One would expect the gathering of the leaders of Catholic bishops on the scandal roiling the church to immediately issue a document similar to the Dallas Charter of 2002 establishing zero tolerance of sexual abuse by priests to include bishops. One might assume after the meeting gets underway Thursday in Rome that the Vatican will demand transparent investigations to ensure accountability for the church. That is, for both clergy and laity.
One would be wise to temper such expectations and assumptions. It’s better to be prepared to receive the news that Pope Francis will direct the leaders of the Catholic bishops to begin to draft guidelines. Still, there is some good news: The pope has essentially admitted that the crisis isn’t confined to the United States or Ireland or Australia or Chile. It is a problem that affects every parish on the globe. This is big. For India, or Africa, where the systematic rape of nuns by bishops and priests has gone unanswered for decades, the simple act of naming this truth offers a small measure of liberation.
Directing a draft of guidelines, or issuing guidelines themselves, is not enough to stop the church’s downward spiral. To say the situation is desperate is no exaggeration: Churches have been emptying for a long time for several reasons, and the process has now sped up, threatening the church’s existence. What can the Vatican do? The church has much of value to offer the world, but has profoundly compromised its moral authority. This loss of moral authority is inseparably entwined with the abuse cases and the cover-up problem, which itself is entwined with clericalism, and often buttressed by ideologues with bully pulpits who purport to speak for the church. The message of Jesus (and the model of the present pope) seems to be lost on them.
Jesus called children to himself, admonishing those around him not to deter them, but to learn from the innocents. Jesus warned that those who caused others to stumble in their faith would be better off having a “great millstone hung around their neck” and being thrown in the sea. In no uncertain terms, he condemned elitism and hypocrisy. Jesus radically embraced “the other” — all those on the margins of society, whom society preferred to think of as inconsequential.
Until children, teens, women and men aren’t used and abused by men who haven’t addressed adverse psychological aspects of their own sexuality, or are further assaulted by the cover-up; until women are embraced by the church as equal with men; until immigrants (regardless of status) are accorded the respect due them as children of God; until those rejected by this society as “other,” people of color or same-sex orientation are heard, all the words issued from this meeting and many others will not get through to the people in the pews or those outside of the church.
As president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Texas, is our country’s representative in Rome. DiNardo himself faces cover-up accusations in Iowa and in Texas. He has released a long-awaited list of priests credibly accused of sexual abuse in his Texas diocese, surely a positive step, and one hopes, a sign of his openness to full transparency. More is needed from DiNardo and the rest of the world’s bishops. To begin to regain moral authority, the bishops must take such decisive action in Rome.
The church is always in need of reform, but reform cannot happen if the process of reform does not begin to enact change.
Cristina R. O’Keefe is an adjunct professor in the Department of Religious Studies at St. Joseph’s College in Patchogue. The views expressed here are her own.