This Register Symposium is not a physical conference, but a written collection of shared reflections from independent contributors with specialized knowledge regarding the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The nine experts have been asked to reflect on the root causes of the problem, and the most effective path forward for the Church.
In terms of a root cause: The sexual revolution of the 1960s reshaped our culture and impacted everyone, including clergy. It’s right for people to demand a higher standard of behavior from bishops and priests. The Church, especially her leaders and ministers, must live a holy witness in order to be credible. But it’s unwise to think that the Church is somehow immune to the dysfunctions of the society where she pursues her mission.
The more closely the Church identifies with any culture, the more its problems penetrate her work. That’s not an excuse for any past wrongdoing, it doesn’t make a poisonous record any less ugly, and it doesn’t diminish our very serious obligation to help survivors of clergy abuse to heal, for however long that takes.
Facts are facts, though, and if we really want to solve the abuse crisis, the data are clear that the sexual abuse of minors is far more widespread, including in public institutions, than simply a “Catholic clergy” problem.
Within the Church herself, I’ve met very few parents who think the abuse problem is mainly about clericalism or the abuse of power. Those things may be factors, but predatory homosexuality played a major role in most of the abuse cases we know about, and laypeople are well aware of it.
Ignoring or downplaying that reality only undermines the efforts of the Church to purify her work. I also worry that Rome tends to see the abuse crisis as mainly an “American” problem, when cases in Latin America, Europe and elsewhere show that the sexual abuse of minors is clearly a global Church crisis.
Finally, we bishops do need to be accountable for our actions on the abuse issue, and faithful laypersons need to have a greater role in ensuring that.
In my experience, most American bishops are genuinely good men who have been, and are, committed to protecting their people and purifying their own hearts of any tolerance or complacency toward the abuse crisis.
I hope laypeople will mix their appropriate anger with a confidence that their bishops are listening to them and sincerely determined to make things right.
Archbishop Charles Chaput is the archbishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.