Freeing the Church from scandal

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By now we know that the abuse of children and vulnerable adults crosses many boundaries. Not only has the phenomenon reared its ugly head in various Catholic dioceses around the world, it is definitely not limited to the confines of the Catholic Church. It’s a problem, sadly, that has plagued all kinds of institutions, both civic and religious — schools, the Boy Scouts of America, and even the family.

But I’m a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, and because of a thorough investigation by journalists in 2001 and 2002, Boston has gotten a reputation. Our archdiocese is often referred to in media reports as the “epicenter of the clergy sexual abuse crisis of 2002.” All my brother priests of Boston have to live with that. Perhaps some people, upon learning where we’re from, could become suddenly suspicious of us. 

Our archbishop, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, has done his utmost to try to heal wounds that have been caused by this scandal and to work to ensure that the evil acts of the past are not repeated. But every wound leaves a scar, and it will take a very long time for those scars to disappear.

Not only am I a priest of the Archdiocese of Boston, I am now a bishop. And unfortunately, because some bishops failed to exercise their authority in stopping abuses that took place in the past, I and my brother bishops must be subjected to an extra level of scrutiny and even suspicion. 

So how do I cope with all this? 

First of all, I want you to know that I have the people of God very much on my mind in the midst of this scandal. It grieves me whenever I hear about laymen and laywomen refusing to go back to church because of the sins and moral failings of the clergy, religious, and anyone who represents the Church in an “official” capacity. 

I want you to know that I have the people of God very much on my mind in the midst of this scandal.

It is why, in September 2018, in the wake of new and troubling revelations in the sex abuse scandal, I decided to spend 24 hours in prayer and fasting in my parish church. I invited parishioners to join me for whatever time they could afford. I said at the time that there needs to be some national effort to do penance and to pray, both for our own personal sins and for the leadership in the Church. I continue to believe that is what we need, not as a substitute for addressing in a practical way the problems we have, but as a necessary underlying — and ongoing — response. 

And it does no good for me to call on our people to do that if I am not willing to do it myself. 

After the Pennsylvania grand jury report was issued in the summer of 2018, there were quite a few calls from pastors and others that Catholics do “reparation” for the sins that have been committed by priests. It’s understandable if anyone responded, “Wait a minute. I didn’t do anything like that. Why should I perform acts of reparation?” 

True enough. And none of us is obliged to do penance for someone else’s sins. But consider this: In the Gospel of St. Mark, some of the disciples asked Jesus why they could not drive out an unclean spirit. “This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer and fasting,” the Lord answered (Mark 9:29, RSVCE). 

Although there are many explanations for the problem of sexual abuse in our Church, one could surely be forgiven for believing that it is an unclean spirit that at times seems to have a hold on our Church.

And if we love our Church, surely we want to see her freed from any such hold. We wish to see her free to be able to proclaim the Good News, through word and work, in our modern society and resist any efforts to muzzle or shackle her. Should we not pray that she be free internally, as well? 

We wish to see [the Church] free to be able to proclaim the Good News.

As members of the Body of Christ and united to the Communion of Saints, it is an act of love to freely offer up whatever prayers, works, joys, sufferings — and sacrifices — we can in order to ask the Lord to liberate our Holy Mother the Church from this “unclean spirit.” 

Oftentimes I contemplate the stories I’ve heard of people who have been victimized by this scandal. I am deeply saddened to think about what they suffered and continue to suffer. But that sadness, too, is something we can offer up to the Lord in prayer, realizing that the Almighty can and will transform that suffering into something beautiful. 

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