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The Catholic Church has reached a tipping point

Pope Francis gives his speech during his weekly

Pope Francis gives his speech during his weekly general audience, at the Vatican. Credit: AP / Andrew Medichini

The Roman Catholic Church is confronting the strongest challenge to its credibility in 500 years.

In 1517, Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed a document outlining 95 theses to a door of the church in Wittenberg, Germany. He openly questioned the pope’s authority as well as corrupt practices of the church.

Luther’s actions paved the way for the Protestant Reformation; many Christians agreed with his arguments and left Catholicism behind. While the Catholic Church survived, it eventually found it necessary to embrace change.

Catholics are now pressuring the church to once again reform itself or face a substantial loss of members. The sexual abuse crisis that has plagued the church for decades has resulted in scores of parishioners leaving. A recently issued report has pushed longtime devotees to lose confidence in this religious institution.

For two years, a grand jury in Pennsylvania investigated accusations of sexual abuse at the hands of priests in six of the state’s eight dioceses. These dioceses represent 54 of the state’s 67 counties. The two other dioceses were already investigated by previous grand juries.

The report issued earlier this month shocked people across the country. It chronicled cases of abuse by more than 300 priests, involving more than 1,000 victims during a 70-year period.

That so many priests committed such vile acts on so many victims is heartbreaking. But what also infuriates Catholics is that church leaders covered up these crimes and moved these predators to other parishes. These accounts reflect stories that have become all too familiar: Church leaders obstruct efforts to hold these people responsible by withholding pertinent information, hiding behind church rituals, paying off victims, and either shifting abusers to other areas or placing them in mental health facilities and declaring them “cured.”

One of the primary problems in dealing with this crisis is the denial that church officials have wallowed in ever since the sexual abuse scandal became public. For years, many parishioners took these leaders at their word that there was no systemic abuse occurring within individual dioceses or the church as a whole. We now know that this narrative was a lie.

The recent report issued in Pennsylvania seems to have pushed many people to the brink. While it documents cases of abuse going back decades, the repeated cover-ups by officials show the church’s hypocrisy. How can parishioners trust these leaders when they acted so abominably toward children?

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, who previously served as archbishop of Washington, D.C., resigned earlier this year following allegations that he engaged in sexual abuse. And Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a former papal ambassador to the United States, has claimed that Pope Francis knew about accusations against McCarrick for several years but did nothing.

I’ve read and heard stories over the last week of where priests have felt compelled to address the crisis during Masses. They are as disturbed as anyone else over the news that this scandal is even deeper than many suspected.

Some priests admitted in their homilies that they didn’t know what to say in light of such atrocities. Along with congregants, they believe the Catholic Church has reached a tipping point.

What’s driving this new sense of outrage over the sexual abuse scandal, to some extent, is the development of the #MeToo movement. More people are taking a stand against sexual abuse, underscoring the notion that silence is no longer tolerable because that’s what allows it to continue.

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops implemented the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People. According to the group’s website, the program mandates procedures to minimize the likelihood of abuse, respond more effectively to allegations, cooperate with civil authorities and discipline offenders. It was revised in 2005, 2011 and again this year.

This was certainly an essential measure. I commend church officials for taking steps to prevent sexual abuse from reoccurring.

However, more needs to be done. All members of the clergy who have engaged in sexual abuse must be revealed. In addition, all those who failed to take appropriate action against these predators must be identified publicly.

And states should pass laws extending the statute of limitations for these cases of sexual abuse. Victims need proper time to come forward, and perpetrators must be brought to justice.

There will obviously be a lot of resistance to this because many church leaders have been involved. But if this institution is to earn back the trust of its faithful, it needs to purge all those who perpetuated this wickedness.

Catholics should demand action on this and be willing to leave the church if authorities do not take the proper steps. Church leaders won’t move unless they are forced to, and threatening to walk out is the only way they’ll be compelled to make amends.

The Catholic Church doesn’t practice democracy, so members don’t have much say in how things are operated. But parishioners can vote with their feet. And if they want the church to regain its moral authority, they can’t be afraid to cast the right ballot if authorities once again behave like cowards.

Jerry Moore is the editorial page editor for the Watertown Daily Times. Readers may call him at 315-661-2369 or send emails to jmoore@wdt.net.

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