The clergy sex-abuse scandal has irrevocably changed Catholic culture. Ordinary Catholics are comfortable today doing and saying things that would have been unthinkable to them just a few short years ago. And this is a good thing.
More than changes to Church governance, the policies and procedures, changes in what ordinary Catholics expect of themselves have the potential to improve the health of the Church. We have the potential to help the victims find healing and justice. And our new sense of what is acceptable behavior has the potential to pressure the clergy themselves into better behavior.
The ongoing drama in the Diocese of Buffalo, New York, illustrates these points. Buffalo Bishop Richard Malone has come under fire for covering up clergy sexual abuse. The diocese released a list of 42 credibly accused priests. However, the local TV station found more than 100 names. The FBI is investigating the diocese. A federal grand jury has subpoenaed two retired judges who are overseeing a diocesan program to compensate abuse victims. The usual mess.
In a slightly new and different twist, the diocese recently placed several priests on administrative leave for issues not directly related to sexual abuse of minors.
A local news source reports:
“According to the diocese, ‘unsuitable, inappropriate and insensitive conversations’ took place during a social gathering of seminarians and priests on April 11 that some seminarians found to be offensive.”
Five priests and 14 seminarians were present at this pizza party at a local rectory. Three priests were placed on administrative leave. The other two priests were reprimanded for not doing enough to stop the inappropriate conversation.
Of the 14 seminarians present, five have been interviewed as of this writing. They tell a mutually consistent story of (very) crude conversation that most Catholics would regard as (really) inappropriate for clergy.
To say that the diocese has “trust issues” would be an understatement. Many local Catholics don’t trust anything that comes out of the chancery or Christ the King Seminary. This cloud of suspicion is a basic fact of our current Catholic culture, and it affects how people respond.
When the pizza-party story broke, I saw people defending one of the priests on Facebook. They were sure Bishop Malone was trying to get rid of this priest, whom they regarded as good and orthodox. Eventually, more evidence came out confirming the seminarians’ story that the priest in fact made the inappropriate comments. But the original reaction shows how little trust people have in the Catholic establishment in Buffalo.
I also saw people connecting the dots between priests’ sexually explicit talk in the presence of seminarians, a priest having a “romantic interest” in a seminarian and clergy sexual abuse of minors. In the public mind, tolerance of one issue leads to tolerance of the other issues and to an environment of clergy covering for each other.
Do we, as members of the general public, have all the facts? No, of course not.
In the nature of things, we cannot have all the facts about a private gathering. This is obviously not the healthiest environment for getting to the truth of important matters. But the diocese has only itself to blame. Its pattern of nontransparency induces people to project the worst possible interpretation onto uncertain situations.
This a noteworthy change in Catholic culture. Once upon a time in post-World War II America, Catholics revered their priests. Bing Crosby’s Father Charles O’Malley would never harm anyone or tell a lie. Catholics and non-Catholics alike trusted Bishop Fulton Sheen. Even in the post-Vatican II theological free-for-all, dissenting and faithful Catholics alike would have been uneasy with the assumption that a bishop was lying to them.
Those days are long gone. Questioning clergy and their motives is no longer a marker for disrespect, dissent or anti-Catholicism. We are light-years away even from the scandals of 2002. Back then, some of the best investigative reporting was done by news outlets that also pushed for heterodox changes in Church teaching. Back then, people who loved the Church’s magisterium tried to minimize the scandals. But now, in the post-McCarrick era, Catholic laity across the theological board believe it is socially acceptable, and even praiseworthy, to blow the whistle.
Bishop Malone’s personal secretary, Siobhan O’Connor, was fond of him. Yet she was the person who released incriminating documents. Why? She listened to the victims. She was never the same afterward. She concluded that standing with the victims was serving Christ and his bride, the Church.
A local news reporter, Charlie Specht, has conducted extensive, relentless investigations of the diocese. (Type his name into the search bar of WKBW News along with “clergy sex abuse” and you’ll see what I mean.) Unlike the crew of lapsed Catholics and atheists at The Boston Globe who revealed Cardinal Bernard Law’s malfeasance, Specht is a devout practicing Catholic. He loves and respects the Church. He wants her to be what she ought to be.
One more, unambiguously good sign: The seminarians did not cower. They spoke out. They may get kicked around by their formators. We don’t really know what is going on internally. But these men knew that they would have support from the Catholic community and the general public.
I don’t know if the Pope or the U.S. bishops are going to come up with changes to canon law or new policies and procedures. Personally, I think the old policy was good. Obey the Ten Commandments, especially Nos. 6 (Do not commit adultery) and 8 (Do not bear false witness.) As Buffalo whistleblower O’Connor said, “There’s nothing wrong with the code of conduct. It needs to be enforced.”
Catholic culture is changing. Clergy, priests and bishops, you’re on notice: We are watching. We aren’t leaving the Church. Neither are we staying and going back to “business as usual.” Deal with it, gentlemen. This is the new reality of Catholic culture.
And ordinary practicing Catholics, take heart. Your vigilance is making a difference.
recently held a “Summit for Survivors of the Sexual Revolution” April 26-27 in Lake Charles, Louisiana.