Can the Catholic Church Overcome Its Sex Abuse Scandals?

September 1, 2018

American Catholics, and anyone else taking seriously the role of religion and faith in American society, are now processing an intense level of disillusionment, frustration and anger. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s 884-page grand jury report on the sexual abuse of more than 1,000 youth by as many as 300 Catholic clergy is so troubling that it is difficult to find appropriate words to describe it. The document does not have new material for those who have followed the clergy abuse situation in the Catholic Church since it first emerged in Louisiana in 1985. But, the Shapiro report strings together decades of lurid details on how priests identified, “groomed” and marked the most vulnerable youth; and it provides a stream of nauseating descriptions of sexual abuse over more than 70-years. What is more difficult is the revelation of a “playbook for concealing the truth” used by some Catholic leaders to hide abusive clerical behaviors from the public, as well as strategies for recirculating the perpetrators into other congregations, institutions, or regions of the nation. Collectively, the report offers a narrative that is overwhelmingly dark in its inclusiveness.

Sadly, the situation in Pennsylvania is even worse. The grand jury’s findings include only six of the eight dioceses (or Catholic geographical regions) in the state, a fact missed by most news reports. The Archdiocese of Philadelphia and Diocese of Altoona-Johnstown, which are home to 1,598,000 of the state’s 3.2 million Catholics, are not included in this latest chapter in the scandal. Those two dioceses issued their own reports in 2011 and 2016, and their investigations raise the total number of youth impacted considerably, while bringing the number of sexual predators (more than 37 in Philadelphia, and at least 50 in Altoona-Johnstown) to nearly 400! It is worthy of note that only two of the 300-plus priests identified by the grand jury in Pennsylvania have been engaged in reprehensible behaviors over the past ten years. Most of this report is old news.

But, as if the Catholic Church could not look worse, in late July reports started circulating about a history of serial abuse of young seminarians by former Archbishop Theodore McCarrick, who led the Archdiocese of Washington DC from 2001-2006. Although it appears that some prominently placed church leaders knew about these behaviors, Pope St. John Paul II still made McCarrick a Cardinal in 2001, giving him, among other things, voting rights for future popes. Amidst this revelation, a former high-ranking Vatican diplomat, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, someone who does not like the current pontiff of the Catholic Church, accused Pope Francis in a blistering 7,000-word letter of knowing about this abusive behavior and ignoring it. And, while this occurred, other stories started circulating from scandals in Chile and Honduras. 

The Man Who Took On Pope Francis: The Story Behind the Viganò Letter


Good Lord! What is the proper response to something so horrendous that it seems like a cross between Mafia corruption case and a reality television show? What is a Catholic to think and do? A Christian? A person of any faith? Any person of good will? Is there a way for a leader in the Catholic community or anywhere else to meaningfully respond to three decades of abuse and cover up and promises of action that have proven woefully inadequate?

Some Catholic bishops are writing private or public letters to their clergy and congregants, mostly expressing shame and guilt, the church’s need for repentance and renewed vigilance in protecting the safety of youth and all people who are vulnerable. These letters remind readers that the church has instituted safeguards for children, but needs to follow them more rigorously. The Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People is an aggressive series of policies instituted by the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB) in 2002 and revised in 2005, 2011, and 2018. Meanwhile, Pope Francis released the first papal letter on clerical sexual abuse that is addressed to the entire global Catholic community, rather than just one nation or region struggling with the issue. He, too, admits the failures of the church to protect its most vulnerable members in graphic terms and invites “the entire … People of God to a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting … (a practice designed to) “awaken our conscience and arouse our solidarity and commitment to a culture of care that says ‘never again’ to every form of abuse.” (The Pope references Mark 9:29, a biblical verse in which Jesus tells his disciples that some evil is so entrenched that only prayer can drive it out.) Other leaders with more traditional Catholic orientations have tried to tie the issues of abuse, harassment and cover-ups to their own personal theological agendas, trying for instance, to tie the sexual abuse of young people and episcopal cover-ups to other issues like homosexuality, or alleging a lax theological orientation toward sin in the church that began after Vatican II.

