The Rev. Dr. Marie Fortune says that if Pope Benedict were to ask her what he should do about the scandal of child sexual abuse in his church, this is what she'd tell him.
In fairness to the Pope, there is probably nothing he could have said to the church in Ireland that would be sufficient to bring healing to the thousands of survivors of sexual abuse at the hands of pedophile priests. Too little, too late. I don’t think anyone ever imagined the numbers of victims, the numbers of abusive priests, and the material (not to mention the spiritual) cost facing the Roman Catholic Church. But as the crisis erupts again in Europe and the U.S. with serious questions being raised about the Pope himself, one has to wonder if the men in charge have learned anything in the past 20 years. It would appear not.
If the Vatican were to ask me for advice on how to handle this situation (which they will not), here are my ten steps to justice and healing:
1. Words are important but actions are the real test. Anyone who knew and did nothing or knew and covered it up should no longer be in a position of authority in the church. Holding individual bishops and administrators accountable would speak volumes.
2. Stop expecting any sympathy from the flock; you don’t deserve it.
3. Stop being defensive and complaining that the media coverage is a “pretext for attacking the Church.” You created this problem by not responding to disclosures of abuse and by trying to hide them instead of dealing with them.
4. Stop empathizing with Bishops who hid the abuse of children because they wanted to protect the church’s reputation. They sacrificed thousands of children and set in motion an institutional failure that now threatens the future of the church.
5. Come clean and own up to the system’s failures and tell us what you are doing to fix it. Remember: repentance, according to Ezekiel, means to “get a new mind and a new heart.”
6. Don’t ever use the Gospel passage about the woman caught in adultery when Jesus said that anyone without sin should cast the first stone to discuss any of this. Instead check out Luke 17:1-2: “Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come. It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck and you were thrown in the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.” Jesus was serious about accountability; you should be too.
7. If you are serious, establish a commission to really investigate and recommend structural changes because this is a structural problem. Be sure to include non-bishops and non-Catholics who actually have expertise.
8. Stop pretending to “protect” the institutional church by hiding from victims and survivors. Your first job is pastoral and they are your flock. All they are seeking is justice and healing, and they have a right to expect both from their church. In fact, your defensive, lawyer-driven responses have placed the institutional church in great jeopardy. You have compromised the integrity of the church and caused many to question their faith.
9. Remember: they don’t expect us to be perfect, just to be faithful.
10. “Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your free, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” (Hebrews 12:12)
So Pope Benedict, call me. Let’s chat.