The Church Is Working to Regain Trust

By Rabbi Marc Gellman & Msgr. Thomas Hartman
March 8, 2003

Q. Maybe I missed it, but I haven't read any response in your column to the child abuse scandal in the Catholic church.

I'm confused about the whole affair. I now find it difficult to go to church and give money to a church that seems guilty of cover-ups. I work in a Catholic school, and I'm concerned about its future.

I used to go to a certain Mass because I enjoyed the way the priest said Mass. Suddenly, it was announced that he had to leave because he'd been accused of sexually abusing a child.

What is your position on the scandal? -K., via e-mail

A. When news of the scandal broke, we wrote about our reaction. Since then, the scandal has deepened, so it seems appropriate to again share our common agony.

We encourage anyone who's been abused by a priest, another clergyperson or anyone else, to report what happened to police. Many abuse victims fall prey not only to the pain of the assault but to misplaced guilt about coming forward.

Many assaults on children come not from strangers but from family members or other trusted adults who've used the bond of trust to destroy what the poet Yeats called "the ceremony of innocence." Trust can never be a cover for crime.

We're both frustrated and heartened by the reaction of the church to the scandal. We're deeply saddened that it came to light only because of media scrutiny and not because of what should have been the effective internal procedures of the church.

Nonetheless, we believe that telling the story has proved the abusers were in fact a small minority of priests, and most bishops and cardinals were diligent in protecting their sacred trust and dealing with criminal priests.

This in no way excuses the immoral and illegal cover-ups that protected guilty priests and misled victims for financial purposes.

New procedures instituted by the bishops convince us the church has been chastened by these obscene revelations. We believe the safety of Catholic children is now certain. Time will tell, but we believe the church will prove it deserves the trust some leaders squandered.

The issue of the Voice of the Faithful is problematic both for us and church leaders. On one hand, a democratization of the church might well have prevented such abuses. However, we believe the church hierarchy is both willing and able to clean its own house, with proper legal oversight from secular law enforcement authorities.

The church is not a democracy, nor should it be. Its hierarchical structure has clear weaknesses - but also clear strengths. The church stands for and defends certain truths, and these truths must be protected and preserved.

To use this scandal, as some critics clearly have done, to advance their agendas for changing church teachings about celibacy, abortion, birth control, women in the priesthood or other social reforms, is both an insult to the victims and inauthentic to the way the church has changed in the past and the ways it may yet change. Whatever the merits of these ideas, they must be worked out by theologians, not in the media.

However, we do believe that independent oversight and participation in financial affairs of the church is a legitimate request raised by the Faithful. No essential teaching of the church is violated when parishioners are given the right to see the money they give is wisely spent.

Although you should remain outraged about child abuse, we encourage you to take a broader and more honest and compassionate view of the church. The church that transferred pederasts in Boston is the same church treating lepers in the slums of Calcutta. The church that tried to lawyer its victims into silence is the same church that every day feeds the hungry, clothes the naked and finds shelter for those who sleep in the dust.

Can you say with a full heart the sinning church and not the loving, healing, compassionate church is the true church? We will not join the chorus of those who seek the church's radical transformation or annihilation. We support the full punishment due those who've abused children or knowingly and criminally tried to shield the church from legal, moral and spiritual responsibility.

Patience and faith, repentance and honesty are the only choices for the church. We believe that those choices are being made, and we await with patient and agonized loyalty a brighter day.

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