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A Voice from America
Thomas Reese
Gesuita, scrittore, ex-direttore di "America"
The Sexual Abuse Crisis: A Personal Reflection

Riceviamo e pubblichiamo il testo di un discorso tenuto da Thomas Reese alla Clergy Abuse Conference, presso la Santa Clara University lo scorso 10 maggio.

I am not an expert on the crisis, but rather a journalist, commentator and priest. Perhaps my contribution can be first to congratulate and thank Tom Plante and Kathleen McChesney and all of the contributors to the book, Sexual Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Decade of Crisis 2002-2012 (Praeger, 2012). The book makes a genuine contribution to a better understanding of the crisis.  The Church should be very grateful for their work.

I would like to concentrate on what I think is the unfinished work of responding to the sexual abuse crisis. Needless to say, I cannot list all of the unfinished work, but the items I will highlight strike me as being important.

First, I think the Church—and by Church I mean both the clergy and the people of God—needs to re-envision its attitude toward the survivors of sexual abuse. In Latin America, liberation theologians developed the concept of the preferential option for the poor. The American Catholic Church needs to embrace a preferential option for the survivors of sexual abuse. 

Nor should we look at the victims of abuse simply as clients or problems to be dealt with. Just as people in the Church have learned not to look on the poor as a problem to be solved, but to recognize their contribution to the Church, so too we need to see the survivors of abuse as persons who can teach us what it means to be Christians, what it means to be Church. No one who listens to their stories can fail to be touched by them.

This means that we cannot respond to every new victim who comes forward with “O God, not another one.” Rather we have to see them as integral to our community, persons who must be welcomed. Such an attitude would encourage the Church to reach out to the thousands of victims of sexual abuse who have not come forward. We want them to come forward; the Church needs them.

Second, we need a better system for investigating accusations of sexual abuse. Obviously, all accusations must be reported to the police, but if the statute of limitations precludes prosecution, the police will not investigate. Or the prosecutor may judge there is insufficient evidence to prosecute. Under these circumstances, the Church still has an obligation to investigate and determine whether a priest is guilty or innocent, whether he must be permanently removed from ministry or returned to ministry.

The charter calls for an investigation of the allegations, but there is no standard operating procedure. Each diocese is on its own, with the result that some do better than others. The American criminal justice system sometimes fails even though it has police, prosecutors, grand juries, judges and juries. The Church has not had anything like this since the inquisition. Not surprisingly, the Church has a hard time getting this right.

It is essential that the Church get this right. The victims deserve justice and children must be protected from future abuse. Innocent priests also deserve justice and a way to clear their names. And the process must have credibility to the public at large.

We need more research on this topic. We need to find out what are best practices and help dioceses to adopt them. We don’t even know how many priests are suspended or how long their suspensions last. Many priests fear that if they are falsely accused they will be suspended indefinitely because the bishop is afraid to return them to ministry.

In too many instances the investigative process appears suspect because it is under the control of the bishop. Episcopal credibility here is nil. The process will only have credibility to the extent that it is seen as truly independent of the bishop. Only an independent process will have the credibility to say that, “Yes, this priest can return to ministry.”

Third, we still do not have a system for bringing bishops to account. It is a disgrace that only one bishop (Cardinal Law) resigned because of his failure to deal with the sexual abuse crisis. The Church would be in a much better place today if 30 or more bishops had stood up, acknowledged their mistakes, taken full responsibility, apologized and resigned. A shepherd is supposed to lay down his life for his sheep; these men were unwilling to lay down their croziers for the good of the Church.

The bishops also have to step up and supervise their own. I know, “only the pope can judge a bishop under canon law,” but there are lots of things the bishops can do anyway. First, they must speak out and publicly criticize those bishops that are not observing the charter or are failing in their responsibilities. Bishops, including the president of the bishops conference, need to say, “Shame on you bishop, get your house in order.” This is not a canonical judgment; this is fraternal correction.

The Vatican also needs to do its job. It appears to have no problem investigating nuns and theologians, but investigating mismanagement by a bishop is not a priority. A bishop can be quickly removed in Australia for hinting that women and married priests might need to be discussed, but bishops who failed children are not removed.  Only in Ireland were a few bishops removed because of their failure to protect children, and that took a brave archbishop and the full force of the Prime Minister and the government.

Even when a bishop is indicted, no one has the sense to tell him to take a leave of absence until the case is over.

Finally, the sexual abuse crisis has to be seen in the context of clerical culture in the Church. I agree with those who say that celibacy did not cause the sexual abuse crisis, but when a group of men sit around a table discussing what to do with one of their colleagues who abused a child, it makes a big difference whether the men at the table have children. The first question in a parent’s mind is “How would I feel if my child was abused?”  The inability of celibate men to ask that question blinded them to the consequences of their decisions. They focused on the priest, not the victim.

A culture of fear and dependency also contributed to the crisis. I don’t know whether Monsignor Lynn broke the laws of Pennsylvania, but he was certainly no hero. Too few priests stood up to those in authority and said, “No, you can’t do that.” Speaking truth to power is not welcomed in the Catholic Church. Diocesan priests are totally dependent on the good will of their bishop for assignments and promotions. If a 60 year old bishop is appointed to your diocese, he is going to be your boss for the next 15 years. In practice, there is no appealing his decisions toward you nor can you escape by moving to another diocese. You are stuck.

In this corporate culture, few are going to tell the bishop “no.” The one pastor in Philadelphia, who refused to accept an abusive priest, got reprimanded and punished for challenging the archbishop. This is what happens when you speak truth to power in the Catholic Church.

The problem in the Catholic Church today is that the hierarchy has so focused on obedience and control that it has lost its ability to be a self-correcting institution. Creative theologians are attacked, sisters are investigated, Catholic publications are censored and loyalty is the most important virtue. These actions are defended by the hierarchy because of fears of “scandalizing the faithful,” when in fact it is the hierarchy who have scandalized the faithful.

Is there any hope. The data in the John Jay report shows that the cases of abuse fell dramatically during the 1980’s. The problem of abuse is probably worse in other parts of American society than it is in the Church, but that is still damning with faint praise. It can never be an excuse for doing less than is required. But I dream of the day when the Church becomes part of the solution rather than part of the problem. We are not there yet. But hopefully someday what we learn about the detection, prevention and healing of abuse in the Church may be of help in responding to abuse in American society.

18 maggio 2012