A friend tells me that she finds it difficult nowadays to admit that she is a Catholic. My Franciscan order rules that any accusation of sexual impropriety means automatic suspension from ministry. I feel everyone's eyes on me in dealing with children in my parish.
The Catholic Church is in perhaps its worst crisis ever.
My first response is to ask forgiveness for the sins of my brother priests and bishops -- forgiveness from our Catholic people, the entire Christian church, other religious traditions, and society in general. These violations constitute scandal, a sin Jesus judged most sternly: "It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin" (Luke 17:2).
This blight in our church will be with us for decades to come. The harm done to the victims of clergy abuse, their families, Catholics, and many others cannot be undone quickly. People have been hurt, damaged, and disillusioned, and I believe that only serious corrective measures, together with public repentance -- especially by Catholic ministers -- over a long period of time, will excise this malignancy.
But we will do this only if we clearly understand the gravity of our sin and its devastating effects. I fear that as yet many among us, including and perhaps especially our leadership, fail to comprehend how bad this situation has become.
That leads me to reflect on the next generation of priests and bishops. How shall we guarantee that priests in the future will act in accordance with their stated commitments as shepherds? How shall we ensure that bishops act swiftly and decisively in defense of anyone who is violated by representatives of this institution?
The preparation of candidates for the priesthood must take more seriously the need for healthy psycho-sexual development. Compulsive behaviors, addiction to internet pornography, aversion to women, and stunted social skills signal that some are not suited for the priesthood. Bishops, seminary rectors, spiritual directors, and confessors will have to exercise "tough love" here.
Bishops can no longer come from the ranks of "company men" who demonstrate little or no capacity for independent thinking. (I once heard of a prominent American hierarch state that his conscience was exactly that of the pope. Infantile in the extreme!)
Above all, our church must consistently act on Jesus' words: "The truth will make you free" (John 8:32). Only transparency, openness, and truthfulness about past and current aspects of this scandal, at every level of our institution, will bring the Catholic Church out of this dark night.
National and international media have performed a much-needed service in bringing to light the enormity of our scandal. Perhaps some media were motivated by less-than-noble intentions -- scandals like these sell newspapers, and the Catholic Church is an easy target. However, had it not been for dogged investigative reporting on this issue, we might still not know its extent.
Finally, where can Catholics find hope? Many have walked away from this institution, and who can blame them? However, I take hope from people by the thousands who retain the capacity to claim the Church as their own despite the disaster that envelops us. They are for the most part Catholic laity who, far from denying our crisis, absorb it and lament it, while still maintaining Christ's peace at the core of their beings. Their assessment of this tragedy, abiding good will, and determination to remain Catholic inspire me to continue as a priest in our flawed institution. I thank them sincerely.
Joseph Nangle, OFM, a Franciscan priest and former Sojourners columnist, is associate pastor of Our Lady Queen of Peace parish in Virginia. This article first appeared in the July 2010 issue of Sojourners magazine.