The Roman Catholic Church, in this post-Easter season, ledby a
new and promising pope, should declare a world-wide Year of
Mourning for all children abused by priests and others.
During this time, it would be wise to remove all those guilty of such crimes, release their names, and place all relevant Church sanctions against them while providing secular law enforcement with information helpful to prosecution for civil crimes. This will allow, following a year of Confessional services, a fresh and important start for Catholicism and for religion in general throughout the world.
This is a time when one may make the mistake of a fatal pause so as not to offend friends, acquaintances and society at large, or risk a reputation for tolerance and even-handedness when dealing with the faults of others.
Especially is this so in the matter of religion where, in the Western world, Christians have so often turned into lions and devoured their enemies and competitors, both real and perceived.
To be sure, the sins of recent decades that have been documented within the Roman Church have been pervasive throughout Protestantism and its many sects. Any religious movement, mainstream or minimal, has been guilty of like moral and social transgressions.
The Catholic Church claims 1.1 billion adherents world-wide. In the U.S., there are far more within its communion than the top ten Protestant denominations combined. It is also hard for Protestants and other sects to admit that the Roman institution is the pace-setter in so many religious endeavors, both for good and for ill.
The child of one Catholic parent, I have no brief against Catholicism or its followers. When I entered the Protestant ministry my father assumed I would wish or insist that he follow me into my denomination as a matter of familial and emotional support. I knew that he remained Catholic more than anything, regardless of his estrangement from it since the Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century when the Church there sided with the government and the wealthy landowners against the oppressed and poverty-stricken laborers.
Indeed, he came to this country to start over following that conflict and was loathe thereafter to enter the doors of a cathedral. At the time of my ministerial decision, he softened considerably, leading to his suggestion that he follow me in my religious direction. In a moment of mutual reflection, I was sure that in his own heart his place was in the Church of his youth and family and, if so, I would accompany him to meet the local priest and begin his restoration to that faith. He did return to its fold and at his death was buried following the appropriate Mass in his name.
I say this to defend myself against accusations, sure to come, that I have animus toward a faith that is not my own. I have deep appreciation for the rituals and practices of Catholicism; Protestantism is a faith largely of words–hence the centrality of pulpits in its chancels. Catholicism touches the emotional and unspoken in human experience via the sacraments and the Mass itself.
But the Church and its considerable weight is in all our faces regardless of religious preference; it fills news reports at any given time; and lesser congregations in smaller communities know all too well how that weight affects their lives and social standing.
In my own religious studies, I have followed the Catholic Church’s history and stayed current with its affairs since the early 1960s. I remember well another pope of great promise, Angelo Guiseppe Roncalli, who became Pope John XXIII–the one who “opened the windows of the Church and let in the fresh air.” He convened the Vatican Council that made people of all faiths hope again that its vast institution would begin leading the world of faith to be what it was called to be.
I followed also the career of Joseph Ratzinger who in time became Prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith–the direct descendant of the infamous Roman Inquisition of the mid-second millenium. I followed as well his efforts to dismantle the legacy of John XXIII with stunning effectiveness until recent times when one could hardly recognize it except for overt symbolisms such as priests facing congregations during masses. It is painful to say so, but by the time he became Pope Benedict XVI, he was effectively the Dick Cheney of the Church–the one behind the scenes who wielded far more influence that was deserved, in the interests of the institution.
Before his accession to the papacy, Ratzinger also singularly held all the information regarding the disgraceful actions of abusive priests and higher-ups, which gave him additional power that calls to mind the FBI’s infamous J. Edgar Hoover and his hold on countless persons in crucial positions.
Make no mistake, Benedict was the choice of Pope John Paul II, his predecessor. Both knew the devastating effects of the child abuse scandal, what they had failed to do to correct it, and how it could bring down the entire Roman hierarchy. It has been Benedict who has tried to hasten the elevation of John Paul II to sainthood to pre-empt the stain on his reputation. But the tentacles of the scandal could only embrace Benedict as well, even more so.
And this is the back-story to Benedict’s resignation: there was no way he could shake the looming cloud except to step down and pray that his own successor might protect his memory as well. It is not altogether clear that this will come about during the papacy of Francis, who seems to have his own mind regarding the role and direction of the Church.
Francis has begun well, with an abundance of symbolic moves and postures that indicate a change in direction. But popes, like U.S. presidents, have not as much power as we may think or wish. Francis will have to move quickly to mount a trend that can withstand the forces that will assail him within the Vatican and from among the backward and conservative Cardinals, the preponderance of whom were appointed by the prior two popes.
John XXIII made the ingenious move of calling the famous Council of the 1960s and setting its agenda. Indeed, once in motion, it was temporarily unstoppable and cut a wide swath that would have been even wider and deeper save for the death of that pontiff. That is when Ratzinger and his retrogressive cohorts moved to reverse the gains so dearly made.
One can only imagine how far that perverse influence may have gone beyond even our times, had not fate, or God(?), intervened with the child abuse scandal that would not die.
If Francis can mount a new revolution and live long enough to see it through, we and the world could see the rebirth of the Roman Church as a leading edge of a Christianity whose work in the world may be far from done.
Any moves to flush out and rid the Church of the disobedient priests must include investigation and revelation of the sins of both John Paul II and Benedict XVI–as well as Cardinal Bernard Law, who was by no means “banished” to Rome as many think, but as a means of escape from his considerable sins and legal liability in the American scandal, and from whence he lives in wealth and splendor as priest of a major “Chapel” in the shadow of the Vatican.
Until such impediments are removed from the face and soul of the Catholic Church, redemption cannot come. And God knows, they, and we all, need it, so that if religion is to mean anything again it will begin with that oldest and (formerly) grandest of Christian expressions.
Otherwise, this will be a Holy Mess without end. And who wants that?