Catholic sex scandal

Posted September 15, 2009
Fr. Richard McBrien:
. . . it is a relatively new development that the pope appoints all the bishops in the Roman Catholic church.
For most of the history of the church, especially during the First Christian Millennium, the selection of bishops rested with the clergy and laity of each diocese, in keeping with Pope Leo the Great's dictum, "He who is to preside over all must be elected by all."

“Today's common practice in which bishops move up a career ladder from a smaller diocese to a larger diocese, and from bishop to archbishop, was explicitly prohibited by the Council of Nicaea in 325 and again by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. A reform movement in the 11th century tried unsuccessfully to restore the ancient practice where the clergy and laity as well as the neighboring bishops played a key part in the selection process.
This is “consent of the governed,” a principle of democracy.

In today’s Church, suppression is tightening instead of loosening. When the Vatican announced it would study women religious congregations in the U.S., many saw it as unnecessary and potentially divisive. Members of the on-site teams who engage in the study “must be willing to make a public profession of faith and take an oath of fidelity to the Apostolic See.”

This smells more like dictatorship.

Vatican II stepped in the direction of democracy by calling for collegiality or governance from a wide base instead of top-down. The pope was to be a bishop among bishops, not their boss. For a model in the spirit of Vatican II, a shift from top-down to consensus-style governance, we can look to American religious sisters. Ironically, THEY are the ones the Vatican is investigating, not the clergy who perpetrated the sex abuse!

Perhaps sisters can adapt the counsel given in a novel about nineteenth century China. In Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See depicts the compliant response and participation of women in the system cruelly oppressing them. Their only value lay in giving birth to sons. Yet, the narrator’s mother-in-law, in the one phrase of the entire novel that attributes any autonomy to a woman, describes a wife’s duty as “Obey, obey, obey, then do what you want.” This is good counsel for women religious anticipating a Vatican visit.

For decades the hierarchy of the Catholic Church systematically covered up sex abuse perpetrated by members of its clergy. Bishops protected priests who molested children and raped women, and later they punished victims for telling the truth about thousands of priest criminals. Bernard Law, Archbishop of Boston, resigned because documents revealed his extensive cover-up in his archdiocese.
Did the Vatican call him to account? NO. Pope John Paul II brought him to Rome and appointed him to posts there, effectively nullifying any possibility that Bernard Law would face legal consequences for his crimes.

Meanwhile, Catholic religious sisters were nursing, teaching, listening to the friendless, giving solace to the bereft, offering spiritual nourishment to seekers, organizing financial and food assistance for the needy, contributing significantly to biblical and theological research.
And who is facing interrogation by the Vatican? The priests and bishops guilty of crimes and throwing dioceses into financial catastrophe as a result? NO. The sisters.

Why? The Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith is carrying out a “doctrinal assessment” of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, citing three areas of concern:
1) ordination (women prohibited),
2) the primacy of the Catholic Church (we’re better than all the rest),
3) and homosexuality (it’s “disordered”).
Unsaid but implied is that religious sisters demonstrate independent judgment on these issues, discomfiting the hierarchy. How to whip them into shape? Interrogate them.

The stated purpose of the papal investigation of women religious is to examine the quality of religious life. But the women will not be permitted to see the results. Why the secrecy?

Writing in the National Catholic Reporter, Sister Sandra Schneiders stated that it appears
not as an invitation to respectful and fruitful dialogue and ongoing improvement of their lives but as an unwarranted surprise attack.
The current “Apostolic Visitation” . . . is the ecclesiastical analogue of a grand jury indictment, set in motion when there is reasonable suspicion . . . of serious abuse or wrong-doing of some kind . . .

There are currently several situations in the U.S. church that would justify such an investigation (widespread child sexual abuse by clerics, episcopal cover-ups of such abuse, long term sexual liaisons by people vowed to celibacy, embezzlement of church funds, cult-like practices in some church groups) but women religious are not significantly implicated in any of these.

[Features of the investigation] are problematic or repugnant to intelligent, educated, adult women in western society . . . a process that is hardly comprehensible to people not living in a totalitarian political system.
Honestly and courageously stated.

NCR was reporting incidents of sex abuse decades before the scandal erupted in the secular press. And it stoutly criticizes the Vatican for investigating religious women who “have spoken up against personal and institutional injustices” [when its own hierarchy] “has tolerated abuse of children and the rape of women religious by priests, and has protected the perpetrators of such deeds.” It editorializes that we in the church
still tolerate an exclusively male monarchy that operates by its own rules, believes itself accountable to virtually no one, understanding that it can act against groups and individuals with impunity and in secret.
Honestly and courageously stated.

May 15, 2010
These are some liberating results I see coming out of the sex scandal:
• Growing dissatisfaction with repressive governance in the Catholic Church.
• Growing respect for nuns and their growing self-respect, ironically given a boost by the Vatican investigating them.
• Defiance of the ban by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI against even discussing women’s ordination. Not only is the issue hotly discussed, Roman Catholic women priests exist.
• Growing diversity of Catholic identity with beliefs ranging from mystical to progressive to reactionary literalist, theologians dissenting from Vatican positions, married priests, a referral service for married priests to perform sacraments.

I hope for another result—more courage to listen to the quiet voice within and to resist outside authorities mouthing conventional formulas of belief. I hope for growing awareness that religious authority is fallible, for more questioning of its teachings, for burgeoning resistance to doctrinal conditioning. I hope for deepening awareness so that Christians can evolve past literal belief in an external deity—a god or gods outside of us—to the divinity within the breast of every person.

I urge Catholics to leap over the wall of fear confining them to past assumptions and to lead all Christians in growing up and growing inward.


Kathleen said…
Yes, there is more hope for Catholics to realize we are the Church, not the men in dresses. Christ came to us as one of the common people, not as someone superior to others.

As a result of being fed up with the sex scandals, discrimination against nuns and unnecessary rules imposed upon us by the male hierarchy, we are beginning to realize these men really do not represent the message of Jesus but are primarily promoting and protecting the institution they created.

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