Lessons from the new


By Frank Wessling

At least one group of Catholics is not thinking about the sex abuse scandal affecting the church with new vigor lately. The newly baptized and the thousands of candidates received into the church at Easter through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) have been focused on fundamentals of our faith, not the weakness and sins of its human caretakers.

For the most part, these Catholics are protected from scandal by their excitement over a new sense of wholeness in their lives; by gratitude for places in a community rich with possibilities for all of their best and deepest desires.

They are fresh from an experience with Jesus teaching them to wash the feet of fellow travelers, and by serving the needs of others to carry out the love that identifies them as friends of God.

They may still feel the deep newness of life, the healing, the fresh start gained through the sacrament of reconciliation.


They feel themselves as true church, part of the gathered body of Christ which expresses humanity rising as it looks for the way of love, the way of God, in every experience, good and bad.

They are this way because the priest they know best is Jesus, not the poor ordained men who couldn’t control a sick impulse. They are like those first Christians described in the Acts of the Apostles, living as beacons of light for everyone around. The rest of us can take lessons from them.

The new revelations of clergy sexually abusing children in Europe haven’t added anything to what we already knew about this problem. It’s a rerun of the story that surfaced in this country over 30 years ago and exploded in the past decade: a few priests in many places over decades or more sexually abused thousands of children, most of them boys in early adolescence. Bishops, concerned about scandal, kept such incidents quiet and, taking advice from psychologists, sent the priests to places where a cure was expected and then frequently reassigned them to ministry.

Everyone now knows what a tragic mistake that was.

If there is a way to summarize the problem for the church it might be in the phrase clerical culture. In any organization a cocoon of self-preservation will tend to grow around the people who manage and control it. The leaders and officers see themselves as the people who guarantee cohesion and continuity in the enterprise, and thus they have a right to special privilege that goes along with their special responsibility. It happens in business, in the military, in clubs of all kinds, and it happens with clergy in the church.

Every priest and bishop knows very well the instruction by Jesus to be servants rather than lords. But none of them, none of us, knows how to perfectly carry out that instruction despite the greatest desire to do so. It seems to be part of our pilgrimage in history to work out solutions as we go, responding to crises with renewed attention to the humble way of Jesus and trying to learn from our latest mistakes.

As we do that again this time, the attitude of those new Catholics is a useful guide. Focus on the fundamentals of our faith, on the Gospel, on the kingdom preached by Jesus, not so much on command and control. A table of organization and manual of operation is necessary because we are human, but it is not primary. Attention to the way of Jesus is.

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