Catholics in Europe are now suffering what the late Father Richard John Neuhaus in 2002 termed the “Long Lent.”
That was the year, of course, when The Boston Globe began exposing a cover-up of clerical sexual abuse in the Archdiocese of Boston.
Since the release last year of two official reports detailing such cover-ups, the Church in Ireland has been wracked by turmoil. Clerical sex scandals are dominating headlines in Holland, Switzerland and Austria.
In Germany, there have been more than 300 allegations of abuse in various Church-run institutions. In fact, one of the most high-profile scandals in Pope Benedict XVI’s homeland has involved an abusive priest in the diocese formerly headed by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger.
The news has threatened to tarnish the Pope, even though Cardinal Ratzinger had very little to do with the abusive Father Peter Hullermann; lower-level officials — one of whom resigned last week — brought him to the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising for treatment and assigned him to pastoral work.
Nevertheless, the scandal poses serious concerns for the Church. As veteran Catholic journalist John Allen observes, the Hullermann affair may not be the only case from the five years when the future Pope led the Bavarian diocese.
“When similar scandals have erupted in other parts of the world, one report or one accusation typically breeds others,” Allen writes on CNN’s website. “If revelations emerge in drips and drabs about other abuser priests from the years Benedict was archbishop, it could tie his papacy down fighting public relations battles for some time to come. Second, if other cases come to light, they could damage the Pope’s ability to resolve what many observers regard as the principal unfinished business of the crisis.”
How is the Church to respond? In a Christian way. Justice must be done wherever people have been abused, and both victim and abuser must be treated with an eye not only to healing but also eternal salvation.
For the Church at large, almost all of whose members have nothing to do with sexual or other kinds of abuse, it can be frustrating to see the body of Christ and her earthly leaders vilified in the public square. After all, it has been documented that public schools have had a track record far worse when it comes to responding to sexual abuse. Why have public schools been able to evade the transparency with which the Church is, belatedly, handling such abuse? Why are they not the subject of scathing articles in the major media? And no one ever mentions the moral “abuse” that many popular television shows inflict on children on a daily basis.
In no way would we want to downplay the seriousness of sexual abuse. But we would propose seeing the whole affair in light of the events we commemorate this week.
Jesus was the subject of mass adulation when he entered Jerusalem riding on a donkey, though there were some in town who felt he needed to be “brought down.” By the end of that week, those who felt that way had so manipulated the masses that people lined the streets to spit on him and hurl barbed comments as he carried his cross.
So, too, the Church. One day she is praised for the work she does with the victims of an earthquake, the next she is tortured in public for the infidelity of some of her sons.
No servant can be greater than the Master, Our Lord says. Can the Church, then, expect to have an easy time in the world, when her divine founder went through the most brutal treatment on Good Friday? He received from the guards “royal garments,” a scepter and a crown — but all in mockery. He received a multitude of lashes on his body, which he had hours before promised his disciples would be “given up for you.” Even as the guards inflicted that pain on Jesus, the Lord was offering his body for them. He received a trial from a judge who let his fear of the masses sway him.
And he “opened not his mouth.”
The Way of the Cross notes three times when the Lord fell under the weight of what would be the instrument of his death. He tells us in the Gospel to take up our cross and follow him. Imagine: We are to take up the instrument of our own deaths. And in our striving to follow him, we also fall — many times.
Those responsible for overseeing their local churches have sometimes fallen by not doing what they should. They too must get up and continue carrying the cross. There is no other way to Easter.
The Church is constantly being purified and renewed — often at the same time. There are so many hopeful signs in the Church at this time. Weeds and wheat are always growing together until the time of the final harvest.
While it is tragic that some members of the Church will leave the body of Christ because of abuse and the nonaction of some of the Church’s leaders in response to it, there are many people entering that body. Annually, thousands of everyday people petition to become Catholic and, after a suitable period of instruction, are received at the Easter Vigil.
Right now, thousands of traditional Anglicans plan to enter the Church en masse, taking advantage of the apostolic constitution Anglicanorum Coetibus that Pope Benedict promulgated last year.
In other words, there are groups of people who want to board the Barque of Peter — a ship that, if we are to believe the mainstream media, is sinking.
There is precedent. Though the apostles ran away when the Lord was suffering his passion, something prevented them from giving up completely. In the darkest days of persecution, from the first centuries of the Church through the scores of times when dictatorial powers thought they had stamped out all superstition in their lands, disciples have clung to Christ and his Church.
What kept them faithful?
Long before his crucifixion, Jesus gave his apostles a sign, one that he hoped they would recall in the darkest hours of Holy Week. He led Peter, James and John up a mountain and let them see him become transfigured — something so otherworldly that it was very difficult for the Gospel writers to describe it.
It’s a scene that we would do well to keep in our minds as we go through our own Lent and Holy Week.