White hot rage.
That’s what I, a fairly devoted Catholic, felt when I read the grand jury report last Tuesday that detailed horrific abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses — Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton.
The incidents date as far back as 1947, and the grand jury claims that more than 300 members of the clergy systematically abused what they to believe to be “thousands” of children over that time.
And the stories are horrific. In one incident, a priest raped a little girl — seven years old — while he was visiting her in the hospital after she had her tonsils out.
In another, a priest forced a nine-year-old boy to perform oral sex on him, and afterword rinsed the young boy’s mouth out with holy water.
“Priests were raping little boys and girls,” said the report, “and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all. For decades. Monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected; many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.”
This is nothing new to the Church, obviously. Most Catholics can remember the whispers of something nefarious in the 1980s and 1990s. Catholics and non-Catholics alike remember the 2002 revelations by the Boston Globe of decades of systematic abuse by clergy.
After the scandal rocked the Church, it did make major reforms to positively deal with the situation. In 2001, the Vatican changed Church policy to require sex abuse cases be reported directly to Rome, rather than be managed by local dioceses.
In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops adopted a zero tolerance policy of future sex abuse cases, required reporting to the police, and mandated removal from duty of any individual accused.
All good steps to make things better. Also, nowhere near enough.
While I appreciated the institutional changes, I never — not once — felt like Church leaders, including Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, ever truly understood the depth of the problem, nor ever reflected the pain and anger these revelations incited.
We were treated to sorrowful statements. Lethargic speeches that paid lip service to the sins perpetrated and the need for change.
Never, ever, did I see or feel the same white hot anger I felt then, and feel now, reading these stories.
Which is once again true after this grand jury report. Pope Francis issued a nice statement, I suppose, but I’m not all that placated.
Why not? Because it seems like the leaders of the Church still don’t get it.
Take, for instance, the case of the archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who resigned from the College of Cardinals last month after revelations were made that he sexually abused seminary students and an altar boy.
We have since learned that Father Boniface Ramsey of New York had been complaining repeatedly to Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston — one of the Pope’s most trusted advisors on stopping sex abuse — about McCarrick. And nothing was done.
Back to Pennsylvania, and we have the case of Cardinal Donald Wuerl, who was accused of being complicit in the detailed abuse. He allowed multiple predators to continue in their ministry for years, despite knowledge, legal settlements, and renewed accusations.
Yet there was Wuerl last week, still presiding over mass and dismissively referring to “stories” that churchgoers may have heard in the papers, while telling people to go to a website defending his record.
The Church has a problem of its own creation. It is a closed off oligarchy. It is looking to run out the clock and protect itself and its infrastructure, which is exactly why they shuffled priests around in the first place. Right now, there isn’t much trust among Catholics, or among the general public, that such an organization is going to clean itself up.
This is why we need more than an impassive statement.
The first thing Francis and other Church leaders need to do in order to solve this problem is simply show that they understand it.
That they understand the emotion of that white hot rage, and publicly channel it.
Express disgust. Expose the failures and sins to the light of day, no matter how raw. Show some anger. Show you understand. Reflect some rage, and actually emote about this subject.
And then take action. Swift, merciless, brutal action on a bureaucracy that will not change itself.
People need to be stripped of their titles and excommunicated.
People like Cardinal Wuerl need to be defrocked, and full cooperation with the authorities needs to be given, including the submission of every single piece of paper they have in their records on the subject. Heads need to metaphorically roll.
Outside that, it is all window dressing.