This week the Catholic Church was hit hard by a damning grand jury report out of Pennsylvania. In fact, damning may be putting it lightly. The report stated that over a period of 70 years around 300 priests sexually abused more than 1,000 children. That number could be higher as victims’ records could have been lost or the victims were too afraid to come forward. Most of those guilty will not be charged as they have either died or because the statute of limitations has expired.
A New York Times article on the matter lists just some of the cases which include a young girl who was raped by a priest in a hospital after having her tonsils removed, a victim who was whipped with leather straps by a priest, and a priest who was allowed to stay on after impregnating a young girl and arranging for her to have an abortion. The Church’s response to all of this was to go into full-scale cover up mode.
Now the Catholic Church is going to be fighting uphill to survive as a credible institution in America. As a Protestant, perhaps I am not the best to diagnose the Church’s problems, but some things are true of organizations whether it be the Church or a college football team.
One of the defining differences between the Catholic Church and Protestant churches is its power structure and bureaucracy. The Church, at its core is so different from any other organization. The Pope, cardinals, bishops, priests, and others are merely men. They may wear fancy robes or have gone to Seminary, but they are no more less prone to sin than the rest of us. The corruption of the Church is what led to the Reformation and now in a more pluralistic society it could lead to a mass exodus from the Church.
The Church went into full-scale CYA mode to prevent the wide scale accusations of sexual abuse from coming out because it wanted to protect not the Gospel, not the mission, but itself. Like any bureaucracy, it circled the wagons. As a Protestant, one of the things I have respected most about the Catholic Church is its unwillingness to change doctrine, even if I do not necessarily agree with it theologically, just to appeal to a slightly wider audience. The problem is this same rigidness is what came back to bite them in Pennsylvania where they seemed to have confused conflated the Church’s reputation with theological and Biblical teachings.
The Church bureaucracy may have an important mission, but the mission is more important than the bureaucracy. In Pennsylvania, this was forgotten. Power does a lot to man’s mental condition and when you add the aspect of divine power and divine bureaucracy, it is not hard to see why these priests developed an attitude that led them to believe they could get away with anything, including child rape.
Priests and bishops are not immune to the corrupting influence of power nor is the Church immune to the idea that the bureaucracy exists to protect the bureaucracy
The Catholic Church now has a decision to make. They can either come out and be fully transparent about what happened, beg for forgiveness, and provide concrete steps they are taking to address the situation and to ensure it does not happen again or they can say that even those who serve in the Church need the saving grace of Christ too. That He, not Pope Francis, not the Church, and certainly not those who have abused their authority, is the one that is to be served and that guarantees salvation.
The Church could also issue a few statements condemning the behavior of a few bad apples and hope the whole situation blows over and will be replaced in our 24 hour news cycle where we do not even remember what happened last week.
The great Catholic theologian and philosopher Saint Augustine of Hippo was one of the early brains behind the theory of free will. The Church freely chose evil when it chose to cover up evil acts by those it placed in positions of authority. It now faces another choice, one in which the future of the Catholic Church as a credible entity rests.