ROME — The clergy abuse crisis has weakened bishops’ authority and permanently changed the Church in America, according to Cardinal Francis George of Chicago.
And the Church's response to the crisis is an important time for penance and for learning, he said.
The cardinal was interviewed in Rome recently while making his once-every-five-year ad limina visit to Pope John Paul II.
Asked whether the Church in the United States is coming out of the clergy sex-abuse scandal, the cardinal said the crisis “will remain with us because the victims remain with us, and you have to care for victims continually.”
The Church also has to ensure that accused priests are treated fairly, he said, and the Vatican is still examining related legal aspects.
Meanwhile, he indicated, the Church community has taken on a new character as it establishes programs that train adults to do “what we're supposed to do as adults” — protect children.
The cardinal cautioned that the moral authority of the bishops has been weakened by the scandal, allowing “all kinds of separate agendas” to come out.
“We'll see which of them is passing and which of them is not,” he said.
Asked to comment on Cardinal George's assessment, Catholic writer Russell Shaw agreed the bishops’ moral authority has been weakened and that power struggles are the result.
“Loyal, orthodox Catholics used to pretty much accept what the bishops said at face value,” he said. “Many no longer do that. The attitude has become ‘show me.’”
“On the side of liberal, dissenting elements … they want to take power away from the clerical hierarchy in order to empower themselves — they want to be the ones calling the shots in the Church,” he said. “On the side of more middle-of-the road, orthodox elements, the agenda has more to do with power-sharing. They don't want to seize power from the clerical hierarchy; they merely wish to have a reasonable, responsible say in decision making.”
Cardinal George said it is frustrating that even with the structures in place to respond well to victims and protect children, the culture seems unwilling to forgive the scandal.
“We're ashamed by it and rightly so. We wonder how it can happen, what went wrong — we have to learn from it,” he said. “But the point of the Church is that sin can be forgiven, whereas the culture keeps going around and around and around the same thing and seems unable to come to any kind of forgiveness, and without forgiveness there's no freedom. So the Church has to both put things into shape and yet also continue to preach forgiveness, and that's a formula that we haven't quite found yet.”
“It's a terrible crime, and there is very often more than one crime,” Cardinal George said. “Just one case is terrible. … The boy is ruined for life.”
At the same time, “Out of the thousands and thousands of priests who have served in my archdiocese in 50 years, 47 have committed this crime, that we know of,” he said.
Sue Archibald, a spokeswoman for the victim-survivors group LinkUp, debated Cardinal George on the topic of forgiveness last year in Chicago.
“The forgiveness issue with survivors is a very difficult issue. Forgiveness has the word ‘give’ in it, and many survivors feel as though they shouldn't have to give anything to the Church because of the harm that was inflicted upon them,” she said. “Many people feel forgiveness becomes another tool the Church uses for repressing or for minimizing the abuse they've suffered.”
Many individuals have forgiven perpetrators and the Church, and they have found that to be a healing step, she said. At the same time, however, forgiveness cannot mean abandoning issues of accountability and responsibility, she said.
None of the accused priests in the Chicago archdiocese are currently in ministry — 22 resigned, 20 were removed from ministry and 13 are deceased.
The archdiocese spent $26.9 million since 1950 on settlements and victims’ assistance, nearly $6 million dollars on legal fees and nearly $6 million on treatment and monitoring of accused priests.
Cardinal George has been a model bishop in his care for priests who have been removed, said Joe Maher, founder of Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a Detroit-based organization founded in April 2002 to assist accused priests. Theological advisers for the group include Cardinal Avery Dulles and Father Richard John Neuhaus.
“He's seen his men, he's provided their living expenses, they have a good support group with each other,” Maher said of Cardinal George. He said the majority of removed priests nationwide “have never talked to their bishops, and their bishops refuse to talk to them.”
Nationally, about 80% of the clergy-abuse cases involved crimes against young adolescent boys.
Cardinal George said “we have to look at homosexuality as a cause, but I think we have to keep it in proportion.” It is important to remember that there are priests who are innocent of any crime or sinful lifestyle but who are homosexual.
“Does that impede their ministry? Perhaps in some cases it does, in some cases it doesn't seem to, but how do you know?” he said. “So it's difficult to address adequately, but it does have to be addressed. But it has to be addressed without alarmist sentiments and without a priori kinds of conclusions.”
Cardinal George said he knows of no seminary in the United States today that would accept a candidate who has been active in the homosexual lifestyle. But even beyond actions, the understanding of sexual orientation is also being addressed in seminary selection, he said.
“In general if someone is oriented in this way, and it's a definitive orientation, he's discouraged from going on because there's too much tension in his life. There's something unresolved in one's personality,” Cardinal George said. “There are particular manifestations of difficulties at times in every personality, but there's a [consolidation] of them in the homosexual personality, I'm told. What you don't want to do is scapegoat the homosexual community as such for our sins. But you have to address it because it's a phenomenon, and there are priests who have sinned and have sinned badly.”
Cardinal George said if a man cannot see himself as a husband and father, he cannot be a priest, because a priest is married to the Church and brings forth through his ministry new children to his bride.
He acknowledged that some people might think he should be more “absolute” on the question of homosexuals in the priesthood. But, he said, “the problem is the discovery of sexual orientation takes place at different times in people's lives.
“There's a whole range of phenomena when you're talking about orientation — absolutely, partially. Actions are clearer, and certainly if someone has acted out in that way, particularly if he's lived a gay lifestyle, he's not a candidate for priesthood.”
Oblate of St. Francis de Sales Father John Harvey, founding director of Courage, a program for homosexual persons seeking to lead chaste lives, said he would agree with the cardinal's statement but would nuance it further.
Father Harvey said he has known many homosexual priests who are leading chaste lives and doing well in their ministry.
“A priest can transcend his inclinations and act the role of a father and be a father, and he can do that by God's grace,” he said. “I have seen some homosexual priests do this.”
At the same time, Father Harvey said, if Rome were to decide that men with homosexual inclinations should not be accepted into the seminary, he would support that decision.
Ellen Rossini writes from Richardson, Texas.