Four Incomplete Ways of Reforming the Church

In the paragraphs below, four Daily Theology contributors respond individually to the question:  “As a theologian, what church reform do you think is necessary to address the systemic enabling of sexual abuse in the Catholic church?”  Their opinions do not necessarily reflect those of the Daily Theology’s editors or other contributors.

Rachel Weeps
“Rachel Weeps,” Artist Unidentified

Brian Flanagan:  Liturgies of Repentance and Lamentation 

We need to liturgically lament, confess, repent, and remember. Obviously this is not enough, and the structural reforms that Amanda and Steve point to below, as well as other possible systemic reforms and justice proceedings, are necessary. But in addition to those reforms, we need to assemble as church and lament, confess, repent, and remember. I’ve chosen these words carefully, so let me go through them.

The most important word is “we.” The temptation will be to individualize guilt, to blame it on a certain bishop, a certain priest, a certain parish worker who looked away. And it’s definitely true that certain individuals have much, much more to answer for, both spiritually and legally. This is not a plea to let their Eminences and Excellencies off the hook. But if we fall into the temptation of demonizing them, of scapegoating them in a way that excommunicates them in our hearts, then we’re going to ignore two things: first, the way in which our inaction, our failure to rise up long before now, small as it is, is still a participation in their far worse actions; and second, even if we were perfectly innocent, we are connected to them and responsible for them as our brothers in Christ, taking the model of Christ who, without sin, emptied himself to get caught up in our messy lot. The time will come for individual guilt to be assessed and individual justice to be served. But we also need to repent as a “we” that is an anti-communion of sinners as much as a communion of saints.

Lament is a longstanding liturgical tradition, but more often used by the powerless and the broken than the powerful and the mighty. (How often do you hear Psalm 79, “How long, Lord? Will you be angry forever?” outside of Lent?) By lamenting with our sisters and brothers who have been attacked, and with the families further wounded in the ripple-effect of abuse, we can come down from our perch of detachment and make their pain, pain that has been silenced for so long, loud and heard. We need to listen to the voices of those who have been injured, and lament with them that we allowed this to happen to them.

Confession of sin and repentance are next. We need clear, unambiguous confession of guilt – not “some sinned,” not “some members of the church who strayed,” not “on behalf of our sinful brothers,” but “we have sinned, through our fault, through our fault, through our most grievous fault.” Only by facing up to the reality of a church that sins – as individuals, as bishops and clergy, and as a community – before God, ourselves, and a watching world, will we have the ability to truly repent in our reforms and actions for change moving forward.

All of this must be led by our bishops, in sackcloth and ashes, literally. Statements and verbal apologies, while good, are not the same as the ritual actions of lament, confession, and repentance. We as church – as bishops, as clergy, as baptized Christian faithful – need to kneel together before God and the world and demonstrate our repentance with our bodies as with our words.

And then we must remember this moment. Johann Baptist Metz talks about the “dangerous memory” of Christ’s death, and links it to all of the dangerous memories of innocent suffering throughout history. By keeping the memory of these children we allowed to be attacked alive in our midst, through some sort of regular liturgical commemoration, we might keep this memory a thorn in the church’s side to prevent us from getting too proud, a stone in our shoes to keep us from feeling too comfortable with ourselves or confusing the fullness of the Reign of God with the stumbling of the pilgrim church.

I propose that starting this December 28, Catholics expand our commemoration of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod, to include those children abused in our church. We have time for appropriate prayers to be composed – with the collaboration of victims of abuse and their families – and forms of communal confession to be worked out. But the joy of our Christmas season should be tempered, this year and for years to come, by the dangerous memory of how unChristian we have been and can yet be.

Resources for further thought:

Bradford Hinze, “Ecclesial Impasse: What Can we Learn from Our Laments?” Theological Studies 72 (2011): 470-495.

Karl Rahner, “The Church of Sinners” Theological Investigations VI (New York: Seabury, 1974), 253-269.

Jeremy Bergen, Ecclesial Repentance: The Churches Confront Their Sinful Past (New York: Bloomsbury, 2011).

Brian Flanagan, Stumbling in Holiness: Ecclesial Sin and Sanctity (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2018).

Baptism of the Holy Spirit by Rebecca Brogan
“Baptism of the Holy Spirit,” Rebecca Brogan

Amanda Osheim:  Reforming Episcopal Spirituality and Diocesan Structures

Augustine, Bishop of Hippo, confessed in a homily, “When I am frightened by what I am to you, then I am consoled by what I am with you. To you I am the bishop, and with you I am a Christian. The first is an office, the second a grace; the first a danger, the second salvation.  One of the effects of clericalism, a root cause of covering up abuse and obstructing the pursuit of justice for victims, is the separation of the church’s hierarchy from the laity in such a way that clergy are tempted to forget that the baptism they share with the laity is the sacramental ground for their vocation and ministry.  Episcopal spiritualities and diocesan structures must be reformed to reshape bishops’ relationship to the Christian faithful in their local churches.

