The Common Good
June 2004

Still Scandalous

by Joe Nangle | June 2004

Has the Catholic Church learned anything?

As a Catholic priest,

As a Catholic priest, I write these lines with a mixture of shame and anger. I have a profound sense of the need once again to apologize for the incalculable harm done by my brother priests who violated their sacred trust with children, adolescents, and adults and the harm done by several bishops of my church in failing to deal effectively with those violations.

Two highly publicized and scathing reports on the scandal were released February 27, 2004, by the bishops’ National Review Board for the Protection of Children and Young People. In the aftermath of these reports, two points deserve to be underscored as our communion continues to deal with the worst crisis Catholicism has encountered in its history on these shores. First, it is shortsighted and superficial in the extreme to pretend that the scandal is behind us. Some in the Catholic hierarchy have taken to speaking in the past tense about this whole sordid matter. But we shall confront the awful results of these wrongdoings for decades to come—especially in the broken lives that these sins have caused and in our church’s consequent loss of moral authority.

Our leaders should know this. In a direct and graphic presentation to the entire Catholic bishops’ conference gathered in Dallas in 2002 to address the growing storm of reported clerical abuses, Mary Gail Frawley-O’Dea, a clinical psychologist, laid out the enormous harm done to victims of those abuses. She walked the bishops through the spiritual, psychological, emotional, physical, and social traumas inflicted on children, young people, and adults who, having put their confidence in a spiritual father, experienced a devastating betrayal at the hands of that trusted figure. Such traumas will accompany these betrayed people for years and years to come. No religious group can quickly or easily "put all that behind" and pretend once again to occupy some sort of high moral ground. That would be cheap grace, indeed. We shall have to earn absolution with a complete metanoia (conversion) over a long period of time.

THAT LEADS seamlessly to a second crucial point, the quality of the men admitted to priesthood and of those priests promoted to the rank of bishop. The former should have to demonstrate much more clearly than in the past a healthy psycho-sexual development and a proven capacity to serve faith communities with love and integrity before they receive approval for priestly ordination. How such tests of candidates for the Catholic priesthood are to be devised and implemented stands as one overriding and immediate task for our seminaries.

Of equal or even more importance is the process for choosing bishops. Our sad recent history has revealed a type of prelate whose bottom line seemed to be the welfare of the institution rather than that of people. In selecting those who would exercise the office of bishop among us, the deciding criteria seem to have been safe "company men" with a "circle the wagons" mentality, rather than independent-thinking pastors who knew clearly where gospel priorities lie. Those misdirected and ultimately tragic criteria also require correction at once.

If there is any hopeful side at all to this grim picture, I find it in the resiliency of our faith communities. It amazes me to observe in our parishes, schools, and other Catholic groupings, such as Voice of the Faithful (a lay organization pressing for much of the reform outlined here), significant levels of trust and affirmation for "good priests." We who serve those communities as their clergy owe them an enormous debt of gratitude.

Joe Nangle, a Franciscan priest, is executive director of the Franciscan Mission Service in Washington, D.C.

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