In a world much out of joint, to molest a child must remain a crime, an inviolate taboo, an unforgivable sin.
So, where is the Vatican's outrage at the worldwide epidemic of sexual abuse of children perpetrated by its own clergy -- a sin of the very first order, given the defenselessness of the victims and the power and trust invested in the molesting men of God?
The world -- and the molested -- have been waiting, waiting for the Catholic Church's hierarchy to do the right thing in these months of crisis. Sadly, the wait will be longer.
Rather than coming to a ringing and instantaneous defense of defiled children, the Vatican went instantaneously to self-defense -- of itself as an institution -- first asking forgiveness for an unforgivable sin, then shifting blame for clerical sinning to the secular world for its sexual permissiveness, and then, after a barrage of bad press internationally, making itself out as a victim of media bias.
What blasphemy: Only the tightest, most fearful of defensive crouches could cause a putatively moral institution to lose sight of the real victim in this never ending tragedy -- the thousands upon thousands of children, now grown painfully to adults, who had their childhoods desecrated by, of all people, their confessors. In defensive mode, the Vatican has expressed to the molested en masse little in the way of sorrow or even empathy.
And now, finally summoning itself to action, the church in Rome misfires -- badly. Earlier last month Pope Benedict called for the "re-evangelization" of the secular world, establishing a Pontifical Council for just this purpose -- pointing the finger, yet again, away from the church's own internal problems. This, after his promising admission only weeks earlier that the abuse crisis was "truly terrifying" and that the problem was "from sin that exists inside the church."
Then, two weeks ago, adding insult to misogyny and creating a massive diversion from the main point -- the defense of the child -- the Vatican, in an ostensible response to the abuse scandal, made the out-from-nowhere ruling that the ordination of women priests equates to the same "canonical crime" as pedophilia. (As if that overreach against women clergy weren't enough, the medieval sins of apostasy, heresy, and schism were cited too.) As to action on pedophilia -- or less abstractly, child rape -- the Vatican failed to adopt America's zero-tolerance policy, legacy of the scandal here in the '90s.
Astonishingly, this is the Vatican's response after months and months of prayerful meditation over the molestation crisis raging outside its doors?
Or, is it proof that the Catholic Church is covering up for a universe of guilt -- of priests, bishops, popes---and that it has lost its moral compass, the foundational raison d'etre of any church? And that, unable or unwilling to issue a mea culpa, it is now caught in sclerotic bends of its own making? A mea culpa from Benedict for lax oversight -- his and that of his predecessor John Paul -- could go far to heal the abused and the church itself, but the confessors will not confess. Pity; a mea culpa would seem natural to a moral institution.
Not that the secular world is in great moral shape. Some critics, the neo-atheists in
particular, see a zero-sum game in play, claiming that the faltering of the Catholic Church proves the superiority of the secular world. But that's false either-or thinking. Both the Church and the secular world are in moral disarray. For while the secular world has produced many advances -- the emancipation of women being a big one, including, notably, the frocking of women in some Protestant denominations -- the secular world has also blurred the moral line in the culture, the line that gives meaning and value to life, and in so doing has produced... junkier results: the mainstreaming of pornography, for one example.
And for another example, and of bearing here: the sexualization of childhood -- which, at base, is molestation of another kind.
And compounding tragedy upon tragedy: To combat this sexualization of childhood by the secular world, the Catholic Church -- theoretically a powerful moral counterforce -- has, by its own sins, destroyed its own moral authority to do battle, silenced its own voice to speak out, rendered lame its own sword arm.
Meaning: In both worlds -- secular and even in the religious -- the child is left undefended. And the world is left even more out of joint.
The most depressing aspect of this crisis, apart from the pain of the molested, is the fact that, in diocese after diocese after diocese, and the hallowed Vatican itself, the alarm bell failed time after time to go off, a primal revulsion was stifled again and again, in favor of transferring the problem priest or bishop elsewhere. If ever there are grounds to go operatically ballistic, it's the molestation of a child -- think about it, picture it, it is a crime and should be prosecuted as a crime -- and when thousands are violated... the silence is damning. Even from a strictly institutional point of view, it's mystifying how the hierarchy fails to comprehend the institution-destroying threat of that silence, not to mention the impact of criminal trials, as increasing numbers of victims file lawsuits.
Taken together, it's hard not to conclude that another Reformation may be needed in the Catholic Church -- because, as many have observed by now, the defilement of children by clergy is infinitely more significant than the selling of indulgences in exchange for access to God, the proximate cause that moved Martin Luther to protest in the 16th century, leading to the first Reformation and the Protestant breakaway.
Is there another Martin Luther in the ranks?
Certainly the seeds of, if not Reformation, then reform are seen in many quarters. The contents of the highly-regarded National Catholic Reporter, and the lengthy comments threads by clergy and laity, reflect voices pained and angry over the abuse crisis. Its July editorial, "A hierarchy deeply damaged from within," pulls no punches. One can feel true sympathy for the legions of good priests and nuns who over their lifetimes can be said to have done God's good work, the value of which is now being undermined by their "damaged" hierarchy. (New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof defends the good clergy here and here.)
And, certainly, in the pews there are legions of the faithful who are appalled and pained
by the abuse crisis, to judge from the anecdotal evidence of polls, church study groups, letters to the editor, and remarks of friends and acquaintances. Since the abuse scandal began its worldwide course here in the U.S. more than a decade ago, that pain is now long-term.
But, feeling pain is not necessarily action. Perhaps action -- to insist on accountability, to
seek justice for the victims -- must fall to the abused themselves. Several victims' groups have already organized for this purpose, including SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests). (Bishopaccountability.org tracks abuse cases worldwide.)
And -- signaling a stab at another Reformation -- Time reported in a June cover story that "plans are afoot for thousands of abuse victims and their loved ones to travel to Rome in October for a 'Reformation Day' to pressure the Vatican to act." This march on Rome is envisioned by its prime organizer, a former abuse victim, as a massive democracy movement to transform Rome: "It's the people's church. We have to take it back... This is way bigger than Martin Luther." (If so, an official website needs to be set up; a Google search yields nothing.)
Yet, given the Vatican's stonewalling to date, what chances are there, really, that this march on Rome will penetrate the doors, much less the ears and hearts, of the Vatican? And, truly, why should the victims have to bleed and "share" the awful specifics of their histories in public yet another time and, moreover, to no result?
They need allies. The victims of these heinous crimes need their sympathetic clergy and fellow parishioners as allies, to stand shoulder to shoulder with them -- everywhere -- in their righteous pursuit of justice, both in the church and in the courts.
Rise up, rise up, all ye Soldiers of the Cross!
[Disclosure about the writer: I am not a Catholic but a lapsed Protestant, a Presbyterian, who, though outside the church, believes the moral life to be the most important of the lives we lead. As such, I want moral institutions, most especially churches, to do the right and moral thing. Had my church been a fighting church in such tests as the Vietnam War, the rights of women and minorities, the Iraq War, and torture, I might still be a member.]
Carla Seaquist, a playwright, is working on a play titled "Prodigal" and authored "Who Cares?: The Washington-Sarajevo Talks." Her book, "Manufacturing Hope: Post-9/11 Notes on Politics, Culture, Torture, and the American Character," a collection of op-eds, essays, and dialogues, is now out (www.carlaseaquist.com).