In 2002, the Boston Globe released an investigative report of widespread abuse by Catholic priests in its archdiocese, resulting in multiple criminal convictions. Its bishop, Cardinal Bernard Law, was ultimately removed from his position amid allegations that he shuffled abuser priests from parish to parish.
A few years later, my family and I arrived in Rome on Christmas Eve. We asked the waiter how we could get to St. Peter’s Basilica to attend midnight Mass, but he wasn't optimistic. “You’ll never make it in time in this traffic," he said. "I have a better idea. Just walk up the hill to Santa Maria Maggiore; it’s a beautiful church.”
So, taking the waiter’s advice, we scaled the hill to find Christmas Eve services just about to start in a gorgeous basilica completely filled with the faithful. But as the celebrant started preaching in Italian, I realized that he didn’t sound Italian at all. In fact, by his accent, my guess was that he spoke English.
And then it hit me. The man celebrating Mass was Cardinal Law, in the flesh.
I later learned that this was his “punishment” — to serve as overseer of one of the most beautiful churches in the world. I thought to myself, "This is how the Catholic Church disciplines those who shuffle abusers around from church to church? How could this happen? Did the church even care about the victims?"
That wasn't the only negligence in church leaders' follow-up. In February 2004, the John Jay College of Criminal Justice issued a report on the sex abuse crisis. The press focused on its central finding, that there was no correlation between homosexuality and child sexual abuse. But having actually read the report, it became apparent to me how such a conclusion was made. The researchers simply removed any victim over the age of puberty from the study.
So, that conclusion was misleading at best, but at worst, dangerously negligent. Because when one included pubescent and adult victims, the perpetrators were many more times likely to be homosexual. The report’s conclusion was eagerly embraced in the heady days of the campaign for gay marriage. But today, in light of the #MeToo movement, the abuse of teens and adults can no longer be ignored.
This year, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania named over 300 priests as perpetrators of abuse over the last seven decades. The investigation recovered over 2,000 documents from “secret archives” held by the state’s Catholic dioceses. The details of the report turn one’s stomach. One priest raped a seven-year-old boy and then demanded that the same child confess his “sin” of being raped. Another boy was so violently abused that his spine was permanently damaged. He then became addicted to painkillers from the injury and later committed suicide.
Today, straight-faced bishops nationwide assure us that they are doing everything humanly possible to deal with the matter. Leaders such as Cardinal Donald Wuerl — accused of failing to report some abusers during his tenure as the bishop of Pittsburgh — now encourage victims in his Washington, D.C., diocese to come to him with accusations of abuse.
In short, the Catholic hierarchy seems incapable of solving this problem due to a lack of credibility. One thing is for certain: Someone else must take the lead.
I am not Catholic, but I was educated at a Catholic university, and I have been been married to a Catholic wife for almost 30 years. So, I feel that I come to this discussion with some understanding. I also feel that I have some skin in the game, because I wear the same clerical shirt and collar as my Catholic counterparts and must endure the same dirty looks and unspoken suspicions as they do.
Furthermore, the Catholic Church’s moral failure paints all Christians with the same brush. Polls have demonstrated that the abuse scandal has lowered attendance not only in Catholic churches, but in Protestant churches like mine as well.
Because the clergy have shown themselves incompetent in dealing with the abuse and the cover-ups, the Catholic Church should call a council of the laity only. No ordained clergy should be involved in voting on its decisions.
The council also needs to be requested by a secular leader, just as the Councils of Constance and Trent were called by the emperors of their day, and be immediately convened by Pope Francis.
Many possible Catholic lay leaders could serve on such a council. Catholic author George Weigel, Catholic University president John Garvey, or Franciscan University of Steubenville professor Scott Hahn would all be examples of laymen who could serve as possible electors.
The council should also include lay and religious women. How quickly would a Catherine of Siena, a Teresa of Avila, or a Mother Angelica have cleaned up this mess? Catherine's efforts returned the papacy to Rome; Teresa saved a religious order under constant attack from the church hierarchy. Angelica built a worldwide media empire. Ending such a clergy abuse crisis as we are experiencing today would have been table stakes for them. I have no doubt that there are many such religious and lay women alive today who could be just as effective.
The investigation also needs to include a fair and unbiased look at the possibility that homosexual orientation may be a contributing factor to the abuse of teen laity, seminarians, and even subordinate priests. It should also include an inquiry to determine whether allowing married men to serve in the ordained clergy might lower the incidence of abuse and increase oversight.
After the council has completed its recommendations, Pope Francis should imitate Pius IV after Trent and immediately approve all of its recommendations. He should then create a congregation for the council that will be given independent power to fully implement its decrees over a 10-year period.
It is hard to imagine that the situation within the Catholic Church could get any worse. But I predict that it will, if business as usual continues. Instead, it’s time for bold action and a new way forward. But the legitimacy must first be reestablished, and that means allowing lay leaders to take the lead in moving the church toward decisive reform.
I believe that laypeople and women religious can implement the policies and procedures needed to ensure a safe future for our children and our teens and adults.
Here’s another idea: Hold the council in Boston, the city where the abuse first became apparent. Perhaps one day, our seminarians will study this Council of Boston, that blessed assembly that protected all Catholics from abusers whom the church's leaders had formerly tolerated and even protected.
Dennis R. Di Mauro is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Warrenton, Va. He holds a Ph.D. in Church History from The Catholic University of America and teaches at St. Paul Lutheran Seminary.