Given all this history and the current sexual scandals we find ourselves, how could the Catholic Church possibly be the “One, True, Church”? The effects of these scandals will also continue to rock us for the foreseeable future. First of course is the toll taken on the innocent victims devastated by the crimes committed against them by clergy. As we now know, some Catholic bishops, who were in authority over these men dismissed their behavior and took the pretext about how they were “just following the advice of mental-health professionals” of the time when re-assigning them into parish ministry, even in parishes with schools and contact with children.
There is no earthly way to undo the damage done to the victims of these scandals. The goodwill, respect and trust that had been extended towards the Catholic Church in the 20th Century has largely evaporated, making an increasingly cynical and hostile attitude towards the Church by outsiders and confusion from those who have remained faithful. I and many of my brother priests have been shocked, embarrassed and discouraged at having to answer for the damage done by the “Judas priests” who have betrayed their vows and the trust given to them so horribly.
How could the Catholic Church possibly be the “One, True, Church”? That is a question we need to look at closely if we can ever hope to move forward appropriately, both for ourselves and to those who challenge us. Acknowledging the tragic reality of scandals in the Catholic Church is the only appropriate first step towards providing an adequate response: showing that, in spite of these scandals, there remains a solid and compelling reason why people should be Catholic. Because – in spite of the scandals – the Catholic Church has the answer to all of life’s most urgent problems and challenges. The very fact that we are all justifiably shocked and horrified by the terrible things done by Catholics shows exactly what happens when Catholic teachings, in particular her moral teachings, are ignored and rejected, especially by clergy, given the fact that we have been in some sense been called to a higher and stricter standard of behavior.
That’s a first step, where does it go from there? The answer, frankly, is quite basic: we must remember that – in some form or another –the answer to the many problems in life is the gospel, the “Good News”, of Jesus Christ. Not in the sometimes overly simplistic sense that many of our separated brothers and sisters in Christ see it, and certainly not the way “prosperity Gospel” proponents preach it. Teaching, preaching and living the gospel message of Jesus Christ is the Catholic Church’s response to the world’s easy and shallow attempts to living a life immersed in pleasure, power and pride: what the Bible refers to as “the world, the flesh and the devil.” The Catholic Church is the ark of salvation because the head of the Church is Christ, not its sinful members. And speaking of boats, listen to Mark chapter 4:
A violent squall came up and waves were breaking over the boat, so that it was already filling up. Jesus was in the stern, asleep on a cushion. They woke him and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up, rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Quiet! Be still!”* The wind ceased and there was great calm. Then he asked them, “Why are you terrified? Do you not yet have faith?” They were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this whom even wind and sea obey?”
There have been and, sadly, there will continue to be times when it appears that Jesus is asleep as the wind and waves of life appear and toss the ark of the Church so violently that it seems it will capsize and sink. We must have faith in Christ and in his promises to be with the Church always, no matter what, no matter how misguided and malicious some of the members of the Church may be. Let’s listen this time to Matthew chapter 13:
Jesus proposed another parable to them. “The kingdom of heaven may be likened to a man who sowed good seed in his field. While everyone was asleep, his enemy came and sowed weeds all through the wheat, and then went off. When the crop grew and bore fruit, the weeds appeared as well. The slaves of the householder came to him and said, ‘Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?’ He answered, ‘An enemy has done this.’ His slaves said to him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’ He replied, ‘No, if you pull up the weeds you might uproot the wheat along with them. Let them grow together until harvest; then at harvest time I will say to the harvesters, “First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles for burning; but gather the wheat into my barn.”’”
Jesus prepared us to realize that uncomfortable and even confusing circumstances would surround the Church, just like a field of wheat which has weeds mixed in it: those Christians who are genuine followers of Jesus and those who just have the appearance. That’s a real challenge: in the parable, Jesus used the word “darnel” for weeds, which look just like wheat. One detail which isn’t known to most non-farmers is that the head of darnel weed stands straight up, kind of like so-called Christians who are proud of their virtue, while real wheat droops slightly, in the way that true humility of followers of the holy One would be.
Scandals are part of the life of the Church not because of its teachings and customs, but because individual Catholics choose to ignore and reject those teachings. Consider celibacy, one that mainstream media seems to be enamored in citing as a root cause for pedophilia. This gift, freely chosen by men for the sake of the Kingdom is not the cause of sexual misbehavior among priests. It is when a priest abandons his commitment, when he turns away from striving for the ideal, that he sins. Although priests are certainly not alone in this atrocity, what causes society to respond so strongly when the perpetrator is a priest is that, as much as outsiders will deny it, society expects Catholics to live up to the high moral standards imposed by Catholic teaching. This makes it all the more shocking when a priest or bishop betrays his solemn promise to be a chaste celibate.
The cause of all scandal – both that within the Church and outside of it – is always traceable to one important starting point: when we say “yes” to serious sin, usually done as the result of a whole string of small compromises and rationalizations with sin. Scandal starts when someone makes a decision to take the easy path – usually one that promises and may even deliver a brief pleasure – with little or no thought to the later consequences to that action. It’s been that way since the beginning, when Satan chose to tempt Adam and Eve in the Garden. And just like that long-ago test of humanity in its original holiness, let’s never forget that, first and foremost, this is a spiritual battle. It drives Satan crazy when we try to be virtuous, because that’s a sure sign that we’re not under his influence, that we’re headed for Heaven. He doesn’t care a whit about us, he only wants to keep us from God, to frustrate God’s plans: Go ahead, eat the fruit of that Tree, you won’t die but you will become like God! A lie our original parents bought at the beginning, a lie that we continue to buy, to our own destruction and to the grave harm of those around us.
