I’m going to bring up one of my least favorite topics in the whole wide world: the priest abuse scandal. A small percentage of priests did terrible, terrible harm, made far worse because priests have a sacred position of trust, and it was abused. Many times people in leadership positions were not effective in stopping them. It seems many were more concerned about protecting their friends and protecting the system than in protecting and helping victims, and that was as bad or worse than the original crime.
The priest who are trying our best to do what is right have been deeply angry, profoundly hurt, and bitterly disappointed.
Then came the moment when we had reached a tipping point, and something was ready to happen. The work was not perfect, but it was substantial. Much work was done to develop a transparent and accountable process for dealing with complains, one that would not allow things to get swept under the rug.
New practices were developed and new training was given. We put a lot of time and energy into making the Church a safe place and helping the Church to re-earn credibility. We learned practices that clarify what actions are innocent, and where the line is crossed. We learned to watch for signs that someone might be preparing to do something bad, actions that seem harmless, but are part of grooming victims and grooming families to give cover for crimes. This would also provide some protection against innocent people being accused because of misunderstandings or malicious accusations. We organized our buildings and our programs so that we could squeeze out any opportunity for a predator to act. It is not enough that everyone be safe; but people must also feel safe. Statistics are important, but they are not enough. They had to see in us that we were really trying to do it right. Priests also needed some confidence that if they did things right, people would have their back.
It has taken everyone’s cooperation. I said repeatedly, “We did not make this mess, but we must be a part of cleaning it up.”
It has also been necessary to challenge a culture that made things worse. Many priests, teachers, and people in leadership positions had absorbed some of secular society’s belief that sexual sins are no big deal and that the Church had been making too much fuss over them. This meant that when someone was tempted to do something horrible, they were not prepared to resist the temptation and take the danger seriously, possibly seeing a sign they needed help. Those who taught what they taught did not intend this, but consequences don’t care about intentions.
Some made it harder by using the situation for their own agendas, agendas that did not serve the protection of children. Some would condemn all priests or the whole Church. Some would treat every accusation or even rumor as a conviction.
It was essential not to let them drain the energy from the real work of solving the essential problems.
Imagine if, instead of doing all that, there had been a lot of hand-wringing, virtue signaling, and mouthing platitudes like “This must stop” and “We will no longer allow this” and nothing of substance was done. The moment would have been wasted, and nothing would have changed.
The horrific killing of George Floyd has cast a spotlight on another issue. A small percentage of police officers can do terrible damage. I have read that the guy who killed poor George had had seventeen complaints against him, but no action was taken. If that is true, it calls the question whether those in power were more interested in protecting their friends and protecting the institution than protecting the victims. I’m speaking carefully here, because I don’t have inside knowledge, but I do have questions.
How can people be confident that if they have an interaction with the police that their dignity will be respected and their safety protected? And if there are bad actors who violate their rights how can they be confident that they will be held accountable? How can police be confident that if they do things right, the community will have their back?
Can there be transparent standards that when there is an interaction between the police and a civilian, this is what the civilian should expect from the police, and this is what the police should expect from the civilian? Can there be a transparent process for complaints so if something goes wrong people know what they should expect? Can there be gatherings of local police and the local community so there is buy-in from all sides?
How can we all be more aware of how we perceive and misperceive each other? Perceptions can be are skewed by our experiences and stories. How can we have experiences and hear stories that will draw us together and not divide us? This problem seems to go deep, and the solution needs to be deep also. Can people share stories, experiences and concerns? Statistics are important but they are not enough. I don’t know about these issues; I just have questions. I’m desperately hoping that people who know more than I can build a path from here to where we need to go.
I have not heard one voice defending the killing of George Floyd. Not. One. Voice. The act was condemned by all sides. What if we start with what unites us? Please, please, let us not waste this moment.
St. Charles Borromeo was one of the great reformers of the Church at a time when the system had gone terribly wrong. He worked patiently, persistently, and selflessly, calling priests and bishops to get their act together and leading by example. He could have taken a much easier path. He chose not to. He didn’t make the mess, but he did a lot to clean it up. What will really help clean things up now?