Lessons from the Scandal

It’s probably premature to think the latest furor over clergy sex abuse has begun to subside, but by no means is it too soon to draw some useful, troubling conclusions from what has happened so far. Here are three.

First, the coverup of abuse in years past has done and continues to do enormous harm. Are there more time bombs ticking away in ecclesiastical files one place or another waiting to explode?

Explain until you’re blue in the face that time and again these horrible things happened years, indeed decades, ago: if the coverup has continued until now, people will be furious just the same—and they’ll blame those in charge now for what happened back then.

Many Church leaders have yet to grasp that the culture of secrecy has to go. Here and there that seems to be sinking in, but it’s slow going. Until it’s universally recognized that the ordinary presumption in Church affairs should favor openness, with secrecy reserved for cases of real necessity, there’s more trouble ahead.

The second conclusion is that Pope Benedict has been very shabbily treated during this latest go-round.

His record—as archbishop of Munich, prefect of the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, and now as pope—needs no apologies. Indeed, in the last decade especially he’s shown courage and foresight in his handling of the abuse crisis.

But you’d never know that from the critics. They accuse Benedict of mishandling two abuse cases in particular.

In one, the vicar general of the Munich archdiocese, without informing Cardinal Ratzinger, assigned an abuser-priest who was receiving psychiatric treatment to parish work. In the other, involving a Milwaukee priest, the former judicial vicar of the archdiocese says the trial of this elderly, dying man was terminated — and the man died — three years before jurisdiction over such cases was transferred to Cardinal Ratzinger’s Vatican congregation.

That’s all. Efforts to use these incidents to indict the Pope would be laughable if the matter weren’t so serious.

Benedict didn’t get a lot of help from his Vatican colleagues in the early days of this dustup. The Vatican appeared to have been caught flat-footed, and it responded clumsily or by clamming up. Here’s a fresh reminder that the Holy See needs someone skilled in hands-on crisis management. That isn’t the Pope’s job, and it’s obvious that no one else is doing the job now.

The third conclusion is that elements of the media abandoned elementary standards of fairness in this episode. It’s hard not to think that happened because they sensed a fresh opportunity to strike a blow at the Church — indeed, at the Pope himself.

If not, then what really did pass through the minds of people in the newsrooms of major outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post to account for various  bizarre editorial decisions lately?

Thus, in one pre-Easter incident, when the official papal preacher, a man with no policy role at the Holy See, haplessly likened the campaign against the Vatican to “collective violence” against the Jews, these and other news organizations leaped on the remark screaming “Gotcha!” even though they routinely ignore everything else this individual says.

But merely blaming the media, however blameworthy they may be, doesn’t help. We learned that to our sorrow when the scandal erupted in the United States eight years ago. In the end, it’s the culture of secrecy that makes the Church vulnerable to unfair coverage and commentary. And for the persistence of secrecy we have ourselves to blame.

Russell Shaw


Russell Shaw is a freelance writer from Washington, D.C. You can email him at RShaw10290@aol.com.

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  • The worst fall-out from the ongoing crisis is the grave damage to the bishops’ moral credibility. Pull up any article on health care, for example, and you’ll see comments to the effect that all Catholic bishops are either pedophiles themselves or are covering up for priests who are. So why then should anybody listen when they make a moral statement about anything? This aspect of the crisis is what’s making people reject the teaching authority of the Catholic Church, and it’s the most damaging aspect by far because people’s souls are at stake.

    Personally, I don’t know where to begin to repair the damage. Maybe it’s our own witness as lay Catholics that the world needs. We are all, by virtue of our Baptism and Confirmation, called to engage the world. Maybe increased engagement on our part is some of the good that will come out of this mess.

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  • goral

    I just called the house democrats in my state of CT and left a message for them to get out of the church’s face and deal with the fiscal morass that they’ve created.

    What’s my point? Well the state refuses to take seriously their responsibility in driving this overtaxed state to financial shambles. Yet there is now a bill –
    HR 5473 that wants to extend the statute of limitations for sex abuse cases in the church, past the thirty year limit.

    I’ll leave the reason for this to the clairvoyants. My clairvoyance is in the area of the Church paying homage to the state or the media – forget it Mr. Shaw, no amount of transparency would satisfy these vicious dump dogs. They are not interested in justice or the truth anymore than are the Oprah or Donahue shows.

    They are lustful voyeurists who’s only quest is money, popularity and a perverted sense of fairness. The Church owes this self-righteous pack of hyenas about as much as Christ owed the Pharisees.
    There is a reason why the media is not in on the Conclaves, the Holy Spirit doesn’t want them there.
    As Americans of the 21 century we feel that when the mother knows some lurid details about one child then she must tell them to the other children. No, the mother wants to protect both children and in the interest of controlling scandal she keeps private matters private.
    While we now see that some of these private matters were not handled properly by the bishops; to conclude that making these matters public would have been the proper response is to have a shockingly distorted perception of reality.
    The state is not the guarantor of our welfare and the media is not the repository of truth.

    Hence my opening paragraph. I found out about the bill in church this morning not from the media.