This past week, the grand jury report on the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania came out. Lists of accused clergy were published, and the policy of transferring and protecting the priests from criminal charges was painfully visible. The agony this causes, the memories it evokes, the disillusionment and disappointment it generates cannot be underestimated. Moments like this make it painfully challenging to be a Catholic.
Anger abounds and disgust with the clergy is inevitable. Charges of hypocrisy and are well-placed, and the erosion of trust in authority becomes even more corrosive. Mental illness or distorted perceptions may have been responsible, but the authority structure in the late twentieth century, such as it was, failed to address the issues effectively. Decades later, it seems as if the choices that were made were designed to perpetuate the behaviors and protect perpetrators at the cost of the victims.
The suffering of victims is compounded by the powerful effect predators had on whole families. Faith was shattered, relationships disrupted and many not restored. For victims, there was the agony of denied credibility, the shame of disclosure and the label itself a burden. Healing was elusive, decades in the making if it happened at all, and acknowledgment from the authority structure lacking.
The actions of these representatives of the hierarchy stain every church door. Believers struggle with swallowing these realities in light of the church’s teaching. Non-believers wonder why any one could ascribe to a religion with what seems to be pervasive moral turpitude in the leadership.
It is heartbreaking to see all that is positive or good within Catholicism be obscured by the actions of these members of the church. It is heartbreaking to experience the shame and suffering, to know how victims and families suffer. It is heartbreaking to know that the perpetrators were allowed to survive and that the victims’ lives were irreparably changed, and all shared the same beliefs. Those beliefs clearly did not sanction those behaviors.
While there is fury against the hierarchy, the reality is that the hierarchy does not embody the whole church. The church itself is made up of the most ordinary of people, and they far outnumber the ordained. The message of faith is not confined to those who wear collars. Faith is gifted from parent to child, friend to friend, and it is not mediated by the hierarchy alone. It is more than monolithic buildings and greater than the scandals which historically haunt that authority structure. The simplicity of faith and so the truth of Catholicism rests with those very ordinary persons who can point the hierarchy in the right direction by truly practicing the faith in the very ordinary circumstances of life.
It is heartbreaking to know such excruciating failure within the church. No excuse will ever be adequate and no apology will ever be sufficient. It is time for the church to embrace the goodness of the ordinary people and the sincerity of their practice and belief in God and the Eucharist. They are the true standard-bearers of faith and their breaking hearts deserve the tenderest response.