Whenever we hear of a bishop or pastor in the Church taking action on some doctrinal or liturgical problem, it’s not uncommon to hear someone say “why are they bothering with x when we have clergy who are abusing minors?” I’ve seen such comments attached to anything from a bishop who is addressing abnormalities in the way Mass is celebrated in some parishes to, most recently, the Vatican call for reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. With this comes the charge that the Church is more concerned about something the author wrongly believes to be trivial than about the clergy abusing young children. At best, such comments are lacking in perspective.
I do remember the scandal becoming big news in 2002. About three years prior, I was just beginning to really learn the Catholic faith. One of the things that became clear to me with the scandal was that sexual abuse committed by clergy, while indeed a serious problem, was only one aspect of a larger problem in the Church. Simply put, there was a scarcity of enforcement of almost anything. Sometimes, we just saw more norms issued when norms were being violated. For example, on the liturgy, we’ve seen Inaestimabile Donum, Redemptionis Sacramentum, and numerous other clarifications written.
The American bishops did meet and propose norms for taking care of sexual abuse by clergy, some of which were ratified by the Vatican as particular law in the US. Even before then, in 2001, Cardinal Ratzinger (now Pope Benedict XVI) took on the investigation in his own office of clergy sex abuse cases (Congregation of the Doctorine of the Faith). It might be worth knowing that many of the bishops in office at the time are no longer in office today. They have been replaced by Pope Benedict XVI appointees.
Fortunately, we are seeing more bishops who are not afraid to preach the Gospel and even take action. This may take the form of anything from calling out names to actual disciplinary removal from a position. We’ve recently seen the USCCB committee on doctrine issue a statement on Sr. Elizabeth Johnson’s theology text that contains much false teaching. Archbishop Naumann has asked Kathleen Sebelius not to present herself for Communion. Bishop Braxton of Belleville, IL, has accepted the retirement of a priest who refused to say Mass according to the rubrics. Pope Benedict has even gone so far as to remove Bishop William Morris from the Diocese of Toowoomba for spreading false teaching (and later, he removed others). Of course, we are also seeing both an apostolic visitation of the women’s religious orders in this country, as well as the Vatican-ordered reform of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious.
The sex abuse scandal is a very serious problem that is not to be taken lightly in any way. While one can argue that more needs to be done, it is being addressed. It would be just as wrong for a bishop to address doctrinal or liturgical issues while ignoring sexual abuse by clergy as it would be to promote social justice issues while being silent on abortion or even pro-abortion. Expecting the bishops not to handle other problems because of the scandal would be like asking a school to stop worrying about what the students are being taught because they found out that some of the teachers are criminals. The Church still needs to carry on her true mission. Fortunately, we have bishops who realize the full problem and aim to resolve it.