The world’s highest-ranking bishops met in Rome over the past few days to discuss the sex abuse scandal rocking the Catholic Church. There were many moments when it seemed at least some of the Church’s leaders understood that the real issue has been the Church’s lack of transparency. For survivors, it no longer matters what the Bishops, Cardinals or even the Pope say but only what they do that means anything. Ending the secrecy is imperative if there is to be any hope of reversing the steadily growing mistrust of, and diminishing faith in, the Catholic Church’s hierarchy. This is true not only for survivors but also regular parishioners who grow weary of the steady stream of sickening revelations.
Ending clergy sex abuse of minors today and in the future is essential, and the Church has made significant progress in preventing more crimes against children from being committed. However, the actual abuse is not the only crime that requires justice. The calculated way these crimes were covered up and the perpetrators were shielded enabled further crimes to be committed and additional children to be harmed.
What was known about those crimes, when it was known and by whom? What was done with any allegations at the time? How were the victims who came forward to report abuse treated?
Locking away the answers to those questions to protect the reputation of an institution is immoral. Continuing to operate that institution with the same leadership that has been complicit in these cover-ups for decades is duplicitous at best. That information could and should be used to help survivors
In 12 Step recovery, we say “You are only as sick as your secrets.” The Catholic Church is very sick. Though not all secrets cover over shame, most shame is kept secret. I’m no stranger to secrets or shame. They have both been an intimate part of my life. The shame of being sexually abused was a secret I kept even from myself for the 20 years that followed my high school graduation, when it ended. I believed that as long as no one ever found out, I could just forget about what happened to me as if it never did. I spent another 25 years piecing my life back together by digging myself out from under that shame. Only in 2016, forty five years later, was I ready and able to return the shame to where it had always belonged, knowing at last, that it was never my fault.
I’ve learned from my own experience that there can be no healing from shame while it is still kept secret. When a victim comes forward to tell his or her story of abuse and the impact it has had on their lives, they are doing battle with their shame, whether or not they feel better for it at that time. But when institutions like the Catholic Church continue to use their wealth and influence to protect themselves at the expense of victims, they are not battling their own shame but succumbing to it and keeping it alive.
In New York State the Child Victims Act was just signed into law. It gives survivors of child sexual abuse access to the court system and will no doubt result in many lawsuits against the Catholic Church and other institutions.
With its passage, Cardinal Timothy Dolan, head of the Archdiocese of New York, has a choice before him. He can persist with the business as usual strategy of obfuscation and obstruction, or he can change the course of the Church’s history and abandon the Bishops’ playbook for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse by its clergy. These “best practices” include:
- Releasing only as much information as is already known by the public.
- Producing incomplete lists of abusers.
- Doing so only when caught and cornered.
- Withholding when, where and how many allegations have been brought.
- Offering settlements to survivors to prevent them from bringing civil suits.
- Blocking the passage of laws that would help survivors find long overdue justice
These are defensive and self-serving strategies that prolong the harm done to survivors. It is not being truthful, but merely damage control. Unfortunately, it is what the Church substitutes for genuine repentance and humility. The meeting the Pope just held in the Vatican for nearly 200 Bishops might be the single biggest damage control effort to date. Without full, unadulterated transparency, that’s all it will be.
If the Church does not come clean, once and for all, it will stand in the way of much needed healing. A healing that is necessary for both the survivors of child sex abuse and the institutions responsible for sweeping it under the rug for so long. Without reconciling with their past, the hierarchy of the Church will never get beyond the fear of getting caught in yet another lie. They will continue to see a threat to their security and will be compelled to guard their secret archives to protect themselves against survivors.
How can reconciliation, much less healing, be possible while the safety of children and the healing of abuse survivors is sacrificed on the altar of an institution’s need for self-preservation?
The Catholic Church is not the only or biggest abuser of children, but they are the organization most responsible for blocking justice for all survivors. A complete disclosure of all their secrets, going as far back as their records do, is the only way they will move past this crisis with any shred of credibility or moral standing left. Confession is good for the soul we are told. It is well past time for the Catholic Church to demonstrate it even has a soul left.