In her reflection in the New York Times, respected Catholic theologian Lisa Sowle Cahill evaluated the nature and the scope of the damage caused by the scandal of priest pedophilia. She said the scandal undermines the aspirations of the church to provide leadership for Catholics and non-Catholics on moral issues like abortion, capital punishment, health care and welfare reform.
She called for increased pressure on the church’s hierarchy in changing not only the attitude toward pedophile priests, but also in subverting “a pervasive authoritarian mentality,” “a culture of control and complacency,” and Vatican expectations that the bishops would “avoid public embarrassment at any cost.”
She called for the Catholic Church to commit “publicly to a more open and collaborative model of governance—including women and lay men at the highest levels,” as well as for changes in canon law “to deal fairly and legally with facts and accusations.” Justice must be restored.
Pedophilia is surely an outrageous violation of the integrity and rights of children and their families. It is true both for the church and the wider society. The Pope has called this sex scandal “the sins of our brothers.” And this phenomenon is not peculiar to U.S. Catholic clergy. Europe, Latin America, Africa and Australia—the worldwide Catholic Church has shared in it too. There are scandals, or hints of scandals, all over the world.
Any person with a democratic vision can hardly disagree with Cahill. Her suggestions flow from perceptions of how any community in a liberal democratic society should operate. Making the Catholic Church more democratic and changing governance structures will probably improve relationships between church members and society at large. But will it solve the problem of abuse? Dare we say that Christian communities with congregational governance lack abuse problems?
Social workers will tell you that child molestation is a widespread secular problem. But why does the crisis of confidence damage the credibility of the church so badly? Why does it have such a devastating effect?
I believe that the violation of a child’s rights (or any human being’s rights) in the church is more than a matter of injustice. The violation of a person’s welfare inside the church is not only the violation of human rights; it also robs people of their eschatological rights—that is, the right of experiencing the divine presence. This is true for any abuse in the church. It explains why relatively few cases of sexual abuse severely impact the church as a whole.
In spite of good intentions and high expectations, both the clergy and laity of the Catholic Church are human. When human drives violate human rights, is the church called to resolve the problem by resorting to criminal courts and liberal justice? Is the church in any way different from society? Can modeling after society’s norms solve problems of religious communities?
Surely a healthy balance is needed between the expectations of society and the integrity of religious tradition. Yet the evil of sexual child abuse in the church cannot be abolished by restoring criminal justice and reforming the structures.
Should not repentance and reconciliation provide a better framework for church members to resolve a crisis in their community, rather than attempts to match the offence to punishment? The process of repentance and reconciliation can be successfully completed only if both sides are included. Thus the church is called to a deeper spiritual maturity and a profound understanding of its mission to society.
As political theorist Michael Walzer explains, any society needs a religious community to feel and experience God’s grace. The question is, how can the grace of God be experienced and lived out by the church and its leadership so that the rest of the world can experience it in turn?
The current scandal in some Catholic communities elicits a cry for Christian communities to better understand the uniqueness of their calling and to renew their faithfulness to their mission.
Parush Parushev is director of applied theology at the International Baptist Theological Seminary in Prague, Czech Republic.