Dialogue 22
Of Apologies and Reform

Celibacy 1  |  Celibacy 2  |  Celibacy 3

A. W. Richard Sipe

December 8, 2010

Dialogue about important questions is all I have ever advocated—I have worked hard and fought in every way I have known for discussion about every aspect of the sexual abuse of minors by Catholic clergy. One goal is to have that dialogue start in Catholic seminaries. Although I think that a married priesthood and the ordination of women is within the evolutionary future of the Church I have never been an activist in these movements. Even in being an expert witness and consultant in sexual abuse cases against church entities I have always looked for ways to review and bring significant issues into open discourse. My service focuses on the protection of children from the assault of disordered and perverted power. I am not alone.

Msgr. Charles Scicluna, the Vatican prosecutor in the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, raised a credible candid voice in September 2010 when he admitted to the press that sex abuse by Catholic clergy was an age-old problem that needs to be rooted out. He stated, "I don't think it's a question of happening. It has always happened. It's important that people talk about it, because otherwise we cannot bring the healing which the church can offer to people who need it — both the victims and perpetrators."

Last month a new clerical hero burst onto center stage in the midst of our Catholic sexual crisis. Robert Zollitsch, archbishop of Freiburg and Chairman of the German Episcopal Conference went beyond simple apologies for clergy sexual malfeasance and advocated for "taking the initiative toward dialogue…that includes ways to talk about awkward subjects in the area of sexuality, the vow of celibacy or the receiving of the sacrament by divorcees." (September 20, 2010)

He is on target, neither defensive nor apologetic when he focused on the need to review the “personal, spiritual and sacramental life of our clergy [that] has long been pressing.” He also admitted, "We know that we failed," adding that the widespread problem of molestation by pedophile priests had been "recognized too late."

The larger challenges of the current crisis in the Roman Catholic Church are not limited to behaviors, but impinge on the structure of ministry— dangerous questions about power.

Why is priestly ministry limited to men? Why can’t women be lawfully ordained? Does the all-male-power-structure generate and perpetuate misogyny and homosexuality? Is mandatory celibacy necessary, or even desirable for diocesan clergy? Should clerical celibacy be perpetual? Is blind obedience to the pope moral? Is the idea of infallibility wrong—destructive and not in keeping with Christian life and mission?

The Roman Catholic Church is in a crisis mode because these unsolved issues are vibrant and prominent in the minds of many thoughtful Catholics and crucial to the continued membership of some.

Sexual abuse of minors by bishops and priests is the symptom behavior that brings the whole of the sexual/celibate agenda into unavoidable attention.

Pope John Paul II called clergy abuse an “American problem.” He and Benedict XVI both warned that “secular” values and culture influenced errant priests. Nonetheless irrefutable evidence indicates otherwise.  Facts are mounting. The pattern, practice, and record of abuse of minors by Catholic clergy and the church response now shouts for itself. Although the fight to expose the phenomenon has gone on for 25 years, 2010 appears to be the tipping point in the worldwide awareness of Catholic clergy abuse.

United States: Reports and complaints of sexual abuse by over 15,000 victims involving 6,000 priests are now on record.

                        On April 18, 2008 Pope Benedict XVI met with five Boston victims of clergy sex abuse while on his U.S. visit. He apologized to them.

                        Australia: During a visit in July 2008 Pope Benedict XVI stated. "I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured… These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation. Those responsible for these evils must be brought to justice."

Austria: Between January and April 2010 an Austrian abuse phone tracker registered 566 separate claims of abuse. The exact number of victims of Catholic priests in that group was not determined. But the country has been remarkable for the forced resignation in 1995 of Cardinal Hans Herman Groer, a former Benedictine abbot, for allegations of sexual abuse of at least five young seminarians. Another Benedictine abbot, Bruno Becker of Salzburg, resigned in March after he admitted abusing a 12-year-old boy in the 1970s. Some early reports stated that Benedictine monks at the Ettal Monastery boarding school abused several hundred students for decades. One admitted perpetrator at Ettal who abused students is still active another is deceased. The Vatican confirmed it would send an inspector to look into accusations of sexual abuse made by 20 alumni of the school. The head of the Vienna archdiocese's church tax office estimated that up to 80,000 of Austria's roughly 5.5 million Catholics could leave the church this year setting a new record for defections.

                       Cardinal Christoph Schoenborn of Vienna, Austria’s top churchman has spoken out forcefully about "the wall of silence” that has to be broken. He told reporters, "This is not allowed to happen and cannot be allowed to repeat itself."

Ireland: The Commission of Investigation into the Catholic Archdiocese of Dublin was set up in 2006 to determine how Church and State authorities handled allegations of child abuse against 46 priests over a period from 1975 to 2004. It concluded that four Dublin archbishops ignored and covered up cases of abuse during that time. That report concluded in November 2009 that the archdiocese operated in a “culture of concealment, placing the integrity of its institutions above the welfare of the children in its care.” Two major reports (Murphy and Ryan) into allegations of pedophilia among Irish clergy revealed the shocking extent of abuse, cover-ups and hierarchical failings involving thousands of victims, and stretching back decades.

On March 20, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI apologized to Irish victims of child sex abuse by Catholic priests a few days after this admission with the words, “I openly express the shame and remorse that we all feel.”

