In February of next year, Pope Francis will meet with presidents of episcopal conferences throughout the world to talk about the Catholic Church’s response to clerical abuse. The U.S. bishops met in November of this year and discussed the same topic. In many dioceses, parishes have been or will be hosting listening sessions for concerned parishioners. All these meetings are meant in some way to address the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.
The current round of gatherings and news coverage strikes many people as sadly familiar—a replay of what happened in the early 2000s. But this is different. Today’s conversations have shifted. The focus now falls on bishops who were negligent, incompetent or downright devious in dealing with clergy who had perpetrated abuse against minors. This new scrutiny of abuse in the church, one earnestly hopes, will lead to necessary structural realignments. Reforms may include new paths for accountability and transparency, a more rigorous application of existing church law or its amendment if needed, and closer cooperation with civil authorities to deal with criminal activity and any related cover-up.
Structural reform and renewal are absolutely necessary to reclaim a measure of integrity for the church and—some would even say—for her very survival.
Structural reform and renewal are absolutely necessary to reclaim a measure of integrity for the church and—some would even say—for her very survival. These changes, however, are not enough to bring healing. The abuse crisis is about more than just logic and reason. The current crisis has revealed the unreliability of church leaders in protecting the flock entrusted to their care. And that matters very much to everyone with or without a direct experience of abuse. I would argue that any effective healing must take the experience of reliability versus unreliability as a central focus.
People familiar with the work of the British psychiatrist Donald Winnicott know the centrality of reliability for the most fundamental of human relationships. As Winnicott observed the interaction of infants and their mothers, it became apparent to him that the foundation of all healthy subsequent development for a child rested in the experience of that first and all-important mother-child relationship as reliable. When that early relationship turns out to be unreliable, as Winnicott saw in his psychotherapeutic practice with adults, people have significant problems relating to others and functioning well in their lives.
If you go to any parish listening session about abuse, you will no doubt face a vast and seemingly intractable reservoir of deep anger among ordinary people.
The abuse crisis exposes an enormously frightening reality: People, even without a direct experience of abuse, may recognize that they have entrusted the care of their souls to unreliable leadership. Their reflexive reaction is rage born from a sense of deep disappointment and a feeling of having been deceived and tricked. If you go to any parish listening session about abuse, you will no doubt face a vast and seemingly intractable reservoir of deep anger among ordinary people.
Out of that rage, people voice the absolutely legitimate call to punish perpetrators and those who enabled them or covered up for them. “Heads must roll,” they say, and they mean that those who were guilty of abuse or enabling abusers must resign or be fired. Get them out and then, some might say, we can have a chance to regroup and maybe even move forward.
In fact, in some small measure, heads have begun to roll. Pope Francis, for example, has accepted the resignations of a number of bishops from Chile and recently defrocked two. Surely, more resignations and firings will follow. That may abate some of the anger, but—in my estimation—it certainly will not eliminate it. Addressing the abuse crisis will take a lot of thinking and planning for structural and institutional renewal. And programs, new structures and the imposition of sanctions—as necessary as they may be—are not the sole answers.
Another path, I believe, can address the anger at a deeper level and actually begin to facilitate some healing. As I describe this path, it may seem idealistic or unrealistic or simply out of reach. This path embraces the best of our Catholic tradition that deals with sin and failure. It is the confession of sin accompanied by a willingness to repair the breach and live with consequences that remain.
This past September, retired Auxiliary Bishop Robert Morneau of Green Bay wrote to his bishop with a request to be removed from public ministry because in 1979 he had failed to report the abuse of a minor. He explained: “As a result this priest was able to abuse several years later.... I intend to spend my time in prayer for all victims and survivors of sexual abuse and I will do corporal works of mercy in reparation for what I failed to do.” Bishop Morneau’s request was granted.
Catholics instinctively understand the dynamics of confession, forgiveness and reparation.
Those who are guilty need to come forward, admit what they have done and failed to do and then try, as best as they can, to repair and heal the damage done to the body of Christ. Catholics instinctively understand the dynamics of confession, forgiveness and reparation, even as they know how the consequences and aftermath of sin can also remain for those who are forgiven. Many will accept this kind of contrition, and their anger will be more effectively addressed than it is now.
When Pope Francis speaks to the presidents of bishops’ conferences throughout the world in February, he may feel the need to warn them, cajole them and perhaps even threaten them with sanctions if they have failed. I hope he also calls them and their brothers to something else. I hope that he summons them, if they have failed, to come forward, confess what they have done or failed to do, seek forgiveness and make reparation as best they can, even as they recognize that they will need to live with the aftermath. I hope that he uses Bishop Morneau as an example of how we can move forward. Out of our present pain, I am convinced we can find hope.