How to confront sex abuse in the Catholic church
In the song Sympathy for the Devil, the Rolling Stones repeat several times, “Pleased to meet you. Hope you guessed my name. But what’s puzzling you is the nature of my game.”
In essence, the Stones are talking about the nature of evil and our relation to it. We see it but we often don’t know what to call it. What’s most confusing is that we don’t understand it.
When we call evil by name and gain an understanding of it, we can deal with it effectively. This, in essence, is the power of truth.
One of the most horrific crimes against humanity was the Holocaust. Genocide had been happening for thousands of years, yet until the last century we didn’t have a name for it and we never studied it. When Germany lost the Second World War, its horrors were laid bare for all the world to see. We asked ourselves what had happened, why it happened, how it happened and how it could be prevented.
We gave a name to this crime and we found the answers to our questions. Scholars have dissected what it looks like and Genocide Watch has even outlined its 10 stages. We’ve come to know that this crime against humanity is not unique to the Nazis, it’s a global problem. With this information we, the people of the world, have a fighting chance in gaining understanding, healing our world and preventing future mass atrocities. It won’t be easy but it can be done.
In a similar way, crimes of sexual abuse have come to light in recent decades. Just as with genocide, we’re confused about how and why this happened and continues to happen. At the core of this atrocity is the Catholic church.
Few Catholics haven’t been impacted by these crimes. Our hearts go out to the victims, knowing how vulnerable we all were growing up in this church. Like many Catholics today, I’m most angered by the lies and coverup from those in positions of authority.
In many ways, we’re standing like the world did in 1945, before the gates of Dachau and Auschwitz. We say, “Never again,” yet struggle to make it a reality. Where do we begin?
We’ve been here before. Genocide and abuse are both evil. Their only difference is in scale. The Nazis created death factories. Abuse occurs primarily among individuals but is much more widespread. Beyond that, the similarities are frightening.
If we’re going to rid the world of this horrendous theft of innocence, we need to approach it the same way we approached the Holocaust. We need to begin by looking at its horrifying face. We need to believe and honour the victims, and we need to listen to their stories. From there, we can gain a better understanding, discover the stages of abuse and comprehend what can be done to heal and protect the vulnerable. Awareness is the key.
This won’t be easy. The problem is widespread. It can be found throughout society, and in many religious and secular institutions. The Catholic church, for one, is notorious for re-assigning abusers to other communities, even to other countries. We’ll discover that these crimes have been going on for thousands of years and that the impact has been devastating.
Those who seek truth are finding some allies in the Catholic church. Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, Penn., for example, has published the names of known abusers in his diocese, as well as church leaders who are guilty of collusion. He has also called for the use of independent investigators in uncovering the truth.
This is only a next step. The Catholic church has lost a great deal of its legitimacy as a voice for justice in the world due to these crimes. To regain its credibility, it must be painfully honest with itself in examining the crimes against humanity for which it’s responsible, and it needs to take a leadership role in the healing process.
As Jesus said, “You will know the Truth, and the Truth will set you free.”