Church needs a rebuild but faith will persevere
This is a column for the general public, but in a special way for the Catholic faithful.
I thought about creating the Millstone Award years ago, I wrote a column about it and even designed how it would look. But I wrote with an anger I could barely contain and nothing good has ever come from my rage. Today, I am writing through heartbreak for all who have suffered and had their lives shattered both through the assaults on their bodies and the assaults on their faith. And I’m writing with the first hope I’ve had in many years.
The Millstone Award wasn’t for the priests who molested and raped countless children; they’re the easy targets. The award was for the cardinals and bishops without whom the scope of this tragedy could have never occurred. The Pennsylvania grand jury report on the dioceses of Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton show their bishops’ and cardinals’ complicity in what happened. Clergy child sexual abuse been known all along by bishops, cardinals and certainly popes. They knew it existed since they all rose through the lower ranks to their lofty positions.
We’ve learned about the lengths dioceses went to cover up the crimes. Exhibits in the Pennsylvania attorney general report include pleas from pastors to their bishops to do something. They include the anguished letters of victims and their parents. One of the exhibits is a letter from an Erie law firm, requested by a diocese, with detailed suggestions about how to avoid large payments to victims.
A few years ago, the Academy Award-winning movie “Spotlight” portrayed the role of Boston Cardinal Bernard Law in facilitating the transfers of priest abusers to new parishes. One priest is alleged to have abused more than 130 children. Cardinal Law’s consequence was to be transferred to Rome by Pope (now Saint) John Paul II and made archbishop of the Basilica Santa Maria Maggione, the largest Catholic Marian church in that city. There he served without consequence or condemnation until his death in December 2017.
And so it went until the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report where the cardinals’ and bishops’ knowledge and participation could no longer be denied. It was followed by contrition and pledges of cooperation.
There is a world of difference between “We were wrong” and “We got caught.” They got caught.
As I write this, a U.S. district attorney is examining federal criminal charges against the institutional church. Other states’ attorneys general are doing the same. It is my hope and prayer they do so. The Catholic Church cannot fix itself. It needs independent outside investigators to uncover what’s been deliberately hidden. Those who hid it must be named, charged if possible, and ideally thrown out.
The church cannot investigate itself because it has never truly investigated itself. Catholic leadership failed the faith and the faithful.
But faith and religion aren’t the same thing. Religions are institutions, dogmas, and rules to hold the organization and its people together. Faith is different, it’s personal. For Christians, it’s our individual connection with an itinerant Jewish preacher walking a dirt a road in Palestine 2,000 years ago. We hear the simple message of love, faith and commitment. We hear the one who taught us we could call God “Abba,” Daddy. He wasn’t the establishment.
Risking destruction of the church as it has been known is the only way to save it, to return it to the simple values of Jesus. There is nothing Christ-like in this tragedy. To their mourning and pain, Catholics should add hope that something more real, purer will rise from these ashes. The institution of the church needs rebuild, but the faithful can find hope in their individual commitment to Jesus. The Catholic faith will persevere.
This column started with a quote from the New Testament. In light of all that I have written, perhaps another one is a good way to end it. It’s from the gospel of John 11:35:
“Woe to anyone who causes one of these little ones to stumble and lose faith. It would be better for them if a large millstone were hung around their neck and they were cast into the sea.” — Mark 9:42