Thank God and thank our Savior that, although our first parents said that first “No!” to God and we continue to say “No!” to Him in our own actions, He didn’t then – and He doesn’t now – abandon us. The voice of our conscience, the law “written upon our hearts” as is mentioned in both the Old and New Testaments, warns us against doing things we know deep down are bad and wrong and, after we’ve done them, it makes us of our guilt but then also prods us to repent and turn away from sin. God hardwired us to have basic virtue and to make good moral decisions. But because of our wounded nature, we can’t rely only on ourselves. We need more help and that’s why He gave us the Church. The teachings and most especially the sacraments of the Church repair and restore the damage that we inflict upon ourselves and give us the strength and guidance to avoid further damage in the future.
But we see what happens when some of its members – especially some who should know better – misuse the very instrument that Jesus gave us to continue his work in the world. As tragic as the scandal has been on those who have been victimized as well as to the world in general, its tragedy (and the furthering of Satan's work against the Church) will be most greatly realized in the number of souls who may be lost due to the trust betrayed and the despair that follows. We would do well to start any hope for recovery by praying for them and also for the souls of the shepherds who chose, either in action or by allowing, such action to continue and either have or will stand before God to answer for such deeds.
Just as those responsible will have to stand before God's justice, we have to remember that our actions need to be in justice as well. Sometimes we are so caught up in the hype that, in the passion that our emotions generate, we lose sight of this. For example:
- Following the Pennsylvania grand jury report, several states Attorneys General have announced their own investigations into accusations, and these have made headlines often in the past few weeks. One thing those headlines often fail to say is that accused does not mean convicted. Keep in mind that many of the incidents are accusations that still have the right to due process. Of course, one abuse is one too many but it does not do to assume that all abuse claims are true.
- The majority of abuse cases are decades old; in many cases the accused has died. It may not be possible - or extremely difficult - to determine the facts of such cases and determine how justice can be humanly determined. Of course, this does not preclude making investigation where possible; however, it does at least admit where it may not be possible.
- Just about every news article I've seen implies that the Catholic Church has done nothing to prevent this problem from recurring. Anyone involved in Church ministry - priests, staff and volunteers, most of you here today - know that the Church has implemented and continually monitors the VIRTUS and background screening programs to both identify individuals unsuited for ministry as well as how to identify when a situation of abuse might be occurring. Far from doing little or nothing to prevent abuse, the Church has created methods of combating this disease that has become a model for other organizations - religious and otherwise - to follow.
- The conclusion - whether implied or outright stated in news items - is that a large percentage, possibly even a majority, of clergy are culpable or complicit and are not to be trusted. This is - literally - a damnable lie. If we turn away from our faith leaders, the shepherds who have been called by the Holy Spirit to lead us, despite their human flaws, to the Kingdom of Heaven, we must keep in mind what Peter said to Jesus when so many disciples turned away from Jesus when he told people that they must eat his body and drink his blood (the famous "Bread of Life" discourse from John chapter 6): "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." It would be a mistake - one that may have eternal consequences - to leave Peter because of Judas. While we may come to know some aspects of God through our own reason, we will never get sufficient knowledge of God without His grace and revelation - grace that we receive primarily through the sacraments entrusted by Christ to His ministers, the clergy of the Catholic Church. Please pray for the many bishops, priests and deacons who work tirelessly in guiding those entrusted to them closer to Christ every day.
We are a deeply wounded Church and expect those responsible to be brought to justice. No one is above the call for justice, no matter how high up in the Church leadership they may be; in fact, it is right to hold them to a higher standard and accountability. But also remember that the Church is and always has been, not a museum for saints but a hospital for sinners - and we should thank God that this is so. As we picture those who have perpetrated this atrocity standing before God's throne, let's not forget that we too will do so, maybe not for sins of such grave scandal, but certainly ones that are an offence to God's justice. As we trust in God's mercy for ourselves, let's not be too quick to deny His right to extend mercy to others - God's mercy and justice are in perfect balance, even if ours is not. In the meantime, we should also call for and work for justice balanced by mercy, as imperfect as that work may be, because that's how we are called to do God's work while in this life.
As a priest, I will try to keep in mind the words that Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Minneapolis St. Paul-Minnesota gave in his homily at Mass for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops recent meeting in Baltimore regarding the sexual scandals: “This is our moment to give it our all, to listen attentively to those who are hurt, to listen deeply with discerning ears and hearts to each other as we share the fruits of our prayer, the fruit of our discussion, the fruit of our experience. And to act in a way that convincingly shows our commitment to change.”
That’s what I intend to do as a priest. As a Catholic, as a member with you of the “One, True, Church” even with all its problems and sinful members, I’ll remember that she teaches us the truth that will set us free, even though not every Catholic obeys those teachings. As I mentioned before, the Church throughout her history has been called “the New Ark of salvation” and I think that’s an image that works on many levels; think about that for a moment. Noah’s Ark: a boat full of animals; can you imagine what it must have smelled and sounded like? But at the time of the great Flood, it was also the only safe place on earth for those creatures, from the gentle dove to the powerful and ruthless predators such as lions and tigers. As long as they stayed on board, they were safe. The scandals may be seen as Catholics – priests who committed these atrocities and the bishops who covered them up, those who ignored and disobeyed the Catholic teachings on proper moral behavior, individuals who have given in to despair – who have abandoned ship and have dived overboard. And we see where it gets them. Those who stay onboard the Ark may have to endure cramped, smelly and sometimes frustrating conditions, but they will be saved in the end.