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ of the Diocese of Madison

Quite a few of the people responding to the Pennsylvania report remind readers that there are collateral casualties in the abuse scandal: the tarnished reputations of the majority of good, hard-working priests. This is certainly true. A 2004 Catholic Church-commissioned study of the sex abuse crisis through the John Jay College of Criminal Justice found that 4,127 priests between 1960 and 2002 had been accused of conducting sexual abuse allegations. This constitutes 4.3% of the 94,607 priests serving in ministry over that time period (although the number can vacillate between 4% and 6% based on the region).

I have heard several priests express their agony about the recurring revelations of abuse, particularly their feelings of powerlessness in becoming active agents of institutional change. As one priest friend told me: “I know I should do something, but I don’t know what. My position doesn’t allow me to oversee large organizational changes. I can preach about the situation, but when stories keep coming out, how do I assure my community that somebody in the church is making permanent changes? Sometimes I think I feel as helpless and angry as everyone else.”

My friend’s conflicted feelings are common. But, priests are not the only employees of the Catholic Church who are struggling with a sense of their own powerlessness to effect change. Many people working for Catholic institutions have these reactions, and we are talking about a lot of people. According to the Center on Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University, there are 17,722 lay ministers working in the American Catholic church, mostly in congregations and diocesan offices, and an estimated 153,289 professional faculty and staff, almost 75% women, employed in Catholic schools. Tens of thousands more are employed in the 260 Catholic institutions of higher learning, and more than 500,000 full-time and 250,000 part-time employees work in the nation’s 600 Catholic hospitals and 1,600 long-term care and health facilities. Another tens of thousands are employed in Catholic social service organizations, an estimated 60,000 alone in Catholic Charities, the largest private social service agency in the nation.

The majority of these employees have made personal sacrifices to work in Catholic institutions. They have received lower pay and fewer benefits, and have labored longer hours with less job security than other lines of work. Many embraced this sacrifice for themselves and their families because they had been touched by the Catholic Church’s Gospel values, the church’s sacramental worldview, the power of its ritual and spiritual practices, and the role modeling of Catholic women and men throughout history (many of them priests and nuns) who have worked to create a more just and humane world through unbelievable trials and tribulations. To an even greater degree than priests, nearly all of these employees lack the opportunity, the information, or the authority to effect meaningful change in Catholic Church policy and practice. So, they often feel swallowed in disgust, discouragement and anger, a part of the impact of the sexual scandal that is never explored.

In some respects, there is such a dismal picture of the church and its leadership right now that some wonder if the Pennsylvania report is turning a page on the American Catholic Church. Many lifelong Catholics are asking themselves: “Is it time to leave this church?” I know priests who ask this question rhetorically from the pulpit. They hope to name the elephant in the room for many people disillusioned by constant abuse stories.

Surprisingly, after more than 30 years of the Catholic Church wrestling with sex abuse scandals, the size and scale of the Catholic Church’s activities remains unexpectedly large. Why? Because most Catholics have experienced the church as something much more than clergy sex abuse. It is estimated that 68.5 million Catholics are registered in congregations. There are also 2.5 million children in Catholic elementary and middle schools, 603,384 youth in secondary schools, and 764,448 women and men enrolled in Catholic colleges and universities. There are 2.483 million children and 1.2 million adolescents enrolled in parish religious education programs, and Catholic-affiliated hospitals served 90.6 million patients in 2016. Another 8.4 million Americans received some form of assistance from Catholic Charities, with an estimated worth of $3.124 billion in services.

The Shapiro report will not destroy the Catholic Church. But, it just might catalyze a Reformation-level event, one resulting in the kinds of changes in Catholic self-understanding and practice that occurred after the Protestant Reformation. Several Catholic thought leaders are calling for this sea change in thinking and action, and many of them see Catholic laity as the lead agent. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the archbishop of Galveston-Houston and the president of the United States Catholic Conference of Bishops (USCCB), believes the scandal represents “grave moral failures of judgment on the part of church leaders,” and proposes that the laity assume a substantial role in analyzing the weaknesses in current practices and helping to create a system characterized by more vigilance. James Martin, SJ, a Jesuit priest and probably the most popular Catholic writer in the U.S., wrote a New York Times Op-Ed entitled, “Virtues of Catholic Anger,” and expressed hope that enough people in the pews will channel their outrage at this disturbing report and demand substantive institutional and structural change in leadership and leadership practices. 

