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A moral challenge for all Catholics
By James Carroll, 3/2/2004

FOR CATHOLICS, the second shoe has fallen. The first fell two years ago when The Boston Globe laid bare the bishops' protection of abusive priests. The second fell last week with reports of the National Review Board that indicated the real scope of the Catholic failure.

The nightmare was even worse than we thought. From the church's own numbers (and therefore, if anything, undercounted), we know that more than 10,000 minors were violated. We know that more than 4,000 priests committed the crimes, more than 4 percent of all priests who served. And though the reports ignore this, we know that the vast majority of bishops protected the priests instead of the children.

Catholics cannot hear this news the way other people do. For us the devastation and anger involve also a measure of personal remorse. It is not only that our entire church stands indicted -- from its system of authority to its clerical culture to its tradition of secrecy to it basic teachings about morality -- but also that each of us has reason to feel implicated. I am not talking about a generalized corporate guilt here, nor do I mean to take away from the particular responsibility of individual perpetrators. But this massive failure could not have happened if we the church had not enabled it.

We Catholics are close to our priests. We depend on them for intimate expressions of the deepest human emotions, from birth to marriage to illness to death. They give us our daily bread -- or weekly or monthly -- in the Eucharist. We tell them our secrets and ask forgiveness. Yet for 50 years -- the period of the studies just released -- we have been turning a blind eye toward the pervasive corruption that infected the priesthood. Good priests have been turning a blind eye toward the pathologies of some of their colleagues and toward the refusal of bishops to deal with those pathologies. It is true that we did not "know," but the scale of the criminal behavior suggests now that we should have known.

When we cooperated in the climate of dishonesty that pollutes the church's teachings about sex, not making an issue, for example, of the absurd birth control prohibition, we were shoring up, in Garry Wills's phrase, the "structures of deceit" on which abusive priests depended. When we declined to hold bishops accountable for their excessively autocratic exercise of authority in small matters (forbidding girls from serving at Mass) and large (closing parish schools without consultation), we supported the power system that bishops were protecting in protecting abusers. When we failed to make an issue of the unjust discrimination against women embodied in the male-only priesthood, we were part of what allowed patriarchal clericalism to reach its present state of calcified corruption. When we passively accepted the hierarchy's refusal to implement the Vatican II reforms aimed at empowering the laity, we gave the abusive priests a place to hide and their sponsoring bishops a way to keep them hidden.

This history puts a moral challenge before Catholics. Having participated in much of what led to the church's past failure, will we enable a future failure? The dreadful reports have been issued. The settlements with victims have been mostly arrived at. The apologies have been made. "The terrible history recorded here today," Bishop Wilton Gregory said last week, "is history."

If anyone presumes to ask about the sources of the abuse scandal, bishops talk vaguely about homosexuals, an obsessive media, or even the permissive 1960s. They baldly assert that celibacy has nothing to do with the priesthood's problems, and as for women, the bishops remind us that the second-place status of females was set by Jesus. That question is still closed. Meanwhile, on subjects ranging from gay marriage to the closings of parishes, bishops have resumed their old autocratic habit of giving orders from on high. In all of this the bishops show every sign not only of wanting a return to "normal" but of thinking it is possible.

But what if "normal" is the problem? Are Catholics going to enable this refusal to deal with the church's real crisis? Are Catholics going to pretend that deep questions of moral teaching, lay empowerment, homophobia, and sexism have not been raised? Are Catholics actually going to allow the avoidance of consequences by the particular bishops who enabled abusers to continue their crime sprees?

We Catholics assure one another and the world that across 50 years we did not see what was happening in so many rectories and in so many church-sponsored youth activities. But we can no longer claim such moral blindness. The corruptions of our church have been made plain. Not surprisingly, the corrupt leadership shows no sign of wanting to deal with those corruptions. The issue now squarely belongs to the Catholic people. What are we going to do?

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

© Copyright 2004 Globe Newspaper Company.

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