As a Catholic, as a woman and as the daughter of a woman who suffers from past clergy sexual abuse, I share in the pain that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report has brought to our faith community. As I have been reading through the report, released last month, I am horrified that the jury was able to point to over 300 priests committing sexual crimes, and over 1,000 victims that the Catholic Diocese of Pennsylvania failed to handle appropriately over the last 70 years.
What I am most angry about has been the ecclesial response of my bishops. What I am disheartened about is the response of the faithful. What I am in shock about is the lack of federal reaction.
The response from the bishops in Pennsylvania and the wider Catholic ecclesial body has been superficial at best. Several bishops, some of whom were implicated in the report for aiding the mishandling of criminal activity, have asked for our forgiveness, for our prayers and to join them in fasting as an outward sign of a penitential attitude.
The response of the faithful is not much better. I have seen several lay ministers and groups run by laity who rightfully feel moved by these accusations fall short of doing anything meaningful. They have organized meetings to discuss how bishops can incorporate independent investigations that deal with sexual abuse crimes. However, I doubt the sincerity of any independent investigation that will report to a bishop. The laity have participated in masses held for the victims where parishioners pray for their healing and the justice they are due. However, I have yet to see a significant sacramental gesture where the victims are invited to the mass. I have yet to see any church leaders offer to wash the feet of anyone they have hurt - the feet of my mom, who was sexually abused by A. Joseph Maskell, the former chaplain at Archbishop Keough High School in Baltimore and subject of the Netflix crime saga “The Keepers.”
Our Congress has sorely let us down also. The covering up of child sexual abuse and the subsequent transport of criminals across state borders is a federal crime. Political leaders like Mark Rozzi, a Pennsylvania Democrat and also a victim, are truly carrying the cross uphill as they fight for reform on the statute of limitations laws, which limit the amount of time persons have to file criminal charges against anyone accused of committing such a crime.
The response of sorrow is rightly placed. However, the victims of the Catholic Church do not need your prayers. Prayers are great, but when my mother, who has suffered ongoing physical and psychological damage from her experience, sees so many people speaking out against the actions of the bishops, it fills her with an affirming feeling. However, as time goes on, and other news stories take over, the support seems to wane. So she is left reliving the trauma of thinking nobody cares.
Praying for justice is not a theologically sound action. Jesus did tell us “The kingdom is coming”; he also said, “the kingdom is here, repent and believe.” If we are to live in the kingdom together, Christians must take action. We have repented, now it is time to believe and act.
In my opinion, the laity can take three meaningful, though radical, steps. First, they need to tell the bishops: “No more.” That means meeting with them and refusing to hear apologies that consist of words alone. Secondly, it means refusing to give to the collection plate until you have seen real change. Finally, everyone must call their state and federal representatives and tell them to take action by abolishing the statute of limitations on sexual abuse crimes and to ask Congress to hold hearings with the leaders of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
It is entirely possible that the church is gambling with every citizen’s right to freedom of religion when, time after time, they refuse to properly handle sexual abuse committed by their clergy. If they can’t clean up their own house, the government will.
Jerri von den Bosch is a theology student.