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Thomas P. SweetserJanuary 03, 2019
  Pope Francis is pictured during his general audience in St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Feb. 28. Pope Francis and his international Council of Cardinals discussed the possibility of establishing regional tribunals around the world that would judge cases of sexual abuse allegedly committed by clergy, the Vatican spokesman said Feb. 27. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Over the past seven years I have been interviewing U.S. Catholics for a book about attitudes toward the church and toward Pope Francis. In the last round of interviews, which took place last September, I asked people for their reactions to the sexual abuse scandal. They voiced anger and disgust but also hope that substantial changes might soon take place.

For example, Pam, a woman from Minnesota in her early 50s, remarked: “I feel sad for the leaders of the church that they have to defend themselves and our church. But mostly, I don’t know whom to trust in the Catholic Church anymore.” Allyson, a person in her 20s studying theology in graduate school, commented, “How can the church that I trusted and have had as a center for my whole life, [have] done something like this—be the source of such pain?”

The gathering of heads of bishops’ conferences with the pope in February could be a start in a new direction. As Archbishop Charles Scicluna, one of the planners for the meeting, told America, “We bishops need...to adopt what Pope Francis is calling ‘a synodal approach.’ That is, we cannot do it alone in our community, we need also to empower the laypeople, the laity, in order to help us be good stewards.”

What would this empowerment entail? Many of those interviewed called for the laity to take a more active role in the various structures and decision-making processes of the church.'

“How can the church that I trusted and have had as a center for my whole life be the source of such pain?”

Kathleen, an older woman living in Washington, D.C., called for the church to “bring the laity in, full force.” She added: “We are a huge hunk of the church. We need to be part of deciding what the church is going to look like.”

Larry, retired and living in Wisconsin, pleaded: “Bring women into leadership positions at the highest levels even if you don’t want to ordain them. So much of what is human, caring, inclusive, watchful and loving is by and large better expressed by women, or at least better expressed by men and women together.” This was a common theme among those interviewed.

Pope Francis is key to a shift from clerical power and privilege to a sharing of authority and decision-making. Nancy, a Midwesterner, told me, “I want my pope to be, at this point in time, a very bold, loud, demanding, daily voice, one who is championing changes that need to take place in the church.”

“Bring women into leadership positions at the highest levels even if you don’t want to ordain them.”

Tom, an 80-year-old from California, also asked for bold action from the pope: “Lead the way! Be strong! Be not afraid! Propose and promote real changes, recognizing and realizing the stiff opposition that you will encounter. Reform the culture of the church itself. Either that or watch the church deteriorate and see millions of people lose their faith.”

This cultural change must be embraced by bishops and priests. Ken Untener, the former bishop of Saginaw, Mich., comes to mind. Upon becoming bishop in 1980, he put his official residence into escrow and lived in parishes across the diocese for two or three months at a time. When he died in 2004, the laity turned out in large numbers for his wake and funeral. Bishop Untener was one with his flock. That was a leadership style to be imitated.

Imagine what it would look like if those who attended the February conference with the pope took to heart the insight that we have to be transparent and accountable in our handling of sexual abuse. But this is only the beginning. Bishops must also change the way they manage dioceses They must learn to work in partnership with the laity, to be inclusive. Their chanceries should be open, inviting environments with an emphasis on hospitality and cooperation. Training in this new approach should be offered to priests so that a shift toward a more inclusive culture becomes the norm in parishes as well.

“Thank God we have Francis as our pope. He can shepherd us through the necessary changes.”

The crisis of sexual abuse and its cover-up within the church is a symptom of a closed, non-accountable structure. The movement toward an open and shared leadership style points the way to a new way of becoming church. As Ed, a priest who is no longer active, mentioned in an interview, “The task is enormous, the resistance is palpable and seemingly impossible, but a deep conversion is essential.”

Ginny, a woman in her 70s living in New England, took a positive view: “Thank God we have Francis as our pope. He can shepherd us through the necessary changes.... This could be an incredible moment of transition in terms of the male-ordained-only reality that our church is, for the most part.”

Let this February meeting among bishops and pope be the start of this new conversion. Where will this lead? Hopefully to a vibrant new role for the laity, more leadership opportunities for women in the church and a serious discussion of the responsibilities of the clergy. Based on my interviews, the people of God do not fear but instead demand real change.

