A Clamorous Silence from the Pulpit and in the Pews

Perfect Silence: Bishop John Woodford monument, Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire
Perfect Silence: Bishop John Woodford monument, Ely Cathedral, Cambridgeshire | Photo: Walwyn| Flickr: Creative Commons License

In January 2002, the Boston Globe published the first in a series of articles that exposed the sordid history of sexual abuse of youth in the Boston archdiocese. The stories showed how Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston kept knowledge of abuse from parishioners and kept abusing priests in parishes where they continued to blight the lives and faith of the innocent.

Later in 2002, as more abuse cases in more dioceses tumbled out of the dark, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops promised a new transparency in dealing with accusations against members of the clergy. The Catholic faithful, the bishops said, should know the extent of priestly abuse and their church's response.

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A somewhat different and shorter version of this essay was published in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, January 27.

In 2007, after paying out $660 million in settlement of abuse cases, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles joined a torturous legal defense of its right to conceal a history of neglect. The Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press, along with advocates for the victims, challenged the archdiocese's claim.

Two weeks ago, the full records of 14 priests of the archdiocese who had been accused of abuse in the 1980s were made public in the settlement of one of those cases. The files showed that Cardinal Roger M. Mahony and Auxiliary Bishop Thomas J. Curry (who oversaw abuse investigations) concealed what they knew from law enforcement and parishioners.

Last Monday, thanks to a court order and the grace (perhaps) that moved the conscience of Los Angeles Archbishop José Gomez, the archdiocese finally abandoned its claim and prepared to publish some 30,000 pages of records with the names of priests who admitted their crimes to church officials and the steps that church officials took in response.

Yesterday, those files went online. Yesterday, Archbishop Gomez removed now-retired Cardinal Mahony from public ministry, and Bishop Curry resigned his office.

It's impossible to use a facile word like "closure" at this point. The victims of abuse live with their trauma. The men who abused them -- some of them still fugitives -- have their crimes to live with. Members of the hierarchy have their excuses, their attempts at contrition, and their unanswered failures of moral judgment when they were required to choose the good of the Catholic community over silence.

Nothing with real meaning is ended.

The faithful still gather on Sunday morning at my church in Long Beach for Mass and to hear a sermon preached, which typically runs to themes of faithfulness, virtue, and awareness of sin. Hardly any of the hundreds of sermons I've heard since 2002 reflected on the scandal of priestly abuse. Not one Sunday sermon considered how or why some men in the priesthood in Los Angeles became sexual predators. No sermon spoke of the disillusionment -- obvious to everyone -- that the men and women in the pews feel.

Promised changes have begun. The background of everyone who works with children in the parish is vetted. Parish workers are trained to observe the signs of abuse. Even the children are better informed. Beyond the parish boundaries, new protocols are in place for judging the psychological fitness of men seeking the priesthood. There's a new awareness of what an abusing personality is like and how unlikely an abuser is to respond to treatment. New regulations prevent an abusing priest from being shuttled from one unsuspecting parish to another.

Some of the changes are coarsening parish life. Because of the archdiocese's fear of what would be revealed, the archdiocese's silence made every priest a suspect. Children were steered away from contact with their pastor. Insurance carriers and church lawyers have counseled even greater distancing. The barriers rising between priests and boys put at risk youth retreats, sports programs, and boys' high schools -- all of which were part of my Catholic childhood.

The gap between pulpit and pew is widening, but it's from the pews that future priests are still expected to come. The formation of a boy into a man with the strength of character to accept a vocation used to begin with a relationship between a priest and a boy. It used to begin with a boy's hero worship. That may not have been the best way to begin a life of self-denial and celibacy, but being often in the company of a priest who seemed both saintly and human was the start for many men on the long path towards the priesthood.

Of course, a boy's hero worship made the crimes of a predatory priest so much easier to commit.

From the perspective of the pulpit, the failure of the Los Angeles archdiocese to understand its responsibilities is now seen as a "tragic mistake" in the past -- a historical mistake to be sincerely regretted and prevented in the future by regulatory fiat and vigilance.

From the perspective of the pew, the causes of priestly abuse and the behavior of archdiocesan officials aren't in the past at all. Left unexplored is a bewildering labyrinth of reasons, including those that might lie in what we in the pews declined to notice, what we refused to say or do out of deference to authority.

Having had the sexuality of priests forced on us in its most terrible form -- in the form of a monster -- those of us in the pews are still silent and unable to offer whatever insight from our own lives we might have given the men who are called to make their sexuality a daily sacrifice. Silence remains the disfiguring common feature that perpetuated abuse in the past and leaves the parish community today unable to minister to those who would minister to us.

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