It has been a bad summer for the Roman Catholic Church in the United States. Beginning with substantiated allegations of sexual abuse by then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, subsequent weeks have led to McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals, stories of abuse at seminaries, and, most recently, the devastating report from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury, detailing the abuse of over 1000 victims by more than 300 priests.
As young(ish) Catholics, we are angry. We are asking ourselves, each other, and those in authority, “Is this really happening again?”
The revelations of the sexual abuse crisis broke in Boston in 2001. We were in middle and high school then, and so our relationship to the Church as adults has always taken the history of sexual abuse and cover-ups as a given. And “history” is exactly what we wish it were.
However, as this summer has made clear, the pain of these horrific actions persists in the present. And so it is in the present, right now, immediately, that we all need to take action. You readers, we young Jesuits, the bishops, the victims, every single person in the pews and every single person who is not or cannot be in the pews because of the pain the Church is causing.
The abuse, the cover-ups, and the ability of the abusers to act with impunity is criminal and sinful. As Catholics, when we find ourselves in a state of sin, we turn to reconciliation, and that is exactly what the Church needs right now.
Because the Church is all of us, everyone has a role to play as we seek reconciliation for the pain and mistrust caused by the sexual abuse crisis. Reconciliation involves an admission of guilt, asking for forgiveness, and doing penance. Every member of the Church has a role to play in one or more of these steps.
To the victims:
We say thank you for your courage. Your voices have been silenced and your pain ignored for far too long. Please keep sharing your stories. Your experiences are painful, but listening to them is the only way we can all face the true injustice of what has happened in our Church. We stand with you and demand that those guilty of crimes against you and those responsible for covering up those crimes admit their guilt and face justice.
To the bishops:
It’s time to be the shepherds Christ calls you to be. These recent news stories show that many of you have utterly failed us, the faithful, in this role. You have protected fellow shepherds at the expense of your flock. For the sake of the future of the Church, do not be defensive in responding to the heinous revelations of these recent months. The institutional Church’s credibility among our peers and millenials is almost zero. Trying to downplay these latest crises or sweep under the rug all the problems they reveal would effectively drive away an entire generation of believers.
The Church needs reconciliation, and you as our shepherds must lead us. Reconciliation has three essential components.
- Reconciliation starts with admitting guilt. It’s time for a deep, honest look at the structures and systems that allowed, and have continued to allow, abusers to act serially with impunity and insulates those in authority from being criticized for fear of reprisal. We have to move away from an approach that seeks to protect the reputation of a given member of the clergy, or even the church at large, at the expense of victims whose voices are silenced.
- Reconciliation requires asking forgiveness. You have accepted positions of leadership in the Church. A great many victims deserve an apology for the actions and failures of your predecessors. Indeed, the entire Church has been wounded by our leaders’ complicity in these crimes.
- Reconciliation must include doing penance. The penance that recent events demand is that it cannot be “business as usual” in the U.S. Church, or anywhere else for that matter. It is time to let the light of transparency and accountability shine through everything we do. It should not require another grand jury investigation or an investigative journalist to force the Church to be honest about the wrongs it has committed.
To our fellow clergy, religious, and those in formation:
“If you see something, say something” cannot be limited to the New York Subway. It has become clear that McCarrick’s abuse of seminarians was a “worst-kept secret” among clergy, seminarians, lay people, and members of the media. Our penance for the sins of our Church must be heightened vigilance and willingness to speak up. By virtue of the spaces we occupy and conversations we engage in, when we hear, or even suspect, of another potential “worst-kept secret,” we must say something. We should have the courage to call out abuse directly and to demand that our superiors intervene before any of the people of God are put at risk.
Some of us feel the instinct to rise to the defense of the Church. But we remember that the Church is the People of God, not a collection of property or an organizational structure. Let’s keep in mind who and what it is God calls us to serve.
To everyone in the pews or who used to be in the pews:
It’s tough to be Catholic right now, and for that we are sorry. We too feel the pain, shame, and burden of knowing how harmful the actions of many in our Church have been. It might be tempting to leave the Church, to feel that this is the last straw.
But please know: the Church needs you now more than ever. This scandal has shown how insular, self-serving and frankly sinful so many of the Church’s leaders, both priests and bishops, have been. But that is not what the Gospel is about, and that is not what the Church should be about. The Church is and must be about following Christ.
So for all of you weary of the Church’s failure to imitate Christ, to walk in His footsteps and to follow His way of mercy, please don’t be tempted to leave. Your anger is holy. Your weariness, your frustration, your disappointment: they are all a call to repent and believe, a call that the entire Church needs to hear and act upon. We need you to proclaim that call for all of us, if the Church is going to return to the Lord.
Even the best plans will take time. Even the most profound conversion will work slowly. But we are called to that conversion. For like Jesus in the Garden at Gethsemane, we watch and wait, staying close to God the Father, knowing He will bring about His plan of justice and mercy for His beautiful and scarred world.