Talk of “spiritualities” and “structures” may appear abstract, but it has to do with the day to day way bishops minister, and whether through their ministry they are shaped by the faithful of their local church.  Spiritualities include prayer, engaging in self and communal examination, dialogue, and taking action. In A Ministry of Discernment: The Bishop and the Sense of the Faithful, I argued these spiritual practices should aim at creating personal and ministerial habits of humility and vulnerability, so the bishop may develop his capacity to learn authentically from the laity.  The bishop’s docility to the Holy Spirit’s presence throughout the people of God, and in particular to victims of abuse, is necessary to overcome the us/them of clericalism, to be in genuine solidarity with the abused, and to bear prophetic witness to suffering.  Without this willingness to learn, and the conversion learning entails, the bishop cannot genuinely be a symbol of the local church’s faith because he cannot testify personally to the wounds of its people, who are the body of Christ. In order to address the systemic nature of clericalism, spiritual practices that foster discernment with and learning from the lay faithful must be taught and cultivated from seminary onward.  Through formation and mentoring, these practices can become a constitutive part of the clergy’s way of understanding themselves and their ministry in the church.

Diocesan structures shape the bishop’s ministry as well, and must become pathways of encounter that support the bishop’s spirituality of learning from and discerning with the people of God.  These structures must also hold him accountable. By “structures” I mean how the diocese as an institution is organized in order to fulfill its mission through councils, committees, synods, visitations, and advisors.   Genuine, honest, frequent, ongoing, and canonically required prayer and shared discernment with laity should characterize diocesan structures. Those participating in these structures should represent the diversity of the local church, and have the opportunity to learn practices of discernment themselves.  In addition, the church’s preferential option for the poor and vulnerable means abuse survivors ought to have their voices counted as essential for determining how structures are constructed and function. Should they desire it, survivors should also have ongoing opportunities to participate in these structures.

Reforming diocesan structures will require that canon law more fully cohere with an ecclesiology of the people of God and their baptismal vocation to be priests, prophets, and kings.  For example, in canon law, no diocesan structure currently exists for the lay people of the local church to hold their bishop accountable for ministerial integrity; there is not even an ecclesial structure for members of the local church to express their opinions directly to the bishop, as Lumen Gentium 37 indicates there ought to be.  Further, canon law recommends, but does not require, the existence of diocesan pastoral councils.  Influenced by some postconciliar, magisterial documents, canon law views these councils as a means of implementing the bishop’s pastoral plan rather than as a site of his learning and discernment.  Transforming the purpose of these councils and creating new structures is necessary for the ongoing reform of episcopal ministry.  

Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth
Chartres Cathedral Labyrinth

Stephen Okey:  Provincial Investigations

The recent revelations about priestly sexual abuse and ensuing cover-up by bishops and other church leaders in six dioceses in Pennsylvania came out in a report from a grand jury investigation.  The investigation began in 2016 and lasted nearly two years. The report, slightly redacted and released because the Pennsylvania Supreme Court commanded it, includes allegations against 301 “predator priests” and numerous, detailed, sordid examples of how leaders in those dioceses did what they could to hide and undermine allegations while moving and protecting the priests in question.

When I discuss the priestly sexual abuse scandal from the early 2000s with students, I emphasize the point that there had been public knowledge of priests who sexually abused children since at least the 1980s.  This has been shocking enough on its own, but the cover up and the complicity of bishops in protecting vicious priests and the church’s reputation at the expense of the safety and well-being of the rest of the Body of Christ (especially children), is what was most truly shocking.  These kinds of cover-ups have led to ongoing demands for greater transparency and accountability in the Catholic Church, calls that have been rightly renewed in the wake of the McCarrick and Pennsylvania revelations.

As a result, I think that each province of the US Catholic Church needs to undertake a comparable investigation of its own history of clerical sex abuse, including who participated in covering up allegations, who moved priests around, the financial costs of settlements, and so forth.  For the USCCB, there are 32 provinces in the United States. A province includes an archdiocese (e.g. Philadelphia) and a group of dioceses that are nearby (e.g. Pittsburgh, Allentown, Erie, etc.), and they tend to conform roughly to state or regional lines (all of Pennsylvania is in one province).  Doing investigations at the province level marks a good compromise between how unwieldy and long a national investigation would be and the diffuseness of a diocese-by-diocese investigation.

There are two key things needed to do an investigation well.  First, significant lay involvement makes it far less likely that individual bishops would be able to oppose or undermine such an investigation.  It would also help to build some confidence within the US Catholic Church, confidence that has been eroded over twenty years of cover-ups. Moreover, many of the individuals with skills in legal, psychological, and forensic research that would be needed (and as Bishop Barron called for in an investigation of McCarrick) would be lay people.  

