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The crisis in the Catholic Church started as a sex scandal the way Watergate started as a burglary: What followed has become the real scandal. We all know that the sexual abuse of minors is horrific; but somehow the bishops did not react with horror. That is what truly shocks.

Many bishops still do not understand that it is less the actions of pedophile priests than their inaction in the face of them that is now the issue. During Good Friday and Easter services, the bishops repeatedly begged forgiveness for the pedophiles' bad deeds. But none of the three cardinals at the heart of this scandal--Bernard Law in Boston, Edward Egan in New York, and Roger Mahony in Los Angeles--begged forgiveness for their own sins of negligence. To this day, their statements are filled with prevarications. Cardinal Egan wrote in a letter read at Masses last weekend: "If in hindsight we also discover that mistakes may have been made as regards prompt removal of priests and assistance to victims, I am deeply sorry." Note the distance between the word "mistakes" and the pronoun "I."

This is not the voice of moral clarity. The average Catholic churchgoer understands that no amount of psychological screening can guarantee that a pedophile won't sneak through and become a priest. What the churchgoer cannot fathom is this: Why, when confronted with such perversion, did the bishops not react with appropriate--that is to say, human--empathy? Page after page of depositions demonstrate that these men of the cloth saw the victims of sexual abuse not as children of God, but as potential liabilities. And why, to this day, do the bishops seem incapable of speaking candidly? Why do they still sound like spinmeisters rather than spiritual guides? The answers are not comforting.

The first reason is perhaps the easiest to understand. If the bishops have responded like attorneys trying to protect the assets of a corporation, that is because lawyers and insurance companies are telling the bishops how to respond. Like many people, the bishops have forgotten that the lawyers work for them, and not the other way around. The Church's potential financial liability is enormous and, now that insurance companies are no longer shouldering part of the burden, that liability is growing. "The bishops look like tobacco executives fifteen years ago, still denying that tobacco is addictive. But in the long run, all that denial does not save a penny. Whatever you have already done, you will pay for," says Loyola Marymount University Professor of Finance Paul Schulte. He's right. In the long run, denial will not help the bishops financially, but it is costing them what little moral capital they have left. And that is a price the Church cannot afford, because the Church is not a corporation. A Catholic does not bring his three-day-old child to IBM to be welcomed into the world, nor does he call his attorney "Father." Multimillion-dollar payouts to victims don't threaten the Church nearly as much as does the further loss of confidence in the moral compass of its bishops.

The second reason for the bishops' inaction is clericalism. In The Irish Times, Father Thomas Doyle, O.P., wrote: "There is a solid principle in political science that says the governing elite of an organisation will eventually think that it is the organisation. That's a mistake that the Catholic bishops have made: thinking that they alone are the church." The U.S. bishops and clergy inherited an awesome role from the immigrant Catholic ghetto. Often the only educated member of the subculture, the priest was also the doctor, the teacher, the lawyer. His advice was often sought and almost always taken. Having Father over for dinner was the social highlight of the year. Bishops were accountable to those above them: the pope and God--and no one else. The role of the people was "to pray, pay, and obey."

In addition to this lack of accountability, the careerist ambitions of some bishops inclined them to sweep scandals under the rug. In normal times, one advances through a complex hierarchy by avoiding controversy, not addressing it. In 1985, for example, while serving at the Vatican Embassy in Washington, Father Doyle drafted a report on the potential for pedophilia cases to bankrupt the Church; for his effort, he was exiled to a chaplaincy in the military. Moreover, the "old boy" network clearly clouded the judgment of those in authority. If Father Paul Shanley and Bishop John McCormack had not been seminary classmates, it is doubtful Shanley would have been kept on board after he gave a speech endorsing "man-boy" love. The normally humane desire to protect one's friends and colleagues, mixed with a desire to avoid controversy, encouraged bishops to ignore the moral enormity in their midst.

In Catholic theology, the bishops are the successors of the apostles. On Good Friday, reading the account of Jesus' trial and death, we Catholics were reminded that on the night before Jesus' death, his apostles all fled from him. If the bishops had utilized those passages to begin their own contrition--indeed, if they had acted with even a semblance of humility over the years--they could today seek cover behind the surely truthful observation "We are all sinners." But they did not, and they cannot.

The third cause of the bishops' inaction--both the most complicated and the most important--is the culture of silence and denial about human sexuality within the Catholic Church.

