In 1976, a Guinean priest named Robert Sarah was made rector of John XXIII Minor Seminary in Conakry, Guinea. The previous leadership of the seminary had been lax, and so when Sarah instituted stricter rules the young men of the seminary rebelled in dramatic fashion, setting fire to its chapel. Fr. Sarah demanded the guilty parties come forward, but no one was willing to confess to the arson or reveal the perpetrators. Sarah (now Cardinal Sarah) said in his book-length biographical interview, God Or Nothing, “if this abominable act had targeted my own room I could have forgiven it. But the chapel was the house of the Lord.” Sarah expelled the whole class and shut down the seminary for a year. Government officials demanded he reverse his decision, but Sarah held out. “How could we allow future priests, men of God, to indulge in acts of sacrilege?” Sarah reopened the seminary the next year and accepted a smaller student body, with every seminarian vouched for with a certificate of good conduct.
The measures Sarah took were drastic, but they speak to how seriously he took the vocation of priesthood and the priest’s duties to God and man. This summer, thanks to the Pennsylvania grand jury report and other revelations, we’ve learned more and more about the evil actions perpetrated against the faithful by abusive priests and craven, enabling bishops. The sexual abuse of children and seminarians, and the cover-ups associated with them, are an act of arson against Christ’s Church. It is not only an awful crime in earthly terms, but also sacrilege against God and his command that priests be shepherds to his people. Catholics in the pews are filled with grief, confusion, and righteous anger. In the face of this evil, what can we do?
I know there’s a temptation to wash our hands of the matter, to say, “You call this salvation? I’m out of here.” And so, I want to address fellow Catholics who may be facing this temptation and discuss how we can and should respond to the scandal and sin that’s been revealed. Abandoning the Church is not truly an option if we believe Christ’s words about his Church being one flock with one shepherd.1 If we are to bind up the wounds of the victims and see that wrongdoers face justice, then our task is to remain within the Church while we prayerfully and persistently seek truth. Like the unrelenting widow in the parable of Jesus, knocking again and again at the door of the unjust judge, we should keep demanding real answers and real reform from the hierarchy.
Bishops have responded to the current wave of revelations with varying degrees of humility and humanity. Bishop Robert C. Morlino penned a sobering letter about the moral rot and doctrinal failures that allowed abuse to flourish within seminaries. Among other promises, Morlino said, “I promise to put any victim and their sufferings before that of the personal and professional reputation of a priest, or any Church employee, guilty of abuse.” This is important because the reverse priority (privileging the reputation of a priest, even one known to be guilty of abuse, over justice for victims) has led to much shady and sordid hushing-up of crimes. Morlino doesn’t mince words: “More than anything else, we as a Church must cease our acceptance of sin and evil. We must cast out sin from our own lives and run toward holiness. We must refuse to be silent in the face of sin and evil in our families and communities and we must demand from our pastors—myself included—that they themselves are striving day in and day out for holiness.”
This was a much better reaction than the blame-dodging antics of Donald Wuerl, Cardinal of the archdiocese of Washington, who responded to public revelations about his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, with a prepared website defending his own record on child abuse. When this oily move was met with widespread incredulity, he quietly took the website down. Arguably worse was Cardinal Joseph Tobin’s immediate crackdown where he instructed priests in his charge to refuse to speak to the press after allegations of sexual misconduct surfaced in his diocese.
Pope Francis’s initial letter about the Pennsylvania grand jury reports and its abuse revelations was also disheartening, because while it spoke in general terms about “a penitential exercise of prayer and fasting,” it did not impose any particular penance on clergy or suggest any specific prayer practice for the laity. Moreover, the Pope said nothing concrete about further investigations to be pursued or restrictions to be imposed on ordained malefactors. The Pope’s response was even worse in the wake of former papal nuncio Archbishop Viganò’s dramatic allegations that Francis knowingly lifted restrictions Pope Benedict had imposed on the serial abuser Cardinal McCarrick. Francis made a very strange non-denial, saying “Read the statement carefully and make your own judgment. I will not say a single word about this.” If Francis means that Viganò’s accusations are false, he should say so. And, of course, if there is any truth to them, even elements of truth mixed with exaggerations, Francis should admit what is true. His flock deserves the truth, and we also deserve clarity rather than the perpetual cloud of obfuscation amidst this scandal. Christ brings truth and light—anything that keeps us in rumor and darkness is not from him.
What can the laity do in this time of trial? Though there is a great deal of evil, error, and suffering to confront, our hands are not tied. We are the Church too, for as Lumen Gentium affirmed: “Every layman, in virtue of the very gifts bestowed upon him, is at the same time a witness and a living instrument of the mission of the Church itself.”2 So we are not trespassing on someone else’s domain by working for compassion and justice. We are doing our job.
