The late Msgr. Ronald Knox, an English convert from Anglicanism, once observed: “A scandal (carries) further than a tale of sanctity; our Blessed Lady lived and died unknown, but all Jerusalem knew when Judas hanged himself.” The scandal of child sex abuse committed by some priests came to public light over two years ago when revelations of the inadequate response of many dioceses hit the media. This has been a painful and humiliating time for all Catholics. We cannot minimize the pain of the victims and their families; nor, can we easily dismiss the harm done to the wider Body of Christ. People are shocked and angry at the Church. Many are shocked and angry because they expected better of us – and to the degree that our own sins of omission or commission or those of our brothers and sisters give reason to their shock and anger we must sincerely ask forgiveness of them and of God. And, we must seek to repair the harm done.
Around the country, dioceses have put into place a variety of programs that seek to insure that our parishes and schools will be safe environments for children. However, in our society, the incidence of child sexual abuse is very high. But, there is no comfort in the knowledge that the overwhelming majority of child victims of abuse were not harmed by clergy but by members of their own families or acquaintances of their families. Unfortunately, the attention focused on predators found within a small minority of clergy has not generally resulted in an awareness of the wider scope of the problem. For example, on college campuses throughout the nation, a play entitled “Vagina Monologues” approvingly presents a sexual relationship between an adult woman and a teenage girl not as statutory rape but as a “rite of passage”. And yet, this play is favorably reviewed by the same newspapers that are the harshest critics of the Church in the face of this scandal.
Since the fall of Adam and Eve, we lived in a world fractured by sin. The Church can only recruit members from the ranks of sinners – because there are no other ranks of human beings to recruit from. So the fact that some of her members – whether clergy or otherwise – could be charged with being sinners should not be news to anyone. St. Paul admonished us to work out our salvation in fear and trembling because “backsliding” into sin is a real possibility for “Satan prowls the world looking for souls to devour”. We cannot be complacent for we are called to become saints and, as the Holy Father reminded us in Novo Milenio Ineunte, “it would be a contradiction to settle for a life of mediocrity, marked by a minimalist ethic and a shallow religiosity” Rather than to abandon the Church and her teachings, as some have done – and in doing so have used this scandal to justify themselves -, the proper response for all of us, clergy and laity, is to recommit ourselves to Christ through a more coherent living of his teachings as presented by his Church. And, while Msgr. Knox was certainly right about how bad news travels further than good, let us thank God for those faithful, holy priests who quietly and often in humble obscurity so well serve God and his Church.