I have tried in recent columns to respond to some of the many questions that people have been asking about the scandals that began with the revelations about the predations of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, were magnified by the release of the Pennsylvania grand jury report, and have now expanded further with the publication of several testimonies by Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, former apostolic nuncio to the United States.
I would like to continue tackling some of the more frequent and important questions I’ve been hearing in some recent talks, comment boxes, social media posts, phone calls and emails.
Can I still trust the clergy? It’s clear that trust has been shattered for many Catholics by the actions and omissions of priests and bishops who have proven themselves untrustworthy. Two of the online comments to one of my recent articles made this point emphatically.
One man, John, wrote, “You give advice, but we no longer trust you.”
Another, Alan, commented, “After 2002, we trusted the bishops, though they obviously did not trust us, the laity, with all of their programs, training and background checks. Now it is far too late. We cannot trust priests. We cannot trust religious. We cannot trust bishops. We cannot trust the Pope. … I want to be as clear as possible: I do not think you are a homosexual or a pedophile. I believe that you are possibly a very orthodox and good priest. Despite that, I would die before I let my son be alone with you, because I cannot trust you, and that goes for all priests, religious and bishops. We cannot trust you.”
Trust is a firm belief in someone else, that he’s reliable, honest, upright. It’s a positive “prejudice,” an act of faith in someone that he can be counted on to tell the truth, to keep his promises and commitments, and not to take advantage of you. Lack of trust is likewise a prejudgment that someone is probably dishonest, deceitful, unreliable, corrupt or even traitorous.
In the past, thanks to the accumulated goodness of generations of faithful priests, most people were predisposed to trust that priests were men of God, to believe that they told the truth, to have confidence that when they acted, it flowed from love of God and neighbor. It was this general trust in God and in clergy that abusers exploited in order to gain access to their victims and various bishops took advantage of when they lied to victims and their parents, reassigned abusers and covered up these sacrileges.
After the scandals of 2002 and 2018, many now treat priests and bishops with suspicion instead of trust, with doubt rather than the benefit of the doubt. It’s clearly part of the reparation priests and bishops today must do for the sins of their brothers.
Regaining trust will be the work of years. It will be achieved not by policies, procedures and protocols, but by men who prove themselves to be holy and trustworthy. The building blocks for rebuilding trust must be laid now through a transparent, candid, virtuous housecleaning, in which people can’t help but see that bishops and priests are following Christ rather than lawyers and are acting as men of God and outraged spiritual fathers rather than as public-relations men with collars.
Priests and bishops are ordained in persona Christi. What people desperately need to witness for trust to be rebuilt is that clerics are acting in the person of Christ cum flagello de funiculis, with a whip in his hands (John 2:15), passionately seeking to drive out those who have tried to make his Father’s house a den of abusers, sexual immorality, worldliness and cover-up.
While people’s lack of trust, however, is certainly understandable, I would humbly ask John, Alan and others to recognize that they still have freedom and to question whether choosing to live as if all priests are corrupt until proven otherwise is for their own spiritual good.
When I became a pastor of an inner-city parish in 2005, I was bombarded by people asking for “bus money” to visit their “ailing mother” or “sick child” in Boston. It was easy and tempting to become cynical and frustrated every time someone rang the rectory doorbell. I could see, however, what was happening within me: My heart was hardening. So I made a prayerful commitment not to greet each new poor person as a conman, lest because of fatigue and impatience with dissemblers, I turn away someone telling me the truth. It didn’t mean that I became gullible, naïve or an enabler of addicts. It did mean that I went to the door with a different heart, prejudiced to receive a person with trust rather than suspicion.
Unlike most who came to my rectory asking $32 for “bus money,” the vast majority of priests and bishops are not pretending. The vast majority are not abusers or protectors of abusers. They would rather be tortured and killed than ever harm God’s kids. They have many flaws and weaknesses, and even the best recognize how far they are from the sanctity they desire and their priestly calling deserves, but despite their defects, they said Yes to Christ’s call and continue to say Yes. Most, I believe, would continue to say Yes even if they knew ahead of time they would be suspected by some of being part of a cabal of abusers, even if they themselves would have to suffer a false accusation, because their love for God and love for those God loves is stronger than even their pain at such a reputational crucifixion.
