As a revert to Catholicism, I’m still getting used to being a public representative for a gorgeous and oft-maligned religion. Actually, I’m still getting used to churning the precepts of said religion into my heart: not complaining when my faith is maligned, carrying the cross of tradition through the fields of young adulthood, realizing when I should stand up for my faith and when I should offer my other cheek. But given the never-ending discussion surrounding the Catholic Church at the moment, I am writing for you the good Catholic’s — the good person’s — response to the sexual abuse of children by clergy.
I first got wind of this issue as a ten-year-old who read The New York Times. Nine years later, and the terrible acts perpetrated by the supposed protectors and teachers of innocent children are still haunting the contemporary Catholic hierarchy. I keep my nose out of the Times these days (well, sort of — I still read it, but it doesn’t influence me like it once did), but the specter of the scandal is just as strong as it once was.
I paraphrase the Pope and any responsible Catholic leader when I say that any acts of pedophilia — or any abuse or intimation of children, for that matter — are contrary to both moral and divine law and cannot be tolerated. Fortunately, we now live in a time in which people no longer hide and cover up such horrible acts. But some still do commit these atrocities, and we must punish the culprits and comfort the victims as best as we can.
But how we accomplish that is the key issue. In many cases, the response of high-ranking clergy continues to be slow, ineffective or nonexistent. This is inexcusable, and devout Catholics must remember that they do not invalidate their faith by admitting that this is wrong. In more cases than some reporters would have us believe, American bishops have responded with proper vigilance. According to a United States Council of Catholic Bishops study of 1,671 accusations, 54.5 percent of priests who were still active at the time they were accused were sent for treatment, 45.9 percent of whom were suspended. (This amounts to 286 and 241, respectively, as this does not take into account those priests who were dead, laicized or had already retired. Excluded from the figure of the 1,671 were those who were exonerated.) But the study also reveals the awful failings of the system: no action was taken in 4.2 percent of cases, and 11 percent of the time priests were “reprimanded and returned” to their regular lives.
I am more than willing to believe that a great deal of the finger-pointing and selective reportage stems from anti-Catholicism, as the Pope has alleged. After all, child abuse is contrary to the Catholic faith, which emphasizes self-sacrifice and noble deeds for the sake of your own soul and the souls around you. And, put off by the Church’s social teaching, many do not believe that it’s a loving religion in the first place. There’s nothing I can do about that, except pray and be courteous. As a wise priest recently told me, you can plunge into the deepest depths of theology and still run headlong into mystery.
But — and here I speak to my fellow Catholics, including and especially the fair-weather sort — we must, when necessary, apologize on behalf of bishops who did cover for abusers. Let’s send a public message that some so-called Catholics have failed in their church, which is ancient and powerful and, yes, loving. And, if you are interested in victim advocacy, these cases will have the potential for you to make amazing differences in people’s lives.
You may wonder if, given all of the demands and rules, there are still living, breathing, faithful Catholics stumbling around. Some days I, too, wonder why I have chosen such a path for myself. But then I realize that it, of course, chose me. And because of this, I will fight for the children, for the victims, for the innocent priests and for the innocent in general until I go to, you know, Heaven — hopefully.
Anna Paone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.