Two years ago a well-known priest and seminary rector in Cleveland, Father Donald Cozzens, wrote a book about the priesthood in which he dealt candidly with sexual issues, discussing "taboo" subjects like the ratio of heterosexual and homosexual clergy. Cozzens did not question the Church's teachings on sexual ethics, but he did say that the Church must begin to talk about the sexual inclinations and behaviors of the clergy. The word went out that his career was over. Cleveland has been a "bishop factory" throughout the twentieth century; and under John Paul II, seminary rectors often have been tapped as new bishops. But Cozzens was not made a bishop, nor was he even given a second term as rector of the seminary. Similarly, in 1987 Father Charles Curran was stripped of his tenured professorship at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for his liberal views on divorce, masturbation, and other questions of sexual ethics. It is one of the ironies of John Paul II's pontificate that while the Church has opened dialogues with Protestants, Jews, and Muslims to a degree unthinkable 50 years ago, discussion within the Church has been quashed. This elimination of discussion, in the name of stifling dissent, is an affront to a cornerstone of the Church: veracity. "In the beginning was the Word," opens the Gospel of John--not the half-truth, nor the evasion, nor the knowing wink. Watching the bishops squirm in front of the cameras over the past few months, we are reminded that sexuality is best discussed in more intimate and personal settings than a press conference. But if sexuality is not discussed at all, the things that eventually emerge from the dark are exactly those that land one in front of cameras or on the witness stand. An aversion to discussion inevitably leads to a fetish for secrecy that is spiritually and morally corrupting.

There is a reason the Church hierarchy fears honest discussion: It fears it will expose a crisis of belief. There is a pervasive sense within the Church that no one really believes its teachings on sexuality anymore--not the laity, not even the clergy. In a strict hierarchy, no one wants to say the emperor has no clothes. When discussion is not permitted, and honest questions avoided, the Church must assert its teachings on the basis of "authority" alone; and if those teachings do not cohere with the people's lived experience, a regime of hypocrisy and indifference arises that does more to undermine "authority" than any honest discussion possibly could.

The Church's lack of credibility on questions of sexual ethics is especially disheartening because the Church has a lot to say to a culture in which sexuality is dehumanized, commodified, and generally seen as less than the beautiful thing the Catholic Church's best theology insists it is. It is more than a little ironic that a culture awash in images of underage sexuality--the same culture that gave Oscars to American Beauty and where Britney Spears albums go multi-platinum--is now struck with horror at the revelation of priestly molestation. The irony, however, is grim. When the Church is most needed to remind our culture that sexuality can and should be humanizing, a giving of self in freedom and love, a participation in God's ongoing creative work, the Church instead finds itself in court.

But the church cannot preach sexual ethics in a vacuum; one reason its message has failed so utterly is because American Catholicism has reduced religion to morality and specifically to sexual morality. Unfortunately, because the liberalism of the public sphere requires that we set our dogmatic claims aside, the Church's cultural position invites just such a reduction. In an article in the Catholic quarterly Communio, theologian Monsignor Lorenzo Albacete commented: "It is a great temptation for the Church to reduce its mission to that of an ethical authority in order to gain access to the public forum."

Few would argue that the Church's moral teachings, standing on their own, are persuasive in today's culture. But they were never meant to stand on their own. What is distinctive about Catholicism is not the manner in which its members copulate, but how we pray and to whom. This core sense of wonder at the admittedly large claims of the Catholic faith--that God himself came down from Heaven, was born of a virgin, walked upon the Earth, died, and rose from the dead--and the wonder they must necessarily inspire to those who hold them, are what the Church must reclaim if its credibility is to be restored. Unless a bishop or theologian can trace his views on moral issues to the empty tomb of Easter morning, there is nothing distinctively Christian or Catholic about them.

