The storm continues to batter our ship of fools.
Early in November, the US Conference of Catholic Bishops intended to vote on new procedures for handling sexual abuse. Shockingly, the Vatican intervened to stall the vote. (Fr. Thomas Reese, SJ, has provided a brief summary of items the bishops were set to consider.)
As far as I can tell (and bear in mind that I am no expert on Catholic polity), the goal was to put off the vote until after a global meeting of bishops to be held in Rome in 2019. Whatever the reason, though, these actions have only added to the sense of worry and dread that the Catholic Church is either unable or unwilling to protect its flock from predatory clerics.
Meanwhile, the numerous state investigations continue to unfold; Texas law enforcement officers searched the archdiocesan offices of Houston-Galveston as part of an ongoing probe into how Archbishop Daniel DiNardo (who, as the president of the USCCB, also had the unfortunate task of informing the world of the Vatican’s intervention just a few weeks before).
And of course, this is not only a Roman Catholic problem. Abuse within congregationalist denominations, which lack the oversight structures, goes under-reported. This relative lack of structure provides a thin veneer behind which Southern Baptist leaders have gleefully hidden; they only just this year got around to entertaining the notion of possibly exploring how to maybe one day develop plans to implement a loose panel for handling allegations of abuse. Meanwhile, pseudo-Baptist CJ Mahaney had to withdraw from a prominent speaking role, but he still has the full support of men like Al Mohler. (Mohler’s most recent statements on the matter are full of sweeping language about God’s grace and the need for faithful leadership while lacking in any specifics.)
Lest I ignore the plank in my own denominational eye, an ELCA pastor in California was recently arrested for possession and distribution of abusive images of children.
While it’s easy to throw stones at other denominations and say they are not doing enough to prevent abuse, I know the steps the ELCA has taken to prevent abuse by our rostered ministers: the required Boundaries training, the background checks, the questioning. And even those steps are not enough. The Washington Post ran an article about a Catholic priest handling allegations of abuse in his own parish. This priest had taken so many steps to prevent abuse:
He’d always wanted to say, “Not on my watch,” and that was how it had been at his parish. Even if the kids complained or the courses seemed repetitive, he’d demanded biannual abuse training for children so they could recognize what it meant to be touched inappropriately. In every church bathroom hung laminated signs encouraging victims of clergy abuse to “speak out.” But now, a scandal he’d once associated with faraway Boston or Milwaukee had arrived here, too. And it hadn’t just allegedly happened on his watch but inside the cathedral itself, down in the basement, on a late September day when hundreds of people, including him, were at the church. And none of them had any idea.
We are in the season of Advent, a time of the Church year that asks us to give our full attention to two different events. The first, to the Nativity of our Lord, when the Word of God became incarnate as a human child — a child who needed protection, provided by the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph. Our other focus is on our Lord’s return in glory and judgment on the last day. We live in a fallen world, full of sin and pain and death. All of our efforts will fall short, but we know that our hope in Christ gives us the strength to endure, to keep going, to welcome the child and protect the vulnerable. A day is coming when our God will dwell among us and wipe away every tear. And on that day, we will stand before the throne; we leaders of the Church, ordained and lay alike, will be asked what we did to protect our siblings from abuse. As we prepare to celebrate the Nativity, we do well to remember Christ’s words: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”