By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Institute
This past Saturday I was on my way to teaching a diocesan ministry formation class about Leading Like Jesus when the car’s radio blared the news: by the action of Pope Francis, former cardinal Theodore McCarrick was now no longer a priest either.
In a statement issued earlier in the day in Rome, which is seven hours ahead of my local time, the Vatican said McCarrick had been dismissed from the priesthood after he was found guilty of several crimes -- including soliciting sex during confession and “sins” with minors and with adults, and “with the aggravating factor of the abuse of power.”
Henceforth, he would be officially referred to as “Mr. McCarrick.”
It was presumably the last tumble in a dramatic fall from grace for the former globe-trotting ecclesiastical celebrity, who had risen to the second highest station in the church’s hierarchy and served in several of the nation’s most prominent sees.
The move appears to be the first time any cardinal has been laicized (or in the colloquial, “defrocked”) for sexual abuse and the first time any American cardinal has been removed from the priesthood.
On one level, way too common
If McCarrick’s dismissal was a first in two respects, it was terribly routine in another. For 17 years since the scandal first surfaced on the pages of The Boston Globe in early 2002 – initially as a local story – additional reports of abuse have piled up all around the U.S. and in several other countries.
Just as quickly, the problem morphed from one of individuals breaking their priestly vows and criminally abusing youngsters to bishops permitting pedophiliac clergy to move from one place to another, committing serial abuse with growing legions of victims. In fairness, many of the men were sent for treatment. But the treatment was often ineffective, and as a rule they faced legal accountability only when victims or their families took action.
In June of 2002, the nation’s bishops responded to the scandal, adopting the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People at a meeting in Dallas. Among other things, it invoked a “one strike and you’re out policy” in dealing with abusive priests.
However, as time passed reports of past abuse continued to pile up and the policy was not always consistently applied. Through it all, lay Catholics dealt with the fallout – sometimes having to cope with the heartbreak of learning that priests they had come to cherish and trust had engaged in abuse.
Meanwhile, faithful priests had to live with much greater levels of suspicion and scrutiny, all the while trying to help members of their flocks deal with issues of sexual abuse and abused trust.
The scandal – long since declared a “crisis" – festered like an epidemic in the church until finally Pope Francis decided last fall to call the heads of all the nations’ bishops conferences to the Vatican to face up to and deal with the problem.
That conference begins this Thursday.
The challenge of coping
When my ministry formation class started Saturday, I asked how many had heard the news about McCarrick. Almost everyone raised a hand. Then I asked how many were bothered by the preponderance of news reports about clergy sexual abuse. Everyone’s hands went up.
I knew it couldn’t be business as usual. We had to talk about our difficulty – personal as well as organizational. I opened the class to discussion and questions. It was a passionate time, as should have been expected.
These people, about 30 of them, have devoted countless hours over the past two years trying to grow the spirituality and skills needed to serve their church as pastoral ministers. Every time a new story emerges about the abuse crisis, it’s like they are having a rug pulled out from under them. Each time it’s more disheartening, discouraging, dismaying.
Meanwhile, some of their fellow church members – even some in their own families -- have left the practice of their faith, taking with them a deep sense of betrayal. Some have come to enjoy disparaging the entire edifice.
Other Catholics have prayed for perseverance as they feel their faith in the church slipping away. Some feel compelled to declare that their faith is not in either the church or its leaders, but only in Jesus. All of us wonder when, like the agonizing death of a thousand cuts, it will ever end.
The answer is not soon.
More pain to come
The coming meeting in Rome will dominate the headlines while it is in session Thursday through Sunday. Then there will be days, perhaps weeks, of coverage in the meeting’s wake, as reporters and pundits follow up on the many loose ends that flow from it. Meanwhile, each story provides an occasion to resurrect the whole sad decades’ long crisis.
Related matters – like the pope’s very recent admission that some clergy have raped women religious – will hold fast on page one. So will speculation about how McCarrick was able to rise through the ranks of the hierarchy to become one of the most prominent and influential churchmen in the world while his flagrant disregard for celibacy was an open secret in some quarters.