Second, an investigation ought to be independent.  This is tied into the need for laity, but it would be best for investigative firms or agencies that are not directly tied to the church to do the investigative work.  After the McCarrick allegations came to light, some younger Catholics called for “an independent investigation of who knew what and when” to uncover how McCarrick was able to rise so high in the church.  As the Pennsylvania grand jury report has unfortunately shown us, we need such independent investigations even more broadly.

The models for how such investigations might proceed vary.  It is of course possible that there will be more grand jury investigations into various dioceses, in advance of potential criminal and civil actions.  However valuable these might be, they would not be the result of the Church proactively seeking to identify and bring to light its own failings. An alternative approach might be something like the 9/11 Commission, which sought to fully investigate the multitude of factors leading the attacks and making recommendations for further action.  Given the political character of that attack, a balanced group of half Republicans and half Democrats led the investigation (in addition to the support staff). Were something like this set up, having half or more of the team be members of the laity would be important for establishing trust in the process and for limiting the temptations of clericalism.  

Another alternative would be something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions that have been set up in other countries following civil wars.  These have typically focused on past activities and sins, seeking to bring to light what happened and to reconcile those who must then live together in the same country.  The strength of such an approach is that it can actively give a voice to those who have been abused and who want to bring their stories to light. Moreover, in the Catholic practice of reconciliation and confession, an honest facing of one’s sin is important in the process of true repentance.  This aspect of TRC would especially be helpful in dealing with crimes perpetrated by and against people who have since died, which would almost certainly happen in provincial investigations (and already happened in the Pennsylvania report).  While there may no longer be victims or accusers in such cases, the pain of abuse is still corporate and the church could begin healing by encountering together, in public forums, the pain and abuse of the past.

In dealing with recent crimes, however, TRCs have sometimes been criticized for allowing perpetrators to “get away with it,” given that they often include immunity for past crimes and tend to focus more on moving forward than on punishing past crimes. TRCs in the Catholic Church would almost certainly not be able to grant any such legal immunity from crimes committed in the US.

Investigating and making public its own failures to live up to its Gospel mission is a necessary step for rebuilding the lost trust and moral authority of the US Catholic Church.  Doing so through independent investigations, staffed and led predominantly by the laity, would be a powerful move towards genuine repentance by the Church.

Paul Wadsworth, Pilgrimage 2017
“Pilgrimage,” Paul Wadsworth

Lorraine Cuddeback-Gedeon:  Empowering Laity through Sexual Violence Education

One of the most frustrating elements of both the PA grand jury report (and all the many investigations into sexual abuse that have preceded it, both in the US and around the globe) is the feeling that laypersons have very limited roads by which they may pursue the change they desire. While actions such as the open letter calling for the bishops’ resignations can make the desire of the laity clearly articulated and known, it is ultimately up to the bishops themselves to heed the cry of their flock. So I respond to this frustration and the question of this post by asking what we the laity can do, right now, to protect others from abuse.

Many education programs around sexual violence tend to (understandably) emphasize prevention of violence; unfortunately, that ends up placing the burden of protection on potential victims. But victims are not always in the position to know when they are in danger (and this is especially true given that abusers are often people that the victim and the victim’s community trust). Moreover, people who experience sexual abuse and violence often find themselves revictimized when they turn to a community for support and find none. This is a part of the moral injury done by this abuse crisis that cannot be ignored: not merely the spectacular failure of the bishops, but how parents, teachers, and friends all failed to protect victims, whether by disbelieving their disclosures, engaging in victim-blaming, or offering inadequate emotional support. This calls us to examine our own internalized expectations and stereotypes around sexual violence, about what makes a “good” (re: credible) victim, or why there is a longstanding inclination to focus on the damage done to an abuser’s reputation or career instead of the person he (and in other circumstances, she) harmed.

My proposal, especially for teachers of theology, is to sensitively, but boldly face this crisis in the classroom. Speaking from my own position as a university professor, I have gone through required workplace harassment training, and I know I am a mandatory reporter. My current institution also requires incoming students to go through online training on sexual violence and harassment. These are all good steps, but it cannot stop there. As theological educators, we want to form the character of our students, and that can only occur over time. We need ongoing discussions with students about the myths around sexual violence and abuse. We can educate them about the impact of trauma on persons and communities. We can offer guidance on how to support victims, whether in receiving a disclosure of abuse or accompanying someone through a reporting process. And of course: know the reporting processes at our educational institutions. Catholic universities are often sites where laypersons can and do have a voice, and can prompt reform if needed.

For further resources, I would suggest The FaithTrust Institute, founded by Marie M. Fortune, who wrote a groundbreaking book on clergy abuse, Sexual Violence: The Unmentionable Sin. They have a range of educational materials. For some, it may seem that discussing this abuse crisis is beyond the topic of your course. I want to offer a challenge to that: this crisis touches so much of our faith, from ethics, to lying and truth-telling, to ecclesiology, to sacraments, to even the very relationship of the church to the secular world and authorities. Its long, shameful roots reach far back into the history of our church. Whatever topic you are teaching this year, attend to this. It will be on students’ hearts and minds, and we need to honor that.