Jesus Christ still trusts priests enough to call them and confide to them the continuation of his mission, just like he trusted the apostles, even though one would betray him and all but one would at some point let him down. To trust Jesus means that we place our trust in what he says and does, something that at times is far from easy.
To trust doesn’t mean to be naïve. St. Paul calls us to test everything and retain what is good (1 Thessalonians 5:21). This is another way of saying, “Trust but verify.” It’s to have a prejudice, a working presumption awaiting confirmation or refutation, that someone the Church believes has been called by God to be a priest, ordained and sent out is a man of God rather than a scoundrel. To have the opposite prejudice is to risk that one would end up rejecting those Christ has truly sent — and, as Jesus said, to reject such a person is to reject him and the Father who sent him (Luke 10:16).
How can I continue to hope? By focusing more on Christ, who is our hope (1 Timothy 1:1) than we do on the filth. There’s a temptation for many of us to spend more time on blogs and news articles chronicling the scandal than we do on the word of God and good spiritual reading. Christ is still present and active, and we can’t forget his resurrection because of the scandal of sins that led to his crucifixion.
One thing that helps me is Church history. For many years I was a guide to St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican, which was rebuilt between 1506 and1626 and ultimately served as an architectural and artistic response to the scandals of the Protestant Reformation. Within the massive pillars holding up interior of the rebuilt church are the saints who founded religious orders crucial in the Counter-Reformation. The Lord, likewise, wants us to become saintly pillars in the reconstruction of the Church today.
Last week, I was at Windsor Castle north of London and saw in the famous Waterloo Room a portrait of Cardinal Ercole Consalvi, the Holy See’s secretary of state during the time of Napoleon. In 1801, the Frenchman told him that he would annihilate the Church if it opposed his will, but Cardinal Consalvi replied, with both wit and faith, “If in 1,800 years the clergy have failed to destroy the Church, do you really think that you’ll be able to do it?” The gates of hell will ultimately not prevail (Matthew 16:18). God will conquer evil with good (Romans 12:21).
Hope is ultimately an anchor thrown beyond the clouds, the Letter to the Hebrews tells us (6:19). It’s a trust in God and in his promises, that Christ will be with us in the Church he founded until the end of time. One of the works of the Holy Spirit is to help us respond to this situation not just with our feet firmly on the ground, but with our minds and hearts lifted up to the God who hates the evils that rip his Church apart even more than we do. In the midst of very stormy and polluted seas, we need to throw our anchors upward, lest we be tossed, turned and fall from the ark that is Peter’s Barque.
What can I do? People love the Church too much to sit on the sidelines doing nothing. They want to make sure their anger remains righteous rather than ruinous. The doctrine of the communion of saints teaches that every good action strengthens Christ’s Mystical Body, the Church, and every evil action weakens it. In response to decades of infidelity in doctrine and morals that have enfeebled the Church, all of us are called to help build the Church up by corresponding to what God is doing and wants to do through us.
This involves prayer, which is the first thing a Catholic ought always do in any situation: prayer for the victims, for those scandalized, for the leaders of the Church. It involves fasting, because some demons are only expunged through this prayer of the body (Matthew 17:21). It involves the help of God in the sacraments. It involves staying informed, without becoming obsessed, and helping where the talents and opportunities God provides us can be of service. It involves charity, beginning with reaching out to those who have suffered most, the victims of sexual abuse in the Church and their families, fighting on their behalf and accompanying them. It involves reaching out to those who are aching spiritually — family members, friends, fellow parishioners, priests and bishops, including those ailing in secret — in order to ask them how they’re doing and remind them of the reason for the hope that we bear within (1 Peter 3:15). There’s much for each of us to do, and every prayer or good deed is part of the rebuilding the Church desperately needs.
Many questions remain, on which I hope to focus in subsequent columns.