The Catholic Church is turning to outside arbiters to reckon with its history of sexual abuse. But skeptics argue that its legacy of evasion continues.
“When Pope Francis convened the first-ever Meeting for the Protection of Minors, at the end of February, there were panel discussions, Masses, and testimony from survivors of abuse. The papal audience hall rang with the discourse of “best practices”: the mission and the road map, oversight and ownership. For once, Catholic women were allowed to speak: the Nigerian mother superior Veronica Openibo said that “Spotlight” had brought “tears of sorrow” to her eyes; the Mexican Vatican reporter Valentina Alazraki scolded the hierarchs for having called the abuse crisis a “plot” fomented by the press.
The meeting was heavy on rhetoric and light on specifics. It produced no churchwide norms for the prosecution of abusive priests, and gave no indication of how the Church would reckon with abuse and coverup in its past. In a concluding address, Pope Francis said, “In people’s justified anger, the Church sees the reflection of the wrath of God, betrayed and insulted by these deceitful consecrated persons.”
The language was sonorous but vague. More than any other recent Pope, Francis has found ways to address complex situations in clear human terms. Why hadn’t he done so this time? Perhaps he felt that he had adequately addressed the situation simply by calling the meeting. Other clerics suggested as much: Archbishop Mark Coleridge, of Brisbane, likened the Church’s new grasp of sexual abuse to “a Copernican revolution,” and Father Hans Zollner, a German Jesuit who is the Vatican’s sexual-abuse czar, said that the meeting was “a quantitative and qualitative leap” forward. And yet Father Zollner told me last month that he hadn’t spoken with Francis since the meeting about what Francis thought of the proceedings and how they had affected his outlook.
What would count as a revolution, or, at least, a leap forward? It’s hard to say, given the multifaceted nature of the problem. It is a problem of celibacy and sexual ethics. It is a problem involving a subculture of secrecy surrounding gay men in the priesthood. It is a problem stemming from male institutional power over women and children, such as the power that led priests in France to coerce nuns into having sex with them—part of a wider practice that Francis likened to “sexual slavery.” It is a problem of “clericalism,” as Francis has put it, whereby clergy are elevated, protected, and given the benefit of the doubt. Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova, sees it as a problem akin to those of postwar Europe, and proposes that the Church, although it is “not a Nazi or Fascist regime,” must undergo “something similar to a process of ‘de-Nazification’ and ‘de-Fascistization.’ ” Robert Orsi, a historian of Catholicism at Northwestern, sees it as a premodern problem. He told me, “This has been the Catholic normal since the sixteenth century, a culture of sexual permission, in which priests carve out exceptions—with women, with men, with boys—through the idea that sexual experience in those areas is ‘outside the vow.’ As in, ‘I keep the vow when I’m in my clerical blacks, but not outside.’ ”
Beneath all these problems is a problem of truth. With the Second Vatican Council, the Church accepted the vernacular, and with it modern standards of truth in politics, economics, social science, and the like. But, when it comes to sex, the Church still defines truth its own way. A third of a century of abuse and coverup, of crisis and reform, has made that obvious. People are Catholics because they believe there is truth to the story that the Church tells and has told for a very long time. Nothing is more corrosive to this faith than the drawn-out spectacle of a Church that shrinks from the truth about its own past.
Shortly before the meeting in Rome, the Vatican announced that John Henry Newman would be canonized. Cardinal Newman, who died in 1890, is renowned as a founder of the Oxford Movement for religious reform; as an illustrious convert from Anglicanism; as a stirring homilist; and as the figure who brought the Oratorian tradition—priests living in community in cities without taking vows—from Europe to the English-speaking world. He also was almost certainly gay; at his request, he was buried alongside his “earthly light,” Father Ambrose St. John, whom he called the one great love of his life. But Newman is known above all for his spiritual autobiography, the “Apologia pro Vita Sua,” which he wrote in 1863, in response to a critic’s claim that Newman, because he was a Catholic priest, could not be trusted to tell the truth, for “truth, for its own sake, had never been a virtue with the Roman clergy.” A century and a half later, that critic, not Newman, seems to have been vindicated.
The Oratory Church of St. Boniface, in downtown Brooklyn, has a chapel dedicated to Cardinal Newman, with an oil portrait, a prie-dieu, and a gold-leaf etching of his poem “Lead, Kindly Light.” One Sunday evening not long ago, I locked my bicycle outside the church, climbed the steps, kneeled in front of the portrait of Newman, and prayed to be led to wherever it is I ought to be going. This old church is small and lovely. The clergymen here are intelligent and devoted—good men, as far as I know. The Masses are full of the faithful. And yet this church is haunted by the spectres of priests accused of sexual abuse who served here when it was the faltering St. Boniface parish, and by the anguish of the victims. The Mass began: I tried to focus on the readings, I tried to listen to the priest’s homily, but I wanted to cry out—to say in a few words what happened here.”
- Paul Elie is a senior fellow at Georgetown University’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs. He is the author of “The Life You Save May Be Your Own” and “Reinventing Bach.”