New angles will emerge – as happened earlier this week when the Vatican confirmed that it has unpublished guidelines for how to handle priests who father children -- spiking speculation over how many such children there are worldwide and what their circumstances are.
We Catholic laity are in for more rough seas ahead.
Of course, we must remember that the roughest seas are sailed by the victims of abuse – and we should do all we can, beginning with prayer but not ending there, to help them heal in the days ahead. Pray for them. Embrace them. Hold them up. Hold them close. And if they haven’t yet come forward and need help, gently encourage them to reach out.
Living up to the tragedy
One of the students in Saturday’s ministry class raised his hand almost as soon as our discussion began. “How are we supposed to respond to all the scandal in our church? What are we supposed to tell people, especially non-Catholics, when they ask us about it,” he inquired.
“Thanks for starting with an easy question,” I teased. The room filled up with nervous laughter. This ordeal has been tough on all of us. There are no easy questions, much less easy answers.
I said a very short silent prayer – “Help, Lord!” – and proceeded slowly.
“First, I think we have to remember that our long-term impact on others will be primarily a matter of how we treat them, how we behave, how we live,” I began. In one of the videos we show, Lead Like Jesus co-founder Phil Hodges advises people, “Keep doing what you’re doing until you get further instructions.” I invoked his advice.
Behind the story of almost every person who comes to the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults (RCIA) is the story of a Catholic layperson who has lived a life of integrity and compassion – a life that has drawn another person to explore the nature of our faith. Go with that flow.
Add to that flow. It is working miracles … and will continue to do so as long as we persist in faith, hope and charity.
Remember that the church is so much more than what we read in the headlines, be they good or bad. It is a really, really big tent of love and concern, of ministries and missions, brimming full of good, caring and often selfless people who make countless sacrifices for the good of individuals and the common good of humanity. The church is WE!
What are we doing to make it better?
Spend a little time staying in touch with that larger church so it is there for you, at your fingertips, when you are challenged and need it. Look around. See the Catholic healthcare facilities, the Catholic schools, the Catholic Charities ministries in your community, the good Catholics who are trying to serve the Lord and their neighbors.
Read your parish bulletin. Read your diocesan paper. Check out the news and devotions available on your computer, tablet and phone. Taste and see the goodness that springs from the devotion of Catholic members and leaders alike – all over the world, wherever people are suffering. Let it soak in.
Embrace that Catholic Church. Share that Catholic Church. Serve that Catholic Church.
Doing more in time of need
So much of life is self-fulfilling prophecy. Too much, I think. So in this time of great and growing need, I think we have to turn the tables on current trends.
Ash Wednesday is just two weeks away. And with that day comes the start of Lent – that annual time of prayer, fasting and alms-giving. I think it is getting here just barely in time for us this year.
This year, perhaps more than in any other, not only the church but our neighbors and the world need our prayers, fasting and alms-giving.
- What can we ask God for and thank Him for? Can we do more of both in the Lenten days ahead?
- What can we give up, not to achieve self-mastery but to show God that we wish to be free to serve Him more? Are we willing to put some things aside for a time, to put first things first, to sacrifice just a bit to make room in our hearts and minds to reflect the wonder and interdependence of His creation?
- Where and how can we contribute – be it with our time, talent or treasure – to help others in need, to bring greater purpose to our lives and, perhaps, to help write a better legacy for a church in need?
I knew a bishop once who liked to joke about an atheist who said he was going to destroy the church. A church member replied: “If all the popes and bishops across 2,000 years couldn’t destroy the church, what makes you think you can do it?”
It’s not a time for we Catholics to get over-confident, much less arrogant about the health and well-being of our church. But it is a time for us to realize that we are the hope of a better Catholic Church, a more fervent People of God, a healthier Body of Christ.
Time to get busy.
Go with God’s grace … and with our good wishes.