Published December 2, 2021
Next year marks the 20th anniversary of the Dallas Charter, the American bishops’ most substantial institutional response to the crisis of clergy sexual abuse. The Charter laid out a uniform program of reporting and accountability for clergy which has become the baseline for handling abuse cases not only here in the United States but in local churches all over the world.
In fact, some of the reforms that in America we now take for granted – such as mandatory reporting of abuse to civil authorities and a zero-tolerance policy for abusers – are still well ahead of the global curve.
The Charter, it must also be said, is far from perfect. As the McCarrick case famously demonstrated, the Charter did nothing to address episcopal abuse and malfeasance. And there remain legitimate concerns about priests who, having faced unproven allegations, remain in a state of ministerial limbo. When the USCCB met last month in Baltimore, they discussed revisions to the Charter.
There have also been important reforms from Rome – Come una madre amorevole and Vos estis lux mundi, for example – that have strengthened anti-abuse efforts everywhere, especially regarding the malfeasance of bishops, and complement the Charter in the United States.
None of this is to say that the abuse crisis is behind us. The reality is that sexual abuse – by clergy or anyone else, of minors or adults – is never going to be completely eradicated. But we can hope for a time, be it decades or centuries from now, when abuse in the Church is not seen as a global crisis.
The fallout from the abuse crisis will be with the Church for a very long time to come. Trust, once lost, is not easily regained. This applies, of course, to the individual victims, but also to the damage to trust between and among laity, between clergy (especially bishops) and their flocks, and between the Church and the world.
As surely as the most acute harm of abuse is suffered by the victims themselves, the longest-lasting consequence, and perhaps the consequence that most delights the Enemy, is the damage the abuse crisis has done to the credibility of the Church herself. Lies told long ago make it harder to proclaim and hear the Good News now; violence committed in secret decades ago will still be endangering souls a generation hence.
So, it’s important to recognize that legal reforms like the Dallas Charter and Vos estis (however imperfect and however late in coming) are real and necessary achievements. But it’s also important to recognize that, when it comes to addressing the crisis in the Church, such necessary and ongoing reforms are- and were always going to be – the “easy” part.
So how does the Church do the hard part? How does she address the deficit of trust that exists between laity and clergy, especially laity and bishops? How does the Church overcome the deep divisions between and among Catholics, which the abuse crisis may not have caused, but which it revealed and surely deepened? How does the Church, which has become so ugly in the eyes of so many, proclaim a message of mercy and salvation?
We begin again from Jesus Christ. We begin again by meeting Our Lord in Scripture, the Sacraments, our neighbor. We meet Him in prayer. We listen to Him. We do this not only as individuals but as members of His Body, His Church. We listen to our bishops and our priests and the Holy Father. We listen humbly and, when the time is right, we speak boldly in charity and truth. We strive to outdo one another in charity, in patience, and in giving honor.
Doing the hard part means refusing to leave behind those for whom and to whom we are responsible, those to whom we are bound in baptism. Doing the hard part means listening to and speaking with even those people we believe are wrong. And we do this not because we trust one another, but because we trust the One who commands us to love even our enemies.
Clergy must be willing to listen to the laity even when – especially when – the laity speak hard truths. The laity won’t be right about everything. Lord knows our priests and bishops aren’t perfect either. But a father who doesn’t listen to his children won’t know them, won’t understand their strengths or weaknesses. And sheep who ignore the shepherd are soon lost.
None of this is a one-time occurrence. It requires constant prayer, conversion, repentance, and asking for and giving forgiveness. This is discipleship. It is hard work. We will fail, probably often. But we know that to our meager efforts, the Lord adds His grace. So we keep at it. We keep walking together, as St. Paul exhorts us, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another through love, striving to preserve the unity of the spirit through the bond of peace.”
We invite others to join us along the way, to discover what we have found. We tell others of the God who, while we were still sinners, loved us even unto death. All bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling must be removed from us, along with all malice. We strive to be kind to one another, compassionate, forgiving one another as God has forgiven us in Christ.
This is the way forward for the Church in the wake of the clergy sex abuse crisis because it is the way forward for the Church always. If it sounds both simple and difficult that’s because it is. If it sounds familiar, it should. Most of what I’ve just said is cribbed from St. Paul.
If this sounds like what Pope Francis calls synodality – not an event or a parliament or a “new Church,” but a recovery of a shared sense of mission rooted in truth, our common Baptism, and the universal mission of all Christians – that’s because it is.
© 2021 The Catholic Thing.
Stephen P. White is executive director of The Catholic Project at The Catholic University of America and a fellow in Catholic Studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.