Church Needs a Deeper Accountability

By Rosemary Ruether
The National Catholic Reporter [Berkeley CA]
Downloaded March 21, 2003

There is something about the dominant response of liberal Catholics to the clergy sexual abuse crisis that has bothered me for some time. At the risk of appearing "politically incorrect" I would like to explore this discomfort.

We need to start with what it means to be church. Being church, to me, means being a community of repentance, a place where healing transformation takes place and we are restored to something of what our good humanity and world are meant to be. Church is where we continually rediscover what transforming repentance means in the context of our concrete recognition of how we have distorted our relationships to both ourselves and to one another. It is not a place where we are perfect, where we are saints, but a place where we can acknowledge our distortions in a way that allows us to relax our grip on these distortions and to glimpse and taste that alternative of right relation that is our true nature and goal.

Church then should be a place where truth is spoken. Every church should have a sign over its door saying, "Truth can be spoken here." But unfortunately this is rarely the case. Too often church is where we cover up our defects, pretend to be better than we are, deceive ourselves and others. It is not a place where we are truthful about ourselves and seek help from others with our problems. This need to put on a deceptive front is particularly acute for priests who are the ones especially called to appear to be "perfect."

This is why the revelations of sexual abuse and, even more, its cover-up by bishops was so shocking. It was as if the cover on this whole culture of deceit was blown and we were confronted with the sick side of celibate culture. This surely needed to be exposed. But unfortunately, since bishops refused to deal with the problem when victims and their advocates complained to them, the only way to force a response was by recourse to the secular courts. But secular courts do not deal with the category of sin. They can only deal with two matters, crime and civil damage suits. Thus the way to deal with priest abusers came to be to charge them with crime and to sue the church for civil damages to compensate for emotional and physical injury.

I am not saying that these responses do not have their place. But they fall well short of what we should be doing as church. The church as redemptive community means being a place where both the healing of victims and also the healing of victimizers is promoted. Removing a habitual abuser from priestly office, putting him in therapy, finding a job for him where he has no access to youth are all appropriate. Jail and fines may also have their place.

But expelling him from the community where he will never be seen again by those who know his sins is another question.

Our treatment of priest abusers re-mains sub-Christian so long as it stays on the level of punishment for crime and extraction of monetary payment for compensation for injuries. Indeed the emphasis on civil suits has quickly led to new abuses. Lawyers become involved in such cases for their own profit and people are tempted to make up or fantasize about abuses that did not take place. Witness the accusations against Cardinal Joseph Bernardin.

I do not say this as someone who does not have full sympathy for victims. I have had some experience with sexually abusive priests myself. Rather I am suggesting that we need to go to a deeper level in our response to abusers. They should personally repent to those they have abused. They should also stand before the church and confess their sins, indicating their strong desire to heal themselves and asking for forgiveness. The people should deal with them as they would deal with any other pathological member of their family, like a chronic alcoholic, for example. They should force them to confront their problems. They should keep them from "occasions of sin," a good old Catholic phrase appropriate in this case. They should support their rehabilitation by keeping them connected with the community.

This is what Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee did when the revelations of his own sexual and financial misdeeds were exposed in a way that suggested something less than innocence on the part of the man claimed to have been victimized. But Weakland did not dwell on how he had been taken advantage of. Rather he stood before the community and confessed. He then retired from his job as bishop. He did not leave but rather re-entered his Benedictine community, there to spend the rest of his life dealing with his own soul among those whom he could count on to help him.

This has generally been the response of monastic communities when problems of sexual abuse have been revealed in their midst. They have said: "Yes, we take this person out of jobs where they have access to vulnerable youth. Yes, we put them in counseling. No, we do not throw them out of the community. They are sinners and they are our brothers. It is by remaining with those who know them, who love them, who can help them to amend their lives, that they have some hope of healing their souls." I think this response comes closer to what it means to be church than the discourse we have had so far about clergy sexual abuse and cover-up by bishops, which has dwelt solely on crime, punishment and monetary compensation.

Is it possible to imagine that sexually abusive priests are also hurting humans, that they are still people we love, that we hold out to them the possibility of transforming their lives? Can a deceiving bishop face his hypocrisy? Can he rectify his life, not to try to protect his power and his budget, but to save his soul? These are the questions we need to ask if we are to try to hold each other accountable, not only as citizens, but as fellow Christians. These are not "softer" but deeper standards of accountability.

There are many things we need to think about to become more faithful to Christ as church today. We need to deal with a sick, sexually repressive culture that fosters abuse. We need to deal with a hypocritical, deceitful culture that is rooted in unequal power relations. We need a more democratic church, a more inclusive church, a more just church. But we need to start anew with the basics. We need to start with the affirmation that all of us sinners are also capable of repenting. We are all capable of becoming a little more whole.

Rosemary Ruether is the Carpenter Professor of Feminist Theology at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, Calif.


Any original material on these pages is copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.