The Common Good
July-August 2002

What Must Be Done

by Jim Wallis | July-August 2002

Having a 3-and-a-half-year-old son has made the horrific revelations about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests even more abhorrent.

Having a 3-and-a-half-year-old son has made the horrific revelations about the sexual abuse of children by Catholic priests even more abhorrent. His innocence and vulnerability have been my daily context as I listen to one awful story after another. It makes a person very angry.

Concern for the victims of the widespread sexual abuse has to be our first and overriding concern. Where the Catholic Church and its leaders have begun to fully repent of these terrible sins and make those who have been irreparably damaged its principle priority, it becomes the beginning of healing. But where concerns for the perpetrators, or the priesthood, or the institution, or the financial consequences have dominated the response, the original sin has been seriously compounded. Clearly, the path that must be followed now is to put the welfare of the victims over the protection of the system. Indeed, that is the only way to save and heal the system in the long run.

But what must be done? Some wrongly blame celibacy. But as Richard Rohr explains in his incisive article in this issue, celibacy is not the problem (though some reforms in how it might be implemented may be in order). While I support both the ordination of women priests (my wife is an Episcopal cleric) and the welcoming of married priests, neither of these crucial church reforms would solve the problem either. Both pedophilia (the sexual abuse of children) and the abuse of power in sexual relations with post-pubescent young people are problems in many places, including other churches where women and married priests are accepted. Nor is the problem the prevalence of homosexual men in the Catholic priesthood. Pedophilia is as much a heterosexual illness as a homosexual one. The underlying issue in this terrible church sex scandal is not—as the Left and the Right have variously asserted—celibacy, the lack of women priests or married priests, or the number of homosexuals in the priesthood.

THE REAL PROBLEM here is a lack of accountability, and only radical reform that brings new and effective accountability to every aspect of the church's life will suffice as a solution. That solution is as possible as it is urgent. Both the ordination of women and the acceptance of married priests are many years away. And the theological and pastoral issues surrounding homosexuality and the clergy will continue with us for some time. But bringing a new and institution-changing accountability to the church's life is something that can be done now, at occasions such as this summer's meeting of the American Catholic bishops in Dallas.

The bishops should institute far-reaching changes that would bring lay people (women and men) into virtually all the decision making at the core of the church's life and mission. That means substantial lay involvement in every aspect of the church's business and ministry—including decisions regarding management and administration, finances, grievances, and the crucial decisions about the evaluation and deployment of personnel, which are at the heart of this painful situation. The truth is that such substantial lay participation is already occurring in many parishes and dioceses around the country. And many of these issues were apparently raised in April during the Vatican meetings with the American cardinals.

The result would be greatly increased accountability for the church, for priests, and for bishops, which would, ultimately, be to everyone's benefit. Women and married people of both sexes don't need to be ordained to exercise significant and effective leadership in the church. Many Catholic women and parents have wise and healing gifts and experience to bring to this pivotal crisis in the church's history. This is the time to call upon their gifts. Accountability is the most basic reform that might transcend both conservative and liberal constituencies. And most important, accountability is the reform that could make the most difference. It is what must be done.

Awards for Justice

Call to Renewal's Pentecost 2002 Mobilization turned out to be a great success. Delegations of faith-based leaders from 42 states came to Washington, D.C., May 20-22 to "Speak the Truth About Poverty."

Not only was it Pentecost, it was also the beginning of the crucial Senate debate on the reauthorization of welfare reform—historic legislation that will affect the lives of low-income families and their children for years to come. Out of a potential 84 meetings with senators, we were able to set up 83, and many became substantial conversations with senators or their key staff person assigned to welfare reform. A group of national religious leaders had a significant dialogue with a bipartisan group of senators and senior staff, and Call to Renewal is now facilitating a weekly discussion between the Republican and Democratic staff members who are crafting the critical welfare reform legislation.

We told the senators that we too believed in work over welfare, but if single moms are to be successful in work they need real help with childcare support. And unless dead-end jobs are to be the end result of welfare reform, single parents' desire for more education and training must also be supported and generously counted toward "work requirements."

In conversation after conversation, the lawmakers told the faith-based leaders, "We can't do this without you." Perhaps because of that hope for partnership with faith-based initiatives, most of our delegates felt that the Senate listened to their voices about what low-income people really need to succeed. Just to make the point even more credible, many low-income people themselves were among our delegations—people who testified powerfully about how they had escaped from poverty. For the 300 church and organizational leaders who journeyed to the nation's capital at the end of May, it was an inspiring and invigorating time.

BUT FOR ME and many others, the most moving moment in the three days of intense advocacy and witness came at our Tuesday morning prayer breakfast. It was the only prayer breakfast in Washington I can remember that focused on poverty and the biblical imperative to overcome it. Two people were recognized for their work for justice.

Call to Renewal gave its first annual "Joseph Award," created to honor a person of influence who feeds hungry people, to Rep. Tony Hall from Ohio. Tony gave a very personal testimony of how he was changed by his faith in Christ and a trip to Ethiopia where he saw hundreds of people dying every hour. Since then Tony has traveled all over the world to be with hungry people and has committed his life to relieving their suffering. He spoke compellingly about passages in Proverbs where one who serves the poor "honors God" and is said to be actually "lending to God." Hall said, "Can you imagine that?" We honored Tony Hall as a good friend of Call to Renewal, as one who has "lent" so much of his energy, time, and career to God in his service for justice.

The Call's first annual "Amos Award" was created to honor someone from humble beginnings who becomes a prophet for justice. It was presented to Rev. Darren Ferguson. I recalled how I first met Darren at Sing Sing prison, when I was invited to speak to the prisoners there several years ago. When I wrote to ask when they wanted me to come, they wrote back and said, "Well, we're free most nights…we're a pretty captive audience here!" I'll never forget what one of the inmates said the night I arrived at the prison: "We are all from only about five neighborhoods in New York City. It's like a train that begins in my neighborhood. You get on the train when you're 9 or 10 years old, and the train ends up here at Sing Sing." Then he said, "When I get out, I want to go back and stop that train."

Two years later, I met Darren again. He was leading a Call to Renewal town meeting in New York City, back in his old neighborhood—trying to stop that train. Darren Ferguson is now the youth minister at historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem, where he leads amazing work with urban young people and ex-offenders. There wasn't a dry eye at the prayer breakfast as Darren warned us to "be careful" with the lives of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens, for in their future lies our success or failure. Tony and Darren reminded us all of why we do this work, and of who has called us to it.

Jim Wallis is editor-in-chief of Sojourners and convener of Call to Renewal.

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