by Ed Mechmann
Our beloved Church is going through a terrible trial now. Past sins of sexual abuse are again being revealed, compounded at times by indifference, inaction, and even complicity by people in leadership positions. Victims of sexual abuse are opening up their old wounds, sharing the pain and anguish that in many cases has haunted them for their entire lives. This is all happening in a culture that has grown very hostile to religious faith, particularly orthodox Christian beliefs about sexuality, and is rejoicing in our woes.
The response to this scandal from some loyal Catholics has been to deny the problem and put the blame on the biased media, ambitious politicians, or greedy plaintiffs lawyers. Some even suggest that most of the allegations of sexual abuse are false and motivated by money. But this is just denial of a horrible reality. Even though only a very small number of priests are accused, a very high percentage of the allegations are substantiated, the number of deliberately false complaints is tiny, and the complaints we know about may even understate the full extent of the horror — experts say that the vast majority of victims of sexual abuse never report what happened to them to the authorities. It also fails to appreciate the wickedness of the sins that have been committed, and the devastating consequences for the victims and their families. And it fails to recognize all the steps we have taken to protect children now and in the future.
Certainly the Church must be prudent and fair in responding to allegations. Priests are presumed to be innocent until sufficient evidence proves otherwise by way of a fair process. The innocent must be exonerated and the guilty must be removed. Full cooperation with law enforcement is non-negotiable. The patrimony of the Church cannot be squandered. Corporate cultures need to guarantee absolutely no tolerance for any kind of abuse at all, no special treatment for anyone, and an unalterable commitment to protecting children and giving justice to victims.
Those are all the pragmatic things that can be done by any organization. But the Church is not just any organization, and that’s what makes this crisis so agonizing. In the face of so much terrible sin, it’s not good enough to reply with pragmatism and legal procedures alone. Too many loyal Catholics are questioning their commitment to the Church, and even their faith itself. The stakes are too high.
I actually believe that the Church is the Bride of Christ, purified by Christ’s blood “that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). I believe that under the protection of the Holy Spirit, although the Church is filled with sinners like myself, she herself is indefectible, meaning that she will never become so morally corrupt that she will fail to preserve the true faith handed to her by Christ himself. The Lord Himself guaranteed this: “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).
I also believe firmly that the sins and failings of a small number of our priests and bishops is no reason to leave the Church. Remember the incident when so many other disciples were walking away from Jesus, appalled that he would call Himself the Bread of Life and demand that they eat His flesh? When the Lord asked St. Peter what he was going to do, our first bishop and pope replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life” (Jn 6:68).
Truly, where are we going to go? Where else can we find the Body of Christ present in the Eucharist? Where else can we receive the forgiveness of our sins in the confessional? Where will our restless hearts find rest, except in God as revealed to us through his Church? I can’t decide to leave just because of the lack of virtue of some of her ministers, any more than anyone would do so because of mine. The grace of God flows through the Church and her ministers, regardless of anyone’s personal virtues.
This is a time of trial, which means that it is also a time of purification. The people of God have gone through this hundreds of times before, from the days of the ancient patriarchs. God is constantly cleansing His people, sometimes by allowing them to suffer the dire consequences of their sins. Just read any of the prophets, or the history books of the Old Testament, to see how that works. It isn’t any more pretty than what we’re going through. There have always been bad actors and egregious sins that need to be rooted out.
So if God has decided that every sin of sexual abuse, cover-up, and negligence by her ministers is to be paid back by passing His Church under this humiliating harrow, then what can we say but that “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether” (Psalm 19:9 KJV).
But I also believe that the Holy Spirit is active in this time of trial, purifying the Bride of Christ and burning away the taint of sin. This is a hard time, but we can take some comfort in the consolation of the Spirit, for as we pray in the Pentecost Sequence:
Where you are not, we have naught,
Nothing good in deed or thought,
Nothing free from taint of ill.
Heal our wounds, our strength renew;
On our dryness pour your dew;
Wash the stains of guilt away:
Bend the stubborn heart and will;
Melt the frozen, warm the chill;
Guide the steps that go astray.
On the faithful, who adore
And confess you, evermore
In your sevenfold gift descend;
Give them virtue’s sure reward;
Give them your salvation, Lord;
Give them joys that never end.