The other day a priest I know, wearing his roman collar, was walking down the street in Manhattan. A mother and her toddler child were heading in the opposite direction. When she saw my friend, she grabbed her child’s hand and pulled him close, away from the approaching priest. It was a nearly automatic reaction, he told me. Not hard to understand at all, a sign of the times even, but certainly demoralizing.
Clergy sex abuse has been in the news for weeks now. All over the nation, bishops have been removing priests (and most recently themselves) from ministry on account of past accusations.
There have been denunciations, calls for Cardinal Law’s resignation in Boston, demands that priests be removed, accusations (and evidence) of secrecy, complex legal maneuvering, requests from the pews that priests and bishops NOT be removed. The Catholic Church in the U.S. is going to spend the next few months sorting all this out.
If it feels a lot like dying, maybe it should.
I’m not sure exactly what our church needs to do to work this out. I do know from personal experience that there isn’t enough accountability in the life of a priest, and I know that the culture of the Catholic Church rarely wants to deal with sex or sexuality in any kind of detailed way. I know that sin is always with us.
Whatever the leadership decides, and whatever we as an entire church decide, it’s going to feel like dying. People feel betrayed, stereotypes abound, collections are shrinking, families feel frightened, church officials don’t know what to do. No one’s image of the church is ever going to be the same. Some may even lose their faith in God over this; that would be the saddest outcome of all.
Deep in my Catholic soul there is a crucifix and a man still dies upon it. And then He rises, and everything is different. But the dying takes time, and it is bitter and hard.
For those of us in the church dying will mean resignations and removals, accusations and betrayals, vigilance and having to rethink once again how the whole thing should work. For bishops and offenders there will be lawsuits, jail time, and bankruptcy. For everyone there will be disillusionment. There will also be, eventually, forgiveness and the wisdom won from suffering.
I believe Jesus warned us it would be like this.