Most American bishops are not first-rate theologians, and they do not perceive the limits imposed by the "natural law" theory to which the Church has wedded its moral teachings. Natural law has produced a very act-centered morality, a kind of Catholic utilitarianism, when the historical role of Catholicism has always been to insist on the transcendence of the human person, on the belief that utility is not the ultimate criteria for human choices. Yet natural law's anthropology is so hyperteleological that the wonder before creation, and before one's fellow creatures, that is proper to the soul is lost, and the relationships that follow are diminished in their richness, their humaneness. Surely the most important thing to know about the human person from the story of Genesis is that we are created in the image and likeness of God, and it is that belief which, through the centuries, has been the surest bulwark against dehumanization. Until the radicalism of Catholicism's claims about the creation of mankind and the mercy of God are better preached and understood, the bishops should be more reticent about what the natural law does and does not permit. To cite one horrific example, through a quirk in current Church law, you can murder your spouse, go to confession, remarry, and continue as a communicant; but you cannot divorce your spouse, go to confession, remarry, and continue as a communicant. I am no moral theologian, but that strikes me as messed up.

How can the Church climb out of this mess? First, by not blaming scapegoats. The left has blamed celibacy, and the right has blamed gay priests. But these are attempts to hitch prior ideological wagons to the pedophilia scandal's horse--akin to Karl Rove suggesting on September 13 that the best response to terrorism would have been, say, a cut in the capital gains tax. Making clerical celibacy optional would not eliminate the opportunities for moral compromise; it would simply create different ones: With the first abandoned wife, everyone would be clamoring for the good old days. As for attacking gay priests, the last thing the Church needs now is a witch-hunt of any sort. It is never a good day for an auto-da-fé.

Harvard Law Professor Mary Ann Glendon, who serves on two Vatican commissions, recently told The New York Times that the blame lies with the 1960s--as if pedophilia were unknown in earlier times. Glendon and other right-of-center social critics identify a 2,000-year-old faith with the Church of their grandparents, and they worry over the slightest alteration, as if the Church has not survived in large part because of its ability to adapt. As John Henry Cardinal Newman wrote in discussing human psychology and the development of Christian doctrine: "[T]o live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often." Glendon is right that the '60s changed much in our society and culture when it comes to sexuality--just not in the way she darkly imagines. For instance, before 1960 it is doubtful that Glendon would have sat on a Vatican commission or, for that matter, on the faculty of Harvard Law. The struggle for women's equality that characterized the '60s also insisted that sexuality be viewed from nonmale points of view. It turns out that a male boss squeezing his female secretary's tush was never much fun for her; as a result of listening to women's thoughts about sexuality, such behavior is now called harassment and it is against the law. That represents a moral achievement. Similarly, it turns out that little Johnny never much liked it when Father groped him either. The sophisticated Europeans who mock American Puritanism need only wait until little Giovanni and little Jean-Marie have had enough as well: The pedophilia crisis has already hit Ireland, but it will find its way to the rest of Europe. It is America's sexual revolution itself--the sexual revolution Glendon so despises--that has helped create the universal revulsion to the current pedophilia scandal.

In fact, it was the bishops' refusal to see pedophilia from the child's point of view--their tendency to see it as merely a sin of the flesh rather than a radical betrayal of trust--that lies at the heart of the current scandal. And that refusal has deep roots. The relevant canons (Church laws) lump pedophilia together with other sexual acts and make no consideration of the victim at all. Most people are, rightly, forgiving of sins of the flesh. But when one uses a position of authority to coerce sexual relations from a minor, or even from a young person of majority age who is nonetheless a parishioner or an underling, this is a sin of the spirit, a betrayal of all that the Church says sexual love should express--the free gift of self in equality and freedom.

The most obvious scapegoat is, of course, Cardinal Law. The Los Angeles Times has reported that several bishops want him to resign. But most of them want him to resign for the wrong reason. They may correctly believe Law mishandled the situation, but mostly they just want the scandal to go away and think that once the press has had its pound of hierarchic flesh the Church can return to normal. If they are right, then I hope Law stays.

If, on the other hand, Law were removed because he was not accountable to his flock, then his resignation would be the first of many. After all, the situation in New York appears to be even worse than in Boston. In March The Hartford Courant reported that while he was bishop of Bridgeport, Cardinal Egan had also shuffled child molesters from parish to parish. After a week of silence, Egan claimed to have operated only under the advice of "prominent psychological institutions." Unfortunately, the next day the Courant published another damning story in which the director of the psychological institute that Egan consulted directly contradicted the cardinal's claims. "In some cases, necessary and pertinent information related to prior sexual misconduct has been withheld from us," Dr. Harold I. Schwartz of the Institute of Living told the newspaper. "In some cases, it would appear that our evaluations have been misconstrued in order to return priests to ministry."

