How about a real Act of Contrition?
Apr. 15, 2010
What will my church do to confront the continuing scandal associated with the sexual abuse of children? In an effort to avoid scandal, church leaders were complicit in efforts to cover up not only serious crimes but also grievous sins.
Concerned more about perpetrators than victims; more about scandal than truth; and more about image than justice; the church allowed the evil to continue. In doing so, it undermined its moral authority and caused many Catholics to look elsewhere for spiritual guidance.
How has “The Rock,” the institution established by Christ to teach others to know, love, and serve Him, been split asunder? What can be done to salvage what is left of its reputation and regain the moral high ground that it once so proudly (perhaps too proudly) occupied.
I do not expect perfection in the church for it is, after all, an institution composed of flawed human beings. But, I do expect it to perform better than institutions who do not profess such a lofty purpose. This crisis can be either an opportunity for renewal or the last gasp of an institution that many now see as irrelevant.
Catholics are encouraged to confess and repent their sins. Is it too much to expect our church to do the same?
Rather than blame the media, the church must acknowledge its institutional responsibility for this evil. It can act like many secular institutions by blaming the perpetrators and not those who knew or should have known what was happening and failed to prevent it.
I was taught confession first requires an examination of conscience. This requires a degree of humility. One should not step into a confessional prepared to blame others for his sins. In asking forgiveness, one should accept responsibility. Confession is not a plea bargain but an act of contrition.
My church has failed in its responsibility to confess and acknowledge the guilt at all levels for facilitating the commission of grievous sins upon the innocent. The church should be publicly on its knees asking forgiveness of God and the victims. In a real sense, God is one of the victims.
Penance is an acknowledgement of guilt. Confession is not enough; it is particularly important that the church publicly manifest its guilt. Instead of seeking to protect themselves, the responsible “princes” of the church should resign their lofty positions and find ways to directly serve the sick and the poor as missionaries or devote themselves to lives of prayer in monasteries.
Cardinal Bernard Law may be sorrowful for his role in the Greater Boston sexual abuse scandal but his acceptance of a comfortable assignment in Rome was a mistake. It did not reflect the kind of public atonement the faithful should expect of the hierarchy.
Christ suffered and died for our sins, not His own. Something less drastic by those that failed to act responsibly in this crisis would be in keeping with that example. It would also help to restore the respect and confidence that has been lost.
A public display of penance and sorrow for the harm that has been done would underscore the difference between a church that claims divine guidance and a government agency. Up to now, church leaders have acted more like high ranking military officers running away from responsibility for a wartime atrocity.
The church expects a penitent not only to be remorseful but also to resolve to avoid sin and its “near occasion” – a conscientious effort to reform. But what of the church? Will it use this crisis to address institutional flaws that likely contributed to the problem
Married priests and women priests would provide a healthy new perspective in an institution that for too long has been the exclusive domain of men. I believe women would not have permitted the problem to continue. They would have been more sensitive to the harm that was being done to victims.
Greater emphasis on the Kingdom of God and less on the “kingdom of the church” would help to make the church more relevant. Would Christ have been comfortable in the splendid isolation of the Vatican? I think not.
Restructure, reorganization, and reform are not words one would normally associate with the church but this crisis provides an opportunity to do just that. If viewed as an opportunity, it could be the beginning of a “Restoration” movement that over time would better reflect its role as a spiritual beacon in a troubled world.
When an institution professes to be Christ’s instrument on earth, it naturally elevates expectations. Disappointed and ashamed, the faithful have a right to demand more.
James W. Dolan is a retired Dorchester District Court judge who now practices law.