Holy Week is time when Catholics worldwide feel the pain of dying in Christ.
It comes this year as media reports bring up heartrending, often previously published, stories with a new twist – how the Vatican handled the cases. Efforts to link stories to culpable inaction by Pope Benedict XVI cause reasonable people anguish given all that the pope has tried to do to address this crisis.
Since 2002, the church in the United States has had a policy of zero tolerance, which means a priest or deacon who has admitted to or been found guilty of sexually abusing a minor can no longer engage in public ministry. Likewise, the church has developed screenings and processes to ensure that the children in its schools and religious formation programs today are not subject to abusive behavior, whether by a cleric or lay person. This has solved one problem by excising child abusers from parishes and dioceses.
Yet another problem has emerged. Society is finally seeing that sexual abuse of a child is a sin, a crime and often a sickness. Now we ask with hindsight why those in authority did not act more quickly in addressing the problem, more stringently in dealing with offenders, and more compassionately when hearing the victims. It is little comfort that many in charge acted with woefully inadequate knowledge, the same inadequate knowledge that has bedeviled psychology, law enforcement, even families for half a century or more. It is not an excuse – some things, such as not harming the weak, you should know instinctively. However, it is a fact that all of us now know more now than we did 50, 40, 30, 20, and even 10 years ago. We treat physical and mental illness today in ways different from how we did in the sixties. The police who once for the sake of peace in the precinct took a “Get out of Dodge” approach to many crimes no longer practice such expeditious law enforcement. And while we still believe in the power of prayer, no one in the church thinks a 30-day retreat and a firm purpose of amendment can cure a sexual abuser.
New knowledge means new obligations for church leaders, of course. Not knowing is no longer acceptable. Inaction will no longer be tolerated by law enforcement, fellow clerics and the Catholic community. Signs of such realization have been shown, for example, by Pope John Paul II who declared “there is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young” and Pope Benedict who said bluntly: “I am ashamed and will do everything possible to ensure that this doesn’t happen in the future.”
For many, the emphasis of Holy Week is on Good Friday, a day that’s good not because Jesus died a terrible death that day, but because the death led to His subsequent resurrection. It holds deep meaning for Catholics now who seek meaning from the tragedy of pedophilia.
Pedophilia has had terrible effect on many and reminds us of sinful humanity than is around us and within us. It has made a long Good Friday for many, especially those victimized by this sin and crime. But as the church has learned while dealing with these wounds, as it did with the crucifixion of Jesus, the pain can lead to a church purified of sin.
With the current spate of news stories about inaction in the face of pedophilia, Catholics rightly feel numbness like that of Holy Saturday when the Apostles and followers of Jesus were stunned by the events around them. The message, however, is that Jesus’ death led to new life. The Church is still learning through its pain. The comfort of Christ awaits, which is something victims/survivors need and deserve and something the entire Church, from Pope Benedict to the newest baptized child, can take hope in.