Institutional cultures are notoriously hard to change, whether the institution is a corporation, a university or a not-for-profit organization. Those who are comfortable with unquestioned assumptions and accustomed ways of doing things are not likely to recognize the need for change, even when the institution’s mission has been compromised.
The report of the National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People on the scandal of sexual abuse of minors by members of the Catholic clergy represents a forthright call for change in the institutional culture of the church. In calling for greater transparency and accountability on the part of the hierarchy, strengthening the diocesan and pastoral councils that should be in place and providing a role for lay Catholics in the selection of bishops, the report does not question any Catholic doctrine. On the contrary, continuing reform and renewal of the church is grounded in a sound theology of the church. Today that renewal must include greater participation by lay Catholics in the governance of the church.
The quality of the board’s report is itself evidence of the gifts that lay Catholics can bring to the necessary renewal of the church. The members of the National Review Board are all distinguished lay Catholics who were summoned to serve the church in its moment of crisis by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops. In addition to commissioning empirical research by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on the extent of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy in the United States since 1950, the board was also asked to report on the “context and causes” of the crisis. Responsibility for the latter report fell to the board’s research committee, whose chair is the prominent Washington attorney Robert S. Bennett.
After interviewing 85 individuals, including, among others, cardinals, bishops and Vatican officials, priests and former priests, seminarians and social scientists, victims of sexual abuse and law enforcement officials, Mr. Bennett and his committee have produced an impressive document, balanced but candid, based on sound theological and religious principles and inspired by a love of the church that remains faithful despite the sins and tragic errors of so many churchmen.
Perhaps most impressive is the insistence of this group of lay Catholics that the sexual abuse crisis is not a media crisis, a personnel crisis or a legal crisis, but a crisis of trust and faith. The bishops were not well served, the board argues, by lawyers who urged an adversarial posture toward victims of sexual abuse or by psychologists who in many cases told the bishops what they thought they wanted to hear about the rehabilitation of offending priests. A clerical culture in the church that separated priests from lay Catholics and bishops from priests encouraged unwarranted secrecy in dealing with allegations of sexual abuse and “massive denial” on the part of bishops and church leaders when priests and others expressed their concerns about possible sexual abuse of minors.
The N.R.B. report recognizes that “effective measures have been taken to ensure the safety of minors in the Church today,” but the board warns that “policies and procedures put in place over the last two years” constitute hope for the future “only if the bishops maintain a commitment to meaningful reforms and vigilant enforcement that outlasts the immediate crisis and becomes ingrained in the character of the Church itself.”
Habits die slowly, however, and the clerical culture of secrecy and denial will not yield easily to a culture of transparency and accountability. But the National Review Board’s report is an extraordinary document that not only challenges the present but also provides hope for the future by demonstrating how the church can be enriched by the commitment and gifts of lay Catholics.