We should begin in penance and prayer. God is our refuge and our strength, so our efforts should have their source and final end in him. Many lay Catholics are turning to the riches of the Church’s tradition to pray for her renewal. For example, there is a Facebook group dedicated to observing St. Michael’s Lent while praying every day for justice. Other lay initiatives include prayer and penance on the traditional autumn Ember days and the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows. And, to recover the Church’s corporate solidarity with the suffering and hungry everywhere, we might take on the Friday abstinence from meat and ask the whole body of believers to fast again.
We must also listen to victims—people sexually preyed on in seminaries and silenced by the system. As difficult as it is to read accounts documenting the victimization of the young, we owe our attention to people who have the courage to speak out. For those who have been victims themselves, reading these accounts may be too wrenching—though it also might be a kind of comfort to hear from other survivors. And for all of us listening to these stories, we can begin to learn how we can be of use and comfort to our brothers whose relationships with the Church, with their vocations, and with God have been betrayed and wounded by those who should have been their teachers and pastors.
And we should demand real reform, including resignations, from bishops. We need to know who knew what and when. The conspiracy of silence must be broken. Events like the synod on young people should be postponed rather than held while grave doubts are in the air about the character and competence of bishops in attendance. To that end, the Church must empower a competent lay-led body to investigate allegations of abuse and cover-ups. (If the bishops are going to act like corporate overlords caught countenancing sexual misbehavior, they should at least hire one of the clean-sweeping firms that investigate secular institutions for malefactors.) And I tend to think the Holy See should commit in the strongest language beforehand to follow this body’s suggestions. That way the result of the investigation will not be toothless recommendations but a real verdict on whose resignations the Holy See should demand, or, as the case may be, accept, if the U.S. bishops follow Chile’s forceful example and offer resignations en masse.
One problem we face, as J. D. Flynn points out, is that there is not currently a canonical criminal process to respond to sex between a cleric and an adult. Allegations of sexual predation perpetrated against seminarians have been handled in a wide variety of ways, some definitely too lax, but all hampered by the lack of an established norm. Clear procedures must be established—a corrupt clericalism thrives when everything runs on ambiguities and case-by-case decisions. We need procedures that are as stringent, uniform, and clear as the ones that now exist for allegations of clerical sexual abuse of minors. And the procedures should be promulgated widely so we can all keep an eye out that they are being followed.
There’s much more we can do, individually and as a body. I would favor the Pope calling for a year of penance, inviting all the faithful to particular prayer practices and requiring a stricter penitential observance from all clerics. Our tradition offers a treasury of repentance: penitential psalms, Mary’s seven sorrows, sackcloth and ashes. The Roman Missal includes, among its Masses for various needs and occasions, Masses for the forgiveness of sins. The rubrics give priests pretty wide latitude to use such Masses in the face of grave pastoral need, and I would argue the present crisis constitutes precisely that. A collect from one of the Masses for the forgiveness of sins reads: “Almighty and most gentle God,/ who brought forth water from the rock/ a fountain of living water for your thirsty people,/ bring forth, we pray,/ from the hardness of our heart, tears of sorrow,/ that we may lament our sins/ and merit forgiveness from your mercy.” A collect from a Mass the priest may offer for himself is similarly apropos: “O God, who have willed that I preside over your family/ not by any merit of mine/ but out of the abundance of your untold grace alone,/ grant that I may carry out worthily the ministry/ of the priestly office/ and, under your governance in all things,/ may direct the people entrusted to my care.”
I am aware that one proposed solution to our ills is the abolition of the norm of priestly celibacy. I see this as somewhat of a distraction. I know holy married priests who entered through the Anglican Ordinariate and serve the Church with zeal. But I also think we should not underestimate the prophetic witness of celibacy, a sign of the union of the soul with God in the world to come. What we need are priests who are committed to living holy lives and not giving wickedness a foothold in the Church. Having more married priests will not be a panacea. However, all unmarried Catholic laymen committed to chastity should think carefully and prayerfully about pursuing a priestly vocation. Some of the needed reform will have to come from priests, and it couldn’t hurt to have a generation of priests specifically committed to combating the twin evils of sexual abuse and endless bureaucratic smokescreens. That could start in seminary, with young men keeping communication open with spiritual advisors and accountability partners outside of the seminary itself, to whom they could report any unchaste behavior, especially by their formators.
In other eras of spiritual disarray and moral disaster, God has raised up great saints to reform his Church and inspire his faithful: Benedict of Norcia, Francis of Assisi, Catherine of Siena. None of us would choose to live in such a challenging time. But the solution is not to close our eyes to the failures of our shepherds and the way they have grievously wronged some of the most vulnerable of God’s children. We must have faith in God, our help in ages past, and strive to serve him by comforting the afflicted and demanding their afflictors face justice—and, we pray, experience true repentance. Our trust cannot be in princes, even princes of the Church, but in the God who says: “Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the flock of my pasture. . . You have scattered my sheep and driven them away. You have not cared for them, but I will take care to punish your evil deeds. I myself will gather the remnant of my flock. . . and bring them back to their folds; there they shall be fruitful and multiply.”
 John 10:16
 Lumen Gentium, 33