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Rose Whitworth
5 years 6 months ago

Thank you for updating this thread, It's helpful.

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Mike Macrie
5 years 6 months ago

The February Meeting will be the most important meeting that the Catholic Church ever had to re-establish Creditability and Faith.

Bob Will
5 years 6 months ago

The meeting in February will be pivotal it must include laity in order to gain their trust back, and at this time all the Church is doing is a very good job of cleaning the outside of the cup. It must once again become pure from within.

Mark Horak
5 years 6 months ago

It is hard to exaggerate the magnitude of the changes that the institutional Church must make to remain relevant to the faithful, let alone the "nones" and former Catholics. This crisis is much bigger than clerical sexual abuse and its cover up. I desperately want Francis and our bishops to succeed, but it is hard to remain hopeful, at least in the short term. Oh, the Church will survive, but with a shape more like Paul's Church than Peter's.

Mark Horak

Andrea Campana
5 years 6 months ago

Aside from his management of the Church, I am grateful for Pope Francis' Ignatian spiritual outlook, which is a powerful but under-utilized antidote to our worldly and internal Church disorders. Let Francis be Francis. Don't try to fit him into a PR mold.

Danny Collins
5 years 6 months ago

The same Francis who plucked his friend from Argentina who was accused of repeated sexual abuse, (Bishop Zanchetta) and gave him a plum job at the Vatican with financial oversight? The same Francis who took Monsignor Ricci, who was caught with an underage (by US standards) rent boy in a broken down elevator and was later beat up and taken to the hospital by police after a fight at a gay cruising spot and made him his eyes and ears at the Vatican Bank? The same Francis who denied having received credible accusations against his friend, Bishop Barros of Chile, only coming clean after intense media pressure and Archbishop O'Malley of Boston calling him out on his lie by stating to the media that he personally delivered a letter with the credible accusations? The same Francis who produced a book savaging the victims of a convicted sex abuser in Buenos Aires and calling for the release of a convicted abuser? The same Francis who then lied to the producers of the documentary "Code of Silence" when asked if he had a role in producing that book (seriously, watch the movie on Amazon or some other source)?

Methinks "Francis being Francis" is a big part of the problem here.

Danny Collins
5 years 6 months ago

Typical Jesuitical response. Assume that morally bankrupt hierarchy can change if they just include a few more people from different demographics. Refuse to talk about sin and hell, which is where these bishops are headed sans repentance.

Charles Erlinger
5 years 6 months ago

The suggestions to “bring in the laity” which apparently were made frequently during the reported interviews, and have frequently been made by others commenting on this subject, prompt a couple of questions. Who does the “bringing in?” Would it not be some representative of the current power structure? What authority would those “brought in” have and by whom would this authority, if any, be bestowed? What would the required qualifications be for those “brought in?” Who would decide what those qualifications must be? If some authority is bestowed, what would be the scope, and how would decisions made under this authority be implemented?

Dr Robert Dyson
5 years 6 months ago

“How can the church that I trusted and have had as a center for my whole life be the source of such pain?”

I, an old man now, have een asking this for the fifty-odd years, ever since the post-Vatican II destruction of traditional Roman Catholicism during the pontificate of Paul VI. Vatican II was supposed to create a Church suitable to the modern world (on the assumption that the pre-Vatican II Church was NOT suitable). I am one of those - and we are not a small minority of cranks - who believe that this project has been a dismal failure. Any way you measure it, the history of the Church over the past fifty years has been a history of catastrophic decline. Does anybody seriously imagine that this state of affairs - the destructive triumph of modernism and historicism - can be halted or reversed by a few right-on gestures (more laity, more women, more gimmicks, blah)? Of course it can't! The February meeting will produce the kind of anticlimax that these big Vatican showpieces always produce: a few pages of vague pious platitude and aspiration and not much action. The Catholic Church has become deeply and systemically corrupt. We're here talking not about bureaucratic inefficiency or petty pilfering or a few bat hats, but about the commission and concealment of major crime at all levels. No amount of band-aid or hand-wringing synods or PR exercises is going to fix that.

