The absolute wrong response to sex abuse

Every day brings another headline on the sex abuse crisis unfolding in Europe and echoing again stateside. And every time the hierarchy is responding in the absolute worst way possible.

Consider this from Archbishop Timothy Dolan's Palm Sunday homily, according to the New York Post: The pope is suffering "the same unjust accusations, shouts of the mob and scourging at the pillar" and is "now being daily crowned with thorns by groundless innuendo." Dolan goes on to credit the pope with the progress the U.S. church has made on its own crisis–credit that should be going to the National Lay Review Board, which struggled mightily, at times against the bishops' opposition, to enforce compliance with the Dallas Charter. (You can read our January 2005 interview with Justice Anne Burke, who once chaired the review board, for some background.)

The Vatican's defense in its conduct in the case of a Milwaukee priest who abused between 100 and 200 children is no more helpful, in effect amounting to an argument that the Holy See didn't know about the case until long after the abuse took place. And a homily by the preacher of the papal household, Raniero Cantalamessa, ends up sounding almost deranged in its narcissistic lamentation about "the present moment of serious hardship we priests of the Catholic Church are experiencing."

It is clear that a form of defensive insanity has gripped some in the Vatican, and it is making matters worse. There is nothing more heinous than the sexual abuse and rape of children, and both civil law especially imposes harsh punishment on perpetrators. U.S. states keep registries listing the address of convicted sex offenders; there are no second chances. Indeed the violation of a child is among the few "unforgiveable sins" in the secular world. Any "defense," any shading of the truth, any appeal to the complexities of church law, only make the hierarchy look even guiltier. Any failure of leadership of this magnitude in most other institutions would have meant meant immediate dismissal, if not prosecution. Yet the sociopathic Milwaukee abuser managed to avoid canonical trial late in his life by begging to be allowed to live out his days in "the diginity of my priesthood."

It is clear the Vatican does not understand that this scandal could well destroy the credibility of the Roman Catholic hierarchy for a generation. The Holy See absolutely must come clean in every way possible and instruct dioceses to do the same by canonical force if necessary. The pope, after all, enjoys universal jurisdiction in dioceses and can require bishops' compliance by law. (There are still four U.S. dioceses and eparchies that have refused to comply with the Dallas Charter.) The pope must accept or demand the resignation of bishops and other church officials that failed to report a perpetrator. And it must do so quickly, before this pope or his office is permanently damaged (if he is not already) and while they still have a chance to get ahead of this crisis.

What the pope and other bishops absolutely cannot do is "clarify," "defend," or blame the messenger (the media) for this crisis. The church may have enemies, but if it does, this scandal has handed them the mother of all weapons of mass destruction. The only way to defuse it is to come clean: repent, confess, accept the requirements of justice, and begin to at least try to make amends.  

About the author

Bryan Cones

Bryan Cones is a writer living in Chicago.