Looking ahead from ‘sin’


By Frank Wessling

The news media in this country took notice when Pope Benedict XVI seemed to link the clergy sex abuse scandal to sin within the Church.

The pope spoke to reporters May 11 while flying from Rome to Portugal to visit the Marian shrine at Fatima, where three children reported visions of the Virgin Mary in 1917. The heavenly message at that time was that the Church would see a time of trial requiring penance. A reporter wanted to know: would the sex abuse crisis fit in that message?

The pope agreed that it could. “Among the new things that we can discover today in this message is that attacks on the pope and the Church come not only from the outside,” he said, “but the suffering of the Church comes from inside the Church, from sins that exist inside the Church.”

Up to now, the attempts by bishops and Vatican officials to speak about the scandal have generally been treated coolly, as self-serving, too defensive and half-hearted, in some way not serious enough. Spokesmen for victim groups were usually given equal space and time in the news to complain that whatever was said was inadequate.


In contrast, Benedict’s forthright admission of “sin … inside the Church” was allowed to stand as sufficient news. Reporters and editors in the secular media could tell when the right words came from the right source and they respected it. They didn’t need to know that the pope’s language was a dent in the tradition of never saying that “sin” could belong to “the Church.” In the past we only said that while the “members” of the Church could sin, the Church itself, identified with the holiness of Christ, could not.

After he acknowledged that “the biggest persecution of the Church doesn’t come from enemies outside but is born from sin inside the Church,” Benedict went on to declare a need for deep internal reform:

And so the Church has a profound need to relearn penance, to accept purification, to learn on the one hand forgiveness but also the necessity of justice. And forgiveness does not substitute for justice. We have to relearn these essentials: conversion, prayer, penance.

In the context of the sexual abuse scandal it’s clear that such relearning applies to the institution of the Church as well as the membership. For specific examples of some needed relearning we might begin with thoughts on “the painful path of renewal” from the Archbishop of Dublin, Ireland, Diarmuid Martin.

He told the people of Dublin that he sees “a crisis of faith” in Ireland and traces its root to a system of Catholic education that fails to “evangelize” young people. Their heads may be well catechized after Catholic schooling, but their hearts are primarily secular. And this happens largely because parents don’t have a clear priority of Catholic formation for their children — along with a good education.

The deeper problem, as seen by Archbishop Martin, is “the level of understanding of the message of Jesus Christ,” suggesting that most Catholics have not really had a deep encounter with the Jesus of Scripture because we don’t pray and meditate with the Scriptures enough. As a result, we don’t see ourselves as the mystical body of Christ sharing together in responsibility for its life in the Church here and now.

Finally, Archbishop Martin declares that “The narrow culture of clericalism has to be eliminated.” He said he plans to change seminary training in Dublin so that future priests will share some of their formation with lay pastoral workers “in order to create a better culture of collaborative ministry.”

The last point may be key. When a sense of shared responsibility comes alive across the Church and meets ministers trained to work in collaboration, good things will happen. Some of this is already happening in spots. We need more of it — more of the direction pointed out by the Second Vatican Council and followed so far with too little commitment and energy.

It may help us focus on the future if we realize how much the clergy sex abuse phenomenon is yesterday’s problem for the Church. News stories tend to make it seem current, but that is far from true. In fact, today one of the safest places for an American child is in the care of people who work in the name of the Catholic Church.

Between the years 2005 and 2009 there were between 250,000 and 340,000 cases of sexual abuse reported across the United States — reporting standards are not uniform. In those same years, 12 cases occurred in all Catholic jurisdictions. More precise numbers are available for the year 2008 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Its Child Maltreatment report for that year had 60,749 sexual abuse perpetrators, most of them family members, neighbors, friends, boyfriends or girlfriends.

Sexual abuse is a horrible problem that remains a challenge for the nation. The challenge for the Church and all Catholics is to focus on our constant mission to know and follow Jesus together. Turning in that direction allows the compassionate love of God to flourish.

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