Sixteen years ago, when the clergy sexual abuse scandal dominated headlines in the Globe, I was still a cafeteria Catholic. I attended Sunday Mass, sent my children to religious education classes, and even — Lord, forgive me — conducted one at my dining room table, all while picking and choosing which beliefs to personally embrace.
No more. At a certain point, the accumulation of scandal, plus the church’s positions on issues like birth control and gay marriage, led me to conclude the cafeteria didn’t satisfy me as a customer. Or, for that matter, even want me as one. Pope Francis’ arrival on the scene didn’t change my mind. He uttered lovely words, like “Who am I to judge?” But unlike others who swooned over him, I questioned how much institutional change he might actually champion.
Based on what’s happening now — not much. American bishops gathered in Baltimore this week with a plan to adopt long-awaited accountability rules, following a recent round of sexual abuse revelations, which implicated some of them as enablers and abusers. Before a vote could be taken, the pope ordered the bishops to back off. The Vatican wants the matter postponed to February, when the bishops are scheduled to meet again in Rome. Meanwhile, the pope broadened the role of the Vatican’s top sex crime investigator in an effort to look like he’s doing something.
After the pope stopped the bishops’ vote, Francesco Cesareo, a layman who is chairman of the National Review Board, a civilian panel established back in 2002, relayed the obvious: Words and prayers are no longer enough. Church leaders have lost the public’s trust, as well as the trust of innocent priests who rightly object to being lumped in with abusers. The bishops should do what Cesareo recommended: search their archives and files and publicize all credible cases of sexual abuse of minors and adults since at least 1950. They should also take the vote they planned to take and adopt accountability rules, even if they’re nonbinding. That would at least send a positive message to those still open to hearing it.
But the audience receptive to that message is dwindling. The culture of denial and cover-up has gone on for too long. Women, especially, are losing patience with a centuries-old institution led by stubborn men who cling to power and resist change.
Earlier this month, Helen Drinan, a life-long Catholic who is also president of Simmons College in Boston, wrote powerfully in a Globe op-ed about her concerns regarding Cardinal Sean O’Malley and his commitment to reform. Drinan’s anxiety is rooted in personal knowledge of how O’Malley handled a prior investigation of sexual harassment charges brought against the then-CEO of Caritas Christi, the Catholic hospital system run by the Boston archdiocese. She also called for a full investigation into O’Malley’s knowledge of abuses against seminarians committed by Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, who resigned in July.
In advance of the Baltimore gathering of bishops, I spoke with Anne Burke, an Illinois state Supreme Court justice who, from 2003 to 2004, led the civilian National Review Board now headed by Cesareo. She doesn’t think self-policing works and believes church leaders should turn their files over to civil authorities to review for possible prosecution. About the bishops, she said, “My take is that they’re like a trade association. They meet, they talk, they come up with ideas. Then they go home and do what they want.”
In Baltimore, O’Malley told the bishops they need to work harder to follow the reform policies they endorsed 16 years ago and called upon those who have betrayed those policies to “present themselves and resign.” Yet, he hasn’t fully addressed the McCarrick question raised by Drinan.
These things matter to me now chiefly as a citizen who cares about child abuse and sexual harassment. My current church-going is limited to weddings or funerals. But I still pray. And I still offer up an occasional Act of Contrition, the traditional Catholic plea for God’s forgiveness — most religiously, when I am taking off in a plane.