Opinion

Catholic sex abuse crisis calls for reform

John Rossomando Contributor

The priestly sex abuse scandals have established a need for the Catholic Church to thoroughly reform itself from within in order to stop the bleeding and regain the confidence of millions of Catholics worldwide whose faith has been shaken by it. The reforms must be real, concrete and pastoral rather than ones that come across as superficial and insincere.

A letter written by Luigi Mocenigo, the Venetian ambassador to the Vatican, in 1559 could just as easily have been written today amid the current crisis:

“In many countries, obedience to the pope has almost ceased, and matters are becoming so critical that, if God does not interfere, they will soon be desperate . . . Thus the spiritual power of the pope is so straitened that the only remedy is a council summoned by the common consent of all princes. Unless this reduces the affairs of religion to order, a grave calamity is to be feared.”

But the Church’s prestige was restored in that era by the actions of countless holy men and women who lived what they preached and preached what they lived.

The Church needs to show the same sort of courage it showed in the 16th century following the Council of Trent when great saints like Pope St. Pius V, St. Philip Neri, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Charles Borromeo took decisive action to reform the Church and stem the abuses that occasioned the Protestant Reformation.

These saints of the Catholic Reformation strove to squelch moral laxity, abolish clerical ignorance and return the Church to a spirit of holiness and sanctity, and end the ecclesiastical decadence of the Renaissance.

The Church needs people like these to rise up today, and it should look to the example of Opus Dei, which makes personal holiness and sanctity the crux of its mission, as an example for the rest of the Catholic Church. Amid these sex abuse scandals, Opus Dei almost stands alone in the fact none of its over 2,000 priests have been recorded to have been involved in any of these sex abuse scandals.

The bureaucratic response to the sex abuse problem stands in stark contrast to the Church’s mission of holiness and is symptomatic of the same sort of moribund clericalism that made the ground fertile for the Protestant revolt.

This clericalism can be seen in Franciscan Fr. John J. Coughlin Jr.’s, a professor at The University of Notre Dame’s law school, analysis of the scandal in a paper titled: “The Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis an the Spirit of Canon Law.”

He attributes the scandals to the failure of many bishops to follow canon law and to their dereliction of their duty to use the tools at their disposal to confront the crises.

The “crisis has resulted in part from a failure to respect and enforce the relevant provisions of canon law,” Coughlin wrote. The “failure to correct the injustice of clergy sex abuse through the rule of canon law aggravates the injury for all concerned, especially the abused minor.”

A holy Byzantine Catholic priest friend of mine who started his priestly life in a northeastern Roman Catholic archdiocese in 1970, following Vatican II, says the Church was in absolute chaos and the discipline that had artificially held the Church together prior to the council had completely dissolved.

Pedophilia by itself, let alone pedophilia among the clergy, was not discussed in the seminaries apart from short insignificant passages in moral theology textbooks during the mid to late ’60s, my friend said. And the sex abuse situation was made worse by the so-called “Spirit of Vatican II” that led many bishops to reject the strictures of the 1917 Code of Canon Law during the period when most sex abuse cases transpired—then in force—along with traditional moral theology.

“Over the course of almost three decades of [canon law] revision, the 1917 Code, although theoretically still the universal law of the Church, fell into general disuse. It was instead in many instances abrogated of post-conciliar innovations,” Coughlin wrote. “…[I]t seems accurate to observe the proper function of law in the Church became unbalanced [following Vatican II]. The legalism of the past was superceded by an openness to the new spirit and perhaps to a tendency to underestimate need for a healthy ecclesial order … and the law was seen as an obstacle to the manifestation of the spirit in the Church.”

Instead of looking to canon law, bishops turned to the latest secular psychiatric fads suggesting pedophiles and pederasts could be cured of their predatory ways, which created the current mess.

The letter of the law in the current 1983 Code of Canon Law and the older 1917 code suggest dismissing priests who engage in sexual acts against minors, but they do not mandate doing so.

This needs to change. Any priest who is convicted of sex abuse in a court of law or upon review by an accompanying ecclesiastical tribunal ought to be automatically defrocked and the vagaries of canon law should be eliminated. Bishops who fail to take action in future sex abuse cases ought to be removed from office as a matter of canon law.

Nothing can make up for the past or the scars borne by the abuse victims, but we can ensure future abuse cases are deterred and are properly dealt with.

Metropolitan Jonah (Paffhausen) of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)—established as part of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1794—offers an example of how the Catholic Church ought to be confronting the sex abuse scandals.

The metropolitan, who was a monk when he took the helm of his church, forcefully denounced his predecessors, Metropolitans Herman and Theodosius, for their corrupt expropriation of the church’s funds and bankrupted one of its seminaries. Church officials also made an effort to cover up their tracks.

As a result, the OCA leadership found itself discredited in the minds of its faithful, and it turned to then-Bishop Jonah due to his forceful denunciation of the scandal and pledge to renew his church. The metropolitan regained the confidence of the faithful because he took ownership of the corruption and pledged reform—emphasizing the bishops’ roles as pastors and representatives of Christ.

Pope Benedict XVI and his brother Catholic bishops need to do the same and enact reforms to canon law making it easier to defrock pedophile priests; ensuring a more transparent handling of these cases; and making it easier to depose bishops who fail to take action against these crimes.

Although the pope has “full, supreme and universal power over the Church” as Vatican I and II taught, he cannot unilaterally regain the trust of alienated Catholics. He needs the cooperation of all of the world’s Catholic bishops to more fully affect meaningful reforms due to how the Church has become discredited in the minds of so many.

To achieve this, the pope should call a meeting of all of the Catholic bishops of the world to similar to the one Pope John Paul II held in 1985 that resulted in the creation of “The Catechism of the Catholic Church” to enact the sorts of reforms that will resolve these scandals once and for all.

The reforms should remind the bishops and the faithful alike of their shared pastoral mission not only to preach the Catholic faith, but to also live it in their daily lives.

John Rossomando is a journalist whose work has been featured in numerous publications such as CNSNews.com, Newsmax and Crisis Magazine. He also served as senior managing editor of The Bulletin, a 100,000-circulation daily newspaper in Philadelphia and received the Pennsylvania Associated Press Managing Editors first-place award in 2008 for his reporting.