This problem is even bigger than you think

A priest raped a 7-year-old girl while he was visiting her in the hospital after she’d had her tonsils removed. Another priest forced a 9-year-old boy into having oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water. One boy was forced to say confession to the priest who sexually abused him.”

If those words don’t disturb you, you aren’t paying attention.

A grand jury report released this week in the state of Pennsylvania offered details on more than 300 Roman Catholic priests who victimized over 1,000 children since the 1940s. These statistics do not include the undeterminable number of victims who did not come forward, or whose records of complaint were lost by a church accused of “systematically covering up complaints.” Most of these incidents occurred during years some people nostalgically look back upon as “great.”

The misconduct of Catholic priests is not a new topic. In the 16 years since the Boston Globe unveiled similar patterns of abuse and coverup in the Boston Diocese (a story featured in the excellent film Spotlight), pedophile priests have become a disturbing meme. Equally familiar is the sense that church leadership failed not only in the moment, but that the failure is ongoing as the institution lumbers forward under a cloud, with defensive acts of contrition serving as an ill-fitting replacement for much needed transparency.

More constructively, in 2002 the Catholic Bishops in the United States adopted a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” which implemented needed reforms to safeguard those in their care and to correct some of the patterns of concealment. Absent transparency and contrition from every level of the church, these actions were seen by some as too little, much too late.

While the Catholic Church reluctantly absorbs the spotlight in this area, no church is truly off the hook. The many stories of ministerial misconduct that can be found in news reporting across the country speak to the need for all churches to remain vigilant, adopting practices to safeguard children and other vulnerable persons from abuse and exploitation of all sorts.

Many mainline denominations and some non-denominational churches adopted their own safe church practiceswith renewed vigor after Roman Catholicism’s first public shaming. In some cases, these church bodies were reacting to their own incidents of clergy (and staff) misconduct; in other instances, they were acting proactively to minimize the possibility of some harm being done. Sadly, to this day many churches believe themselves somehow immune to any potential problem, buying into faulty lines of thought like “but we know everyone here.”

While it may be easy for church goers to believe that these new (old) problems in Pennsylvania bear little resemblance to the church they attend, the impact of these headlines is both cumulative and distributed; meaning each continues to erode the reputations of the Church (universal) and religious figures of all sorts, and that to many the sectarian divides we recognize matter little.

Movements like #MeToo remind us that such problems are not limited to vulnerable children, nor to the church. Wherever power imbalances exist, there is the possibility of harm especially in situations where thoughtful protocols and practices have not yet replaced the defaults of good ol’ boynetworking and personal influence. Those traditions that have blessed themselves with an openness to the gifts and callings of female clergy may find themselves doubly blessed in that while women can be sex offenders too, they are far less likely than men to offend and their presence can disrupt good ol’ boy networks.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14)

The Church has received a difficult charge from Jesus, one made more complicated by our reluctance to break with old patterns and truly repent of past misdeeds. Regaining the necessary institutional trust to call the next generation of disciples forward will take a continued and concerted effort from Christians of all stripes.

So please be disturbed by this latest story of Catholicism’s colossal failure. Be angry too, for its impact first on the vulnerable and then upon us all. Just don’t be complacent.

 

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