In Los Angeles the publication of memos between Cardinal Mahony and his staff show him to be an ecclesiastical apparatchik of the first order, worried only about the public image of the Church. As Steve Lopez editorialized in the Los Angeles Times: "If the [Los Angeles] archdiocese had been half as aggressive in making sure sex offenders were removed from the ministry as they were in rushing attorneys into court to hide unflattering secrets, it might not be in the middle of this mess." If the pope were not so ill, perhaps he would demand the resignation of all three cardinals. Only something unprecedented like that would acknowledge the scale of the horror.

But the pope is ill, and so it is likely that the only organization that can deal with the controversy is the U.S. Conference of Bishops. When the nearly 200 American bishops hold their annual June meeting, they must adopt a national policy on sex abuse; they must fess up that their negligence and inaction were immoral; and they must beg the forgiveness of their clergy and their people. The national policy must enshrine a level of openness to which ecclesiastical procedures are unfamiliar. Lay people must be included on the boards that review allegations of sexual abuse. Court records must be unsealed if the victims desire it, and all future settlements--including the sums expended--must be part of the public record.

The problem is that the Bishops' Conference can only make legally binding decisions by unanimous consent, and some conservative bishops have made a career of obstructing such unanimity on principle. Especially under John Paul II, conservatives have preferred to have the Vatican make the decisions by fiat, rather than have the bishops debate and vote on policies stateside. The main objective of this week's meeting in Rome between all the U.S. cardinals and the pope appears to be precisely this: to make clear that should any bishop obstruct the formulation of a national policy, Rome will not support him. Different bishops have differing views about the role of a bishops' conference in the life of the Church, but today it is all there is. However ill the pope may be, the cardinals in the Vatican are not prepared to let this crisis go on forever.

But resignations and a new policy are not enough. Most importantly, in future appointments, bishops must be selected not for their ability to parrot the Vatican line, but for their ability to lead the local church and their willingness to see the hierarchic structure of the Church as a hierarchy of service--not power--in which they are accountable to the clergy and the laity below as well as to the pope above. Perhaps in the future priests should exercise greater influence in the selection of bishops--as they once did. Lest we forget, the most prominent bishop in the world, the bishop of Rome, is still elected to office by the clergy.

The relationship between the Church in the United States and the Vatican must also be restored to balance. Rome has become increasingly powerful within the Church over the past two centuries. Before the nineteenth century, local governments played key roles in the selection of bishops and even in the appointment of parish priests. Only with the separation of church and state, which the Catholic Church fought on principle, has Rome gained complete control over the personnel of the Church. Without government as a local counterweight, the local clergy and laity must now exert whatever pressure is needed to make sure their bishops are leaders, not martinets. Indeed, it may be time to return to the ancient Catholic tradition of not permitting bishops to move from one bishopric to another, more prominent one. If a man knew he was to be the bishop of Bridgeport for the rest of his life, he might be more inclined to face the realities of the local church head-on rather than worrying about becoming an archbishop somewhere else.

Still, no amount of procedural tinkering will help the Church if the men who lead it refuse to be candid. Put differently, bishops must be chosen for their humility and honesty. As in every case of sin, what is ultimately called for is less a change of policy than a change of heart. In the late 1790s the first Catholic bishop in the United States, John Carroll, welcomed a group of nuns from France by making them a gift of a slave woman and her daughter. We read this and recoil in horror--how did he not understand that trafficking in human beings was a moral enormity? We do not know that any more than we know what men and women 200 years hence will see with a similar sense of puzzlement and disgust when they look back upon our age. The Catholic bishops should remember this when they feel themselves inclined to stridency in all but their charity.

In studying the long history of Catholicism, one realizes that as bad as things are, they have been worse before. And yet the Church survives because the life of faith, in a man or in a people, is an unpredictable thing. As Monsignor Albacete recently told me, "If, in addition to all the terrible things we have learned, if tomorrow it was revealed that the pope had a harem, that all the cardinals had made money on Enron stock and were involved in Internet porno, then the situation of the Church today would be similar to the situation of the Church in the late twelfth century ... when Francis of Assisi first kissed a leper." Saints, not bishops, will remake the face of the Church, and the making of saints is God's work. It would be wonderful indeed if every bishop were a saint. But the current crisis could have been avoided if the bishops had merely remembered they were human beings.

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