Many Catholics in the United States felt in the opening years of the millennium that we had stared down our inner-demons. The uproar over the sexual abuse of children by members of the clergy was justified, even if justice was never truly served. Consider the fate of Cardinal Law. He was ejected from his leadership role in the Archdiocese of Boston and lived out his final days in Rome, where he reportedly had an outsized influence over the governance of the Church. After all, he had nothing to do but go to meetings and lend his suggestions.
Sadly, the moral courage and leadership among the Bishops in the United States was largely absent from these past two decades. While they confronted abuse by priests, they conveniently sidestepped any equally grave matter, the accountability of the bishops. Perhaps they were just overwhelmed with it all, or their focus gave them tunnel vision. The unfortunate result of this oversight is now we’re in a second phase of scandal, surrounding the same abhorrent evil.
This is a societal issue, yes, but it is also a very Catholic issue. We aren’t grappling with it as the American Church, but as the universal Church. Pope Francis rightly wants to apply a universal standard of justice so that all of these cases, no matter from what corner of the globe them emanate, are dealt with in the same manner. The problem is, his track record is checkered, even as recently as two episode this year. Theodore McCarrick was defrocked, but he refused the resignation of Cardinal Philippe Barbarin
who was convicted in French criminal courts. Pope Francis is rightly concerned about a mob-mentality, but he cannot seem to balance the rights of the accused with the demands of justice.
Perhaps what is most confusing in all of this are the moral judgements made by clerics in position of authority. While I hesitate to apply my 2019 worldview to decisions made in the past, it is eminently clear that the sexual abuse of a minor is a criminal act of the most serious degree. It has never been acceptable and it never will be. Allegations must be fully reviewed and, if there is a guilty verdict at the end of due process, justice must be meted out to the fullest extend of the law. Should the statutes of limitations have expired, then canon law must step in to fill that void. If there is no remedy or relief under codes of law or conduct, the priest or bishop must be permanently removed from ministry. This is not hard.
We’ve suffered under the flippant approach that Pope Francis has taken since the first days of his pontificate. In recent days, Pope Benedict XVI, with the permission of Pope Francis, published an essay
in which he comments on the crisis. In his essay, he blamed the sexual revolution and an overemphasis on the rights of the accused.
There are many causes and factors that lead a predator to abuse a child. The sexual revolution and the era of relaxed morality is counted among them. Predators are mentally disturbed individuals who manipulate those around them for their own ends. They move from victim to victim and only stop when they’re removed from society and jailed. There’s no cure for this type of mental illness, and by their actions, they have relinquished their rights to live in civil society.
Pope Benedict raises a very good point in his article, we are placing too much emphasis on the rights of the accused. There needs to be due process to filter out baseless claims; the presumption of innocence must be maintained. The criminal courts need to be given first rights of refusal on any accusation before canonical tribunals are allowed to conduct an investigation. Throughtout this process, out of an abundance of caution and with a profound sense of humility, the priest or bishop needs to be removed from public ministry. Once the process is concluded, if an allegation is proven to be without merit, the cleric should be immediately restored to office with a public acknowledgement of his innocence. If, however, the process concludes with a substantiated claim or guilty verdict, they must be immediately and irreversibly dismissed from the priesthood.
My view is not shared globally. However, in a matter as serious and potentially destructive as this, there can be no safe quarter in the clerical state for the very wolves we were warned against. They must be caught, uprooted, brought to justice. Only then, if they so choose, through the ministry of the Church, can they be reconciled to God.