Sunday, March 7, 2004

Church must learn from abuse crisis

Bill Lonneman
Guest columnist

With the release of the John Jay Report, detailing the sexual abuse that has occurred in the Roman Catholic Church in the United States over the past 50 years, we are witnessing another chapter in the suffering of the Body of Christ. What will we learn from the report? Is anything really being done to address the root causes of this crisis?

Flashback to March 2003: Three of us from the coordinating board of Cincinnati Voice of the Faithful are sitting in the office of the Archbishop Daniel Pilarczyk. We had requested this meeting with him to clarify what Voice of the Faithful is about and to share our goals: support of the survivors of clergy sexual abuse, support of priests of integrity, and shaping structural change so that such abuse does not occur again.

During our conversation that day with the archbishop, we discussed what we understand to be one of the deeper reasons for the abuse: clericalism, that is, the structure that has taken shape within the Roman Catholic Church over centuries wherein the clergy have received a preferred status, establishing an inappropriate separation between themselves and the laity. We believe clericalism is one key factor that has led to the misuse of power in the church, with sexual abuse being the most horrendous manifestation. In our view, the problems in the church with accountability, communication, and collaboration between the clergy and laity are largely a result of clericalism and related structural problems in the operation of the institution.

We expressed these concerns quite clearly to the archbishop that day in March. We spoke with confidence since, among the three of us; we had more than a century of service to the church as both professional and volunteer ministers on the parish, high school, Archdiocesan and interfaith levels.

The archbishop acknowledged the seriousness of our concerns, and after some clarifying of definition, he allowed that there might be some problem with clericalism within the church. However, he expressed his conviction that the problem was mostly due to "a few bad apples," and that once these individual priests were removed, things would be much better. We pressed him on the point, talking about the systemic nature of the problems of clericalism and abuse of power. He protested that this "over-above" mentality was not taught to priests in their training or required of the faithful; we pointed out that it was real nonetheless and that the church has rarely tried to counteract this largely unspoken status quo by encouraging more collaborative management of church institutions. The archbishop said that if he told his priests that they needed to act in a more "democratic," collaborative style, he would "have a revolution" on his hands. There was silence in the room.

Now here we are, a year later, having just entered the penitential season of Lent. Like Jesus, the church that rose from the community of his disciples has both a divine and human nature. None of us is arguing about the divine aspects of church teaching derived from the revelation of Christ. But the human aspects of the church will continue to need scrutiny and reform in every generation because, well, we're human. While there has been progress on the level of prevention and response to abuse, Catholics know that very little has changed on a structural level in the church over the past 25 years.

The generation raised after Vatican II are now the adults in our parishes. Some of them haven't read all the documents, but they have been paying attention to the essence of the council; they know what they're looking for in the church. A lot of it has to do with things that adults do together: respect, dialogue and participation. The final tragedy of the sex-abuse crisis would be if we didn't learn its lessons, repent and change our ways.


Bill Lonneman is co-chairman of the coordinating board of Cincinnati Voice of the Faithful.

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