At Holy Week, the Church throughout the world, rosery through liturgy and personal meditation, accompanies Christ on the long, arduous road to Calvary. Last week, for all those whose lives have been scarred directly or indirectly by the crime of clergy sexual abuse, that road became even more onerous.
A front page story in the New York Times last Monday presented an account of a group of men who were sexually abused as children by the Rev. Lawrence C. Murphy at a school for the deaf in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
This story was preceded by allegations that the Pope had mishandled an abusive priest when he headed the Archdiocese of Munich-Freising. It was followed last Friday by a statement from the Legionaries of Christ - a religious congregation to which I belonged for twenty-three years - admitting and recognizing that its founder, Fr. Marcial Maciel, had sexually abused seminarians for years and fathered at least three children. All of this has contributed to a maelstrom of controversy around Pope Benedict, and the reopening of the terrible wounds of so many victims of this abuse.
There is no denying that the Church's handling of cases of sexual abuse and pederast priests was for years more than deplorable. The acts of these priests have been criminal. Changes in the manner of handling these tragedies have come far too late.
Objectivity and intellectual honesty require us to insist, however, that those changes have nonetheless come.
As George Weigel put it in an article appearing yesterday in First Things:
Reprehensible patterns of clerical sexual abuse and misgovernance by the Church's bishops came to glaring light in the U.S. in 2002 ...That the Catholic Church was slow to recognize the scandal of sexual abuse within the household of faith, and the failures of governance that led to the scandal being horribly mishandled, has been frankly admitted - by the bishops of the United States in 2002, and by Pope Benedict XVI... It took too long to get there, to be sure; but we are there.
As for the New York Times article, numerous commentators have pointed out significant inaccuracies and omissions. Fr. Raymond D'Souza notes among other problems:
[Documents made available at the NYT website supporting the story] show that the canonical trial or penal process against Father Murphy was never stopped by anyone. In fact, it was only abandoned days before Father Murphy died. Cardinal Ratzinger never took a decision in the case, according to the documents. His deputy, Archbishop Tarcisio Bertone, suggested... that more expeditious means be used to remove him from all ministry...The charge that Cardinal Ratzinger did anything wrong is unsupported by the documentation on which the story was based.
As for Pope Benedict's broader role in changing the Church's way of handling abuse cases, a recent article by John Allen in the National Catholic Reporter describes a Cardinal Ratzinger who, after the CDF took charge of handling the Church's abuse cases in 2001, became "a Catholic Eliot Ness" in terms of handling high profile abuse cases. And in a follow up op-ed in the New York Times on Sunday, he affirmed:
The outside world is outraged, rightly, at the church's decades of ignoring the problem. But those who understand the glacial pace at which change occurs in the Vatican understand that Benedict, admittedly late in the game but more than any other high-ranking official, saw the gravity of the situation and tried to steer a new course.
And the Pope's recent pastoral letter to the members of the Church in Ireland, though widely criticized by victims groups and the secular press, attests to that new course. Shockingly blunt at times, it represents a real break with previous protocol.
In my own life, I have been given at least a small glimpse of the unspeakable hell that victims of priest sexual abuse have lived. The rage, and raw emotions, the sense of crushing betrayal that I personally felt upon discovering the double-life lived by the founder of my own religious congregation have afforded me that. To those victims, I pledge in this Holy Week my own acts of reparation, prayer and atonement, desiring to accompany them with eyes fixed on the triumph of Christ's resurrection, and on the Kingdom "where every tear will be wiped away."
Father Thomas Berg is a priest in the Archdiocese of New York and Professor of Moral Theology at St. Joseph’s Seminary (Dunwoodie).