Richard Neagle
5 years 6 months ago

That pretty well sums it up. Like you I feel that our church been hijacked by modernist dictators for the last fifty years . So of course the modernist destroyers of faith will never address this sexual abuse issue for what it is, namely a product of satanic lust, and largely homosexual in nature. No , they will address the cause as one of "clericalism" might even include priestly celibacy as a causative factor .Would not be supervised if the final recommendations of the synod have already been written.

Craig B. Mckee
5 years 6 months ago

It's too little, too late for Pope Francis and his back-stabbing Curia. The course of human events will now prevail in spite of the institution:

The real question is how many people are gonna stick around for the eventual outcome?

Lucie Johnson
5 years 6 months ago

I watched the Epiphany Mass at St Peter's this (early) morning, and listened to Pope Francis' homily. Generally, there is light and joy in his homilies. But not today. Good content, but no spark. The light has gone out... I am sure it is a horribly stressful time for Pope Francis, and he is an old man. Though the possibility of it not being so may seem unthinkable, I am so hoping that Pope Francis himself is "clean". But a number of his close associates do not seem to be, and that is disturbing.

Jim Lein
5 years 6 months ago

The church is just too huge to be managed well. Way too top heavy. Spreading the Gospel doesn't need vast layers of bureaucracy, a magisterium, a book of cannon law, the threat of mortal sins if you miss Mass. The church has gotten too far away from Jesus and his message of love. Some move back toward that is needed. Would it be so bad if the Vatican was disbanded? It seems necessary. Other denominations have relatively separate churches, with no world wide boss.

Richard Neagle
5 years 6 months ago

The largely homosexual nature of the clerical abuse must be addressed
at the upcoming synod ,but I would not count on that with Cupich on the board of directors. Hey , does Francis even believe in the concept of eternal damnation for unrepentant sexually active homosexuals? Anybody in Jesuit land think that might be a problem?

Gary Z
5 years 6 months ago

What good is calling in the laity, the Church leaders -- any diocese, any bishop -- can ignore and overturn any formal investigation by law enforcement, a prosecutor, a county BCI, a sheriff's investigation, even a grand jury decision without repercussion, and they can do it with Vatican endorsement. Read the guest opinion in the Steubenville Herald Star: http://www.heraldstaronline.com/opinion/local-columns/2018/12/guest-column-too-many-questions-remain-in-zalenski-case/

Bruce Snowden
5 years 6 months ago

As the devastating tsunami of sexual abuse of pre-pubescent children and others by priests, Bishops, even a wayward former Cardinal, Popes too have sinfully erred, continues sending its hot sulfuric stench throughout the Church everywhere really, causing fury, and feelings of disbelief and shame by many Catholics, there is still plenty of room for songs and happy dancing, recalling the promises of our Lord and Brother Jesus, “I am with you all days even to the end of time.” And Jesus’ other assurance,. “The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against you .

JESUS IS GOING TO WIN THIS ONE FOR US, AGAIN! Someone has said, it is the greatest catastrophe in the Catholic Church since the Reformation! Even as great I believe as the Original Sin in Eden, the sin of Betrayal and Denial, the gut-rot root of all sin, as in the vicinity of the Upper Room on that First Holy Thursday and the First Eucharist, much more, along with all other “upper rooms” gestating in sin, its indelibility dissolved only in Calvary’s Sacrificial Blood

But the Lord walks with us in the fray repeating to Pope Francis words first spoken to Francis of Assisi, “Francis, rebuild My Church which is falling into ruin!” Holy Father Francis is already deep into that commission. Unfortunately he is being battered by some who should be high -fiving his obedience to Jesus. Our mysterious God with infinite knowhow-ability will clear the putrid air now circulating in the Church, making that which is ever ancient, once again ever new. It will surprise many as to how God does it. Ecumenically I suggest! This is where trust in the Church still resides, in the Promises of Jesus. The termites of sin will find the Wood of the Church one and the same as the Wood of the Cross and totally indigestible!

Jennifer Shangraw
5 years 6 months ago

One topic not discussed that is also very destructive is verbal and emotional abuse by priests. Control and power over attracted many men to the priesthood. They also target the trusting, giving, caring individuals, especially women. In my diocese there are priests who verbally put down individuals for some minor mistake. I know so many people who suffered at the hands of these priests. Perhaps each priest needs a psychological assessment. Ultimately, I hope women and married men may become priests, just as long as they are not predators and narcissists. God Bless us.

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