The Netherlands: In March 2010 Dutch bishops ordered an independent inquiry into more than 200 allegations of sexual abuse of children by priests.

The Dutch Catholic Church offered its apologies to the victims.

Germany: On March 12, 2010 Germany’s Jesuit provincial acknowledged that 200 students had been abused at one prodigious school.

Germany’s Jesuit provincial superior Stefan Kiechle said Jesuits must acknowledge the victims and indicated that the Jesuit Order would offer compensation of around $7,000 to victims of sexual abuse by their priests. German Archbishop Zollitsch publicly decried clerical abuse as “outrageous” and asked victims for forgiveness.

Switzerland: In March 2010 the Swiss Catholic Church admitted it was "investigating around 10 allegations” of child sex abuse by clergy Diocese of Chur. Benedictine Martin Werlen, the abbot of Einsiedeln said at least three of the 77 monks in his abbey had committed acts of abuse since he took up office in December 2001. In all, 60 allegations of abuse have been registered in the country.

Christoph Casetti, the Swiss bishop's representative, without any specific apology told national Swiss television that their primary goal is "to help the victims."

France: On April 1, 2010 two more cases of sexual abuse of minors by French Catholic priests came to national attention. There are 6 priests serving time in prison for sexual abuse of minors.

French Catholic bishops apologized with Gallic reservation. While expressing "shame and regret" over child sex abuse by priests they rationalized that accusations of abuse were part of a campaign to attack and slander the pope.

Malta:  Eighty-four (84) allegations of child abuse have been made to the church in Malta between 1999 and 2010. Ten Maltese men filed suit against (a) priest(s) for abuse when they were children.

On April 19, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI met with 8 of the victims and proclaimed “that the church is doing all in its power to bring the guilty to justice and protect the young.”

Italy & Rome: In February 2010, the Vatican opened an investigation into allegations by 67 former pupils at a school for the deaf in Verona that 24 priests, brothers and lay religious men abused pupils from the 1950s to the 1980s. Three of the accusers repeated their claims on Italian prime-time television. In a signed statement last year, the 67 former pupils at a school for the deaf in Verona described sexual abuse, pedophilia and corporal punishment from the 1950s to the 1980s. They named 24 priests, brothers and lay religious men.

On June 11 Pope Benedict XVI tendered a public apology for the sex abuse scandal in St. Peter's Square. This was after numerous attempts to minimize and discredit reports of abuse as “petty gossip” and attempts to slander the Pope.  The statement was heartfelt, but devoid of any sense of real action: "We...insistently beg forgiveness from God and from the persons involved, while promising to do everything possible to ensure that such abuse will never occur again."

Belgium: A September 10, 2010 announcement revealed that the bishops established a church commission to investigate 475 complaints of childhood sexual abuse by Belgium priests. It included a statement that “sexual abuse had been rife in Catholic institutions in the 1960s and 1970s, and led 13 victims to commit suicide.” The situation is complicated because there is evidence that a bishop was involved in abuse of his nephew and a cardinal urged a cover up.

No apology was tendered because, as the Belgian bishops' spokesman on abuse issues explained, he was afraid and had to be careful: "If we say 'mea culpa', then we are morally responsible, legally responsible, and then people come wanting money.”

Britain: September 18, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI said in London that clergy abuse had brought "shame and humiliation" on him and the entire Roman Catholic Church. Report of the number of victims or abusers in the U.K. or Ireland is not yet available.

The pope apologized with these words, “I express my deep sorrow to the innocent victims of these unspeakable crimes."

No protestations of sorrow or apologies or amends for the harm inflicted by abusive priests and the neglect of bishops to protect the vulnerable will solve the basic problems exposed by the scandal of abuse.

The clerical system selects, educates, sustains and covers up the crimes of a certain number of clergy who are bound to sexually violate children and others. Msgr. Scicluna’s statement “that abuse is happening” and “has always happened” and “that it is important (crucial) for people to discuss it” is significant and historic if the Vatican means it and follows through.

Discussion is the key to change.

The system—clerical culture—is the arena where decisive battles will be won or lost. The battle lines are drawn as they have been in every reformation era of the church. Crisis questions exposed by the sex abuse scandal are grounded in a clerical culture that is again inadequate and corrupt.

Prevention will not occur without discussion of the realities of sexuality, celibacy, and the development of explicit and honest norms for sexual responsibility and accountability for human behavior on every level of the church. The darkness of secrecy breeds betrayal, abuse and violent assault. Revelations over the last decade have proved that.

A Mother Church, who sustains, nourishes and, protects her children demands light, accountability, openness and truth.

The international importance of Archbishop Zollitsch’s public stance is impossible to overestimate. It, along with Cardinal Christopher Schönborn’s recommendation that the Vatican conduct an “unflinching study” of the causes of clergy sexual abuse including “mandatory celibacy, personality development and seminary education” indicates the inexorable direction of clerical reform.

The difference between Zollitsch and Schönborn and even the three Belgium bishops who have said, “married men ought not to be excluded from priesthood” is that he places the responsibility on his own diocese and those of his brother German bishops to dialogue. He is not appealing to Rome for some change.

The time for apologies is over. Now is the time to talk. Love involves an uncompromising duty to seek the truth. This is the way any real reformation develops—through open discussion.