The Common Good
May-June 2002

Sins of the Fathers

by Jim Rice | May-June 2002

The deepest guilt is the church's.

Among the many sad notes that have been played in regard to the Catholic Church's sexual abuse scandal, here's one that points to the depth of the church's disgrace: Various media outlets reported that, "prompted by the scandal," dioceses across the country announced the firing of dozens of priests.

Why did it take a "scandal" elsewhere to prompt these actions? What's the message here? Church officials knew these priests engaged in sexual abuse, yet they didn't act until forced to by the scandal—or, more accurately, by the massive publicity around abuse cases in Boston and elsewhere.

Bad as the individual cases are, and as seriously damaged as are many of the individual victims, the far greater sin rests on the actions of the institutional church. As they used to say in the Nixon era, it's not just the crime, it's the cover-up. In this case, the Catholic Church's cover-up had horrendous consequences: Priests often were transferred to situations where they continued to be in contact with children—and, often, continued to engage in their criminal and destructive behavior.

Church leaders—including, admittedly, Cardinal Law of Boston—were fully aware of the crimes committed under their watch, and were consciously engaged in shuffling the abusers from parish to parish. In any jurisdiction in the country, aiding and abetting a felony is a crime, subject to prosecution, trial, and imprisonment. In these cases, you could probably throw in harboring felons and obstruction of justice as well.

What would happen to the principal of an elementary school who similarly covered-up sexual abuse by a teacher and moved the perpetrator from classroom to classroom? Or a corporate CEO with that kind of after-the-fact abetting of criminal behavior? It's safe to assume that people would not merely call for resignation, but criminal prosecution.

Can good come out of such evil? Much of the damage done, to individuals and to the church's reputation, will be slow in healing. The great majority of priests and bishops—totally innocent of any such wrongdoing—have been tainted by the actions of a few. But the revelation of this years-long scandal has already transformed how the church deals with these issues, and perhaps will even help sound the death knell for the all-male, celibate priesthood. Would allowing married priests or ordaining women suddenly eliminate the problem? Of course not. But those changes will open the door to even deeper reforms.

In the meantime, the church has a lot of repenting to do. Because, unfortunately, it's not only the Catholic Church that has been besmirched by these sins, but the witness of the gospel itself. And that's the gravest sin of all.

Jim Rice is managing editor of Sojourners.

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