03/14/2013 11:03 am ET Updated May 14, 2013

Led by Francis, a Traumatized Catholic Family Faces the Future

As a new pope -- the first ever to choose the name Francis -- assumes the chair of St. Peter, he faces a community of faith traumatized by scandal. Indeed, if the Catholic Church is a family, then the victims of sexual abuse by priests are the betrayed sons and daughters whose cries have not been heard. Wounded by physical, psychological and spiritual assaults, they keep insisting that something is terribly wrong with an institution that pays millions in attorneys fee to keep secret its conspiracy to hide the facts and help clergy avoid prosecution.

As in most proud but dysfunctional families, the truth these children tell has been too awful for the patriarchs of the clan to accept. They listen, respond as little as possible, and then retreat to the comfort of denial. This family dynamic explains why an abuse crisis that began almost 30 years ago remains unresolved despite billions of dollars paid in legal settlements and the imprisonment of hundreds of priests. It also explains why, just a day before the cardinals elected Benedict XVI's successor, one of their own, retired Cardinal Mahony of Los Angeles, was implicated in yet another abuse scandal that led to a $10 million settlement with victims of notorious abuser Fr. Michael Baker.

The selection of Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, who eschewed many of the trappings of office enjoyed by others who led the church in Buenos Aires (he lived alone, cooked for himself and rode the bus to work) is a helpful sign. Similarly, Bergoglio's choice of a papal name -- Francis -- recalls St. Francis of Assisi whose humility and simplicity stand in stark contrast to the monarchical imagery generally associated with the office.

However, before Francis can lead Catholicism out of its shame, and recover some of the church's lost credibility, he must gain a clear view of what has transpired to date. Beginning in the 1980s, lawsuits filed by American victims slowly forced bishops to disclose documentary proof of widespread sexual crimes against children and consistent, deliberate schemes carried out to protect offending priests from police and prosecutors, and shield the institution from disgrace and civil lawsuits. With each disclosure, more victims came forward and eventually the crisis spread across America, to Western Europe, and beyond.

In virtually all cases, bishops have responded by seeking to keep secret as many of the facts as possible and by sending sexual abusers to new posts where they could find new victims. Thousands of children were harmed by this practice. When forced into court, too many bishops have acted like clever witnesses coached by attorneys, responding in the most limited way they can while still satisfying the demands of the law. Their independent actions have included adopting new rules and personnel procedures, and demonstrations of regret and sorrow. However, they have not changed any of the beliefs, teachings and practices that enable abuse in the first place.

For example, before he left the post of archbishop in Milwaukee, New York's Cardinal Timothy Dolan paid-off abusers to get them to leave the priesthood and shifted tens of millions of church dollars into trusts that would be protected from lawsuits filed by people who were raped by priests. Now being examined in a bankruptcy proceeding, this action can be seen as a scheme to deny hundreds of people the justice they deserve.

More recently Dolan's predecessor in New York, Edward Egan, publicly withdrew an apology he once made to Catholics who were abused by clergy when they were children. "I never should have said that," said Egan, "I don't think we did anything wrong."

Astounding as Egan's unscripted comment was, it is nowhere near as appalling as the grotesque crimes against children revealed in periodic releases of documents. In dozens of cases, men and women who were raped by priests have committed suicide to escape the effects this kind of trauma. More typically victims simply struggle through, trying to accommodate the injuries to their self image, mental health and spirituality. Recovery is possible, but the process is generally grueling and it requires a lifetime effort.

Fortunately, even fractured families can offer support and as they have witnessed the pain of their abused brothers and sisters, millions of Catholics have embraced them and felt disillusioned by the behavior of the hierarchs, who call themselves "fathers." They see the failings of men who reject the love that exists in gay marriages and use verbal deflection to justify the church's ongoing oppression of women. They recognize the brutal results of hostility to contraception -- poverty, disease, death -- and cannot understand why it's taking so long for the bishops to embrace common morality.

For decades opinion polls have shown Catholic lay people moving steadily away from their self-appointed leaders, even as the institutional church doubled down on its orthodoxy. During most of this time progressive lay people tolerated the bishops and the pope and continued to embrace what was good in the church. However many have reached a breaking point. This was made clear to me earlier this year in Los Angeles, on the day that former cardinal Mahony's efforts to protect abusing priests were revealed in documents made public by a Superior Court judge. Over lunch one of California's leading laymen, a wealthy donor whose name adorns a wall of the new cathedral, shook his head in disgust and said he hopes the victims won't give up until they force real change.

What would real change look like? It might begin with humble action that opens the Catholic family to full participation by all of its adult members, including women. This is what victims of abuse, and their growing number of supporters must have before they move from confrontation and alienation to productive engagement. It is also what must happen if the church is to again become a relevant and welcomed force for good in all the world.