U.S. Catholics See Priest Scandal Testing Faith and Vatican
April 8, 2002
By FRANK BRUNI
New York TImes
For more than a decade, Catholic leaders insisted that
child sexual abuse by priests was an aberrant horror,
expertly quelling any significant protest among American
Catholics and containing a debate about the need to reform
church traditions. Cases of priests' preying on children
came and went, and though some of them badly embarrassed
the church, none ultimately shook it.
Over the last month, however, that seems to have changed.
With each newly revealed example of a priest's crimes, a
prelate's complicity and the church's failure to protect
its most vulnerable charges, the sexual abuse problem has
moved from the realm of fleeting scandal to the category of
genuine crisis. More and more leading Catholics,
conservatives as well as liberals, are beginning to speak
of it in historic terms, as a potentially pivotal
crossroads for the church in this country.
"I don't know of anything that has affected the whole
church so much in the United States," said Bishop Thomas J.
Gumbleton of Detroit, one of the church's liberal voices.
That assessment drew agreement from William Donohue,
president of the Catholic League, a conservative group, who
also looked back over the church's history in this country
and said, "There is nothing that would rival this."
But it is not at all clear yet what the fallout will be. A
growing chorus of Catholics is calling for a re-examination
of everything from the celibate, all-male culture of the
priesthood to the limited role of laity in the governance
of parishes and dioceses, and some American bishops and
cardinals seem willing to listen.
But on many of these issues, Rome has the final say. And
across the centuries, it has often responded to unrest
among American Catholics with a refusal to budge, standing
its ground and holding fast to traditions and practices
even as some American Catholics put greater distance
between themselves and the institutional church or walked
That is how the Holy See responded to what several Catholic
historians called the first great crisis for the church in
this country, which came just after the Revolutionary War,
when lay trustees wanted more control over their parishes.
They lost that battle, and the church marched on.
A similar struggle occurred during what many Catholic
scholars identified as the last crisis to hit the church in
this country: the furor of many American Catholics over
Pope Paul VI's 1968 encyclical, "Humanae Vitae," which
restated the church's condemnation of contraception.
The encyclical ignored the advice that the Vatican had
solicited from many bishops and theologians, and it ignored
the reality of many Catholics' lives. Some priests staged
public protests and left the priesthood, while many
parishioners simply decided to reject the pope's
pronouncement, and others became estranged from the church.
At the very least, child sexual abuse by Catholic priests -
and the coverup by Catholic bishops and cardinals - could
effect a similar breach. One likely outcome is that a
rising number of American Catholics will separate their
religious faith from the institution that is supposed to
nurture it and, as a result, donate less money to the
church and spend less time in the pews.
But the current crisis is in many ways more profound than
the one that the church faced in the late 1960's, when
American Catholics could decide, as a matter of individual
conscience, simply to ignore a distant dictum from the
In this case, many of them are being forced to re-evaluate
their relationships with the priests in their daily lives
and the compassion and intentions of the bishops in their
"This calls into question such a fundamental trust," said
Susan Secker, a moral theologian at Seattle University who
was a member of a Catholic study group in 1993 that made
recommendations to bishops on how to handle child sexual
abuse by priests.
"It's not easy to compare it - it's not like you disagree
with teachings or with a position," Ms. Secker said. "This
is a betrayal of trust, with people trying to understand
how men of God who were helping them with their faith could
be involved in this. I think it's fundamentally
Because of that, the repercussions of the current crisis
could go beyond the quiet and private disaffection of
Catholic parishioners, and many leading Catholics believe
They maintain that the wound to the church is so grave that
it compels a dramatic show of action, possibly including an
end to mandatory celibacy for priests, which some experts
believe to be one of the aggravating factors in the crisis,
and permission for priests to marry.
They cite recent comments by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of
Los Angeles as evidence that such a movement is gathering
force. Although Cardinal Mahony is not generally regarded
as a progressive prelate, he told reporters: "The Eastern
Catholic Churches have always had a married priesthood, and
I guess it works out fine. So I think it should be
The Rev. Richard McBrien, a liberal theologian at the
University of Notre Dame, said: "Obligatory celibacy is
dead; it's just a matter of time. It's like those old
comedy movies where someone is dead and they touch the body
and say, `Joe, how are you?' And all of a sudden the body
"That doesn't mean," Father McBrien added, "that the
funeral will be held immediately."
So far, the signals from the Vatican suggest that it never
will be. The Vatican and its American emissaries weathered
an earlier spasm of intense attention to child sexual abuse
by priests in 1992, touched off by the case of a former
Massachusetts priest, James Porter, who molested scores of
children. After that journalists moved on to different
subjects, advocates for change labored in relative silence,
and the church went about its usual ways.
There are differences now. In many cities and states, law
enforcement officials are scrutinizing the church more
aggressively than they did then, prompting church leaders
in some dioceses to release the names and files of priests
accused of child sexual abuse. Journalists and lawyers seem
more intent on connecting the dots of the crisis in a way
that leads to the highest levels of the church in the
"It's an entirely new era," said A. W. Richard Sipe, a
former Benedictine monk and the author of several books on
the sexual behavior of priests. "The hierarchy has never
been challenged this way in the United States before."
Mr. Sipe predicted, based on his regular conversations with
reporters and lawyers around the country, that the series
of disclosures since the beginning of the year has just
He even alluded to what was arguably Catholicism's greatest
crisis over the last five centuries, the Reformation, when
there was also a widespread belief in the corruption of
That analogy does not quite fit. The Reformation, which
gave birth to Protestantism, also hinged on theological
questions, and few experts foresee Americans leaving the
church in organized droves.
But many suspect that the way the church operates in this
country - with bishops and cardinals moving priests from
parish to parish at their unchallenged will - is under
siege. They see an unavoidable need for what David Tracy, a
professor of theology at the University of Chicago, called
"a democratization of the present structure."
"The situation is so grave that only some kinds of serious
moves, both symbolically and practically, can really
address it," Dr. Tracy said. "This is absolutely shocking