viable candidates can take their space—but again, how does the murdered bunnies image play in Peoria?
Why is the Catholic Church on a suicide mission? If there is a failure in regard to implementing the mandate of the Second Vatican Council for the Church to take its place on the modern world, it is this: the presupposition that we, as Church, are not accountable to the larger human community among whom live and work. How can we be that “light of revelation to the nations” if we maintain that we are somehow exempt from the standards of behavior we ourselves set with our Christian ideals?
And I must admit that as much as I admire Pope Francis he too seems at times to have become bogged down in protecting the institution rather than witnessing to the integrity of the Gospel. The Pope’s appointment and defense of Juan Barros Madrid as Bishop of Osorno, Chile, despite Barros’ ties to notorious priest-abuser Fernando Karadima, is another case of Rome being tone-deaf. Barros’ installation in his cathedral church turned into a huge fracas as the vast majority of the faithful made their rejection of their bishop public. Moreover, the vast majority of his brother bishops in Chile, including the two Chilean Cardinals, refused to attend the installation, signifying that few, if any, supported the Pope’s appointee. Francis allegedly referred to those who opposed Bishop Barros Madrid’s appointment as “lefties” and “dumb.” Holy Father, we know you can’t carry a tune in a basket, but get to a hearing-specialist and get your ear canals cleaned out. We can’t afford to have a tone-deaf Pontiff sitting on the chair of Peter.
Part of the problem, I suspect, is that hearing confessions desensitizes the clergy to the evil of certain sins. This isn’t just a Catholic problem. I suspect that many Protestant clergy and rabbis after years of pastoral counseling ministry, also become somewhat immune to the impact of evil. The problem is that most of the evil encountered in confession or counseling is done by basically good people. Bad people—and there some—generally don’t come to see the priest or rabbi. Most people sin to, in some way or other, escape the pain they feel in life. (Pardon the split infinitive in the above sentence; I too am a sinner.) The husband who finds himself continually rejected by his wife (or the wife, by her husband), turns to an illicit relationship. This is not right but the sin is most often the result of the pain and anger of rejection. Beneath the abuse of alcohol or drugs is often a huge amount of psychological pain. And when it comes to physical or emotional or sexual abuse: how many abusers have themselves been the victims of abuse? None of this justifies the evil we choose, but the priest or minister, becoming aware of the complexity of people’s lives, puts sin in a context that not only involves judgment but compassion. In pastoral care that is most probably a good thing. But it can’t leave us, as a Church, in a world of moral ambiguity. It is a difficult balance to achieve, especially without risking the sin of phariseeism ourselves, but we need to find it. Our integrity as a Church demands that while we deal compassionately with sinners we keep true to the moral compass of the Gospels.
Perhaps the problem is, at least in part, that the bishops and clergy have no idea that they are in any way accountable to us, the People of God. We are still an overly hierarchic Church rather than a true community of the faithful. There are still too many working on the pyramid model of Church where the Pope is over the bishops, the bishops over the clergy, and the clergy over the people. In this model, communication is one way—top down and the role of the laity is still perceived to be “to pay, pray, and obey.” And need I say that for many of us, those days are over.
We need to develop an ecclesiology in which we—and I mean all of us, not just the laity—see ourselves not in a hierarchic pyramid but in a communal model of concentric circles with the bishop at the center, the clergy around the bishop, the faithful around the clergy. In the same way the larger perspective is viewed with the Bishop and Church of Rome at the center surrounded by the communion of local Churches with their bishops at their center. This model of Church is far from new and was the predominant ecclesiology in the patristic period from the second century through the thirteenth.
To a certain extent we have already begun to move towards this model of Church. The decrees of the Second Vatican Council, particularly Lumen Gentium (the dogmatic Constitution on the Church) and Christus Dominus (the Decree on the Bishops), and to a lesser extent in Apostolicam Actuositatem (On the Apostolate of the Laity), actually lay out this theology. Unfortunately, as we all know, John Paul II didn’t much care for this model and pretty much smothered it in its post-Paul VI cradle. Francis has given us hope of reviving it, but the above-mentioned actions on the part of the Holy See show not only some back-pedaling but even the Pope’s failure to see the implications of his actions. Hopefully his remarks about “lefties” and “dumb” is only another case of a live-mike picking up an indiscreet comment from a world leader, but it is still troubling that the Pope doesn’t see the profound theological issue when not only the faithful but the regional episcopate reject a candidate for bishop.
Today’s adults are not going to continue to belong to an organization—even a Church—that doesn’t take them seriously. I am not advocating a democratic Church but one in which there is genuine communication so that those whose ministry it is to speak the faith of the Church know what is in the mind and the hearts of the Church’s members. The consensus fidelium needs to be restored as an essential part of the dynamic of the Church’s teaching and governing mission.