The Virtues of Catholic Anger

“Speak to your pastor,” said Martin, “write to your bishop, express your anger to the Vatican’s nuncio in this country. Most of all, work in any way that you can for real change, even at the cost of being seen as a troublemaker.” Sister Simone Campbell, SSS, the executive director of Network, a social action lobby organization founded by Catholic religious women to promote the values of Catholic social justice in American public policy, has spoken about the need for new organizational models of leadership that include the laity, and especially women.

Sister Simone Campbell: Catholic Sex Abuse Stems from “Monarchy” & Exclusion of Women from Power


Other Catholics have moved already to action. More than 5,000 people, including many theologians and religious leaders, signed their names to a petition calling for all US Catholic bishops to prayerfully consider handing in their resignation to Pope Francis as a collective “public act of repentance and lamentation before God and God’s People.” Rita Ferrone suggests that the causes of sex abuse cover-ups are well known. “It arises,” she says, “from a confluence of factors: the insularity of clerical culture, the willingness of clerics to lie to protect one another, and the corrosion of moral integrity when motives of faith and mission give way to concerns about advancement, power, privilege, and maintaining insider status.” What is needed in the Catholic Church is an operational plan for dismantling these dynamics, she says, and creating oversight structures with authority. This will require, in her mind, the renewal of a “humble, Christ-like sense of mission,” a central feature of the Pope’s letter on the abuse crisis.

How to Respond to the McCarrick Scandal

I think these are all important responses, especially if the vast number of employees in Catholic and Catholic-affiliated institutions can become involved. The suggestions are informed by the theory and practice of organizational development and change, grassroots organizing, and evidenced-based strategies for shifting power dynamics. But, after decades of wrestling with this sordid saga, these strategies alone will not force the church to get its house in order. Catholic leaders need to think about these issues differently.

One of the more interesting theories in this regard comes from Mark Silk, who noticed that a common thread in the Pennsylvania report is the frequency with which church leaders decide to leave children at risk in the name of “trying to avoid scandal.” Silk notes that a desire to avoid publicity does not come primarily from a marketing motivation, an attempt to protect the Catholic “brand” from damage. Rather, the incentive originates from a theological orientation that is rooted in the thought of Thomas Aquinas on the spiritual dangers of scandal to the “faithful.” In Silk’s book, Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America, he quotes the Thomistic definition of scandal as “an unrighteous word or deed that occasions the ruin of another. The idea is that sinful activity, if known to others, begets more sin. Part of the work of the devil, the author of sin, is to make it (the sin) known, to scandalize.” This is a theological argument that finds scriptural support in Matthew 18:6, “but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Silk believes that the Catholic Church will never solve the sexual abuse and harassment problem until the church can develop a new “doctrine of scandal,” It is more accurate to speak of the need for a deeper “theology of scandal,” a reflective way of thinking about and articulating the values that guide a Catholic leader’s response to something potentially scandalous. But, I don’t think a new theology of scandal is sufficient. Inadequate theologies have perpetuated this chronic sex abuse situation. The church needs new theologies of gender, sexuality, ordination, authority, ecclesiology (the nature of what a church is and does), and a half dozen other issues. Catholic theologians have been working on the development of such theologies, but they have largely pursued their research agendas without the participation of Catholic clergy, particularly bishops. Like family members who disagree, they have all avoided each other.

If the Catholic Church is ever going to find an exit ramp to the revolving door of sex abuse and harassment scandals, it is going to need an honest, fully engaged conversation that has bishops, theologians and laity, especially the large number of laity working in the church’s many ministries and institutions. If the church can arrange such a conversation, it will have the added challenge that most of the people at the table are going to come angry. But, that’s okay if they can follow Aristotle’s five-fold advice for effective channeling of anger, in his classic work, The Art of Rhetoric. Make sure you are angry with the right people; you are angry in the right degree, and at the right time; and you express the anger in the right way. Catholics can already fulfill the Greek philosopher’s fifth criteria: make sure you are angry for the right purpose.

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