After many years of sex scandals in the Catholic Church, someone finally blew the whistle in a way that could not be ignored.
Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, a retired Vatican envoy to the United States, said on August 22nd that Pope Francis should resign because he had failed to discipline a major sex offender, former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. Archbishop Viganò accused McCarrick of having preyed upon Catholic seminarians for many years. He said that Pope Francis “must be the first to set a good example for cardinals and bishops who covered up McCarrick’s abuses.” The Pope, he declared, should “resign along with all of them.”
Viganò certainly got everyone’s attention. And while the Pope has not resigned, he has called a meeting of all bishops who head national Catholic bishops’ conferences to discuss sexual abuse within the Church. The meeting will be held in Rome on Feb. 21-24, 2019.
There’s an old story about an Irishman who came upon a fight in progress and asked, “Is this a private fight, or can anyone join in?” I feel somewhat the same way about the current battle within the Church. Although not a Catholic, I’m concerned about family members and many friends who are. This is a rough time for them, and it could become much worse. I also worry about the way the long-festering problem of sexual abuse by priests affects the pro-life movement. If Rome cannot get its act together, the impact on the movement may become much worse. Moreover, all of the bishops need to hear this message from prolifers: We have not spent decades in trying to save the lives of unborn children so they can be molested when they are a little older.
Here are a few suggestions. First, all cardinals and bishops who have failed to deal with child-molesters and seminarian-molesters should resign, including Pope Francis if Viganò’s allegations prove correct. Whenever the College of Cardinals next meets to select a new pope, the cardinals should give serious consideration to bishops who have dealt honestly and courageously with the abuse problem. No amateurs need apply. This is one of the greatest crises the Catholic Church has ever faced.
Archbishop Viganò might be considered for this demanding job. He cleaned up the Vatican Bank when it was in terrible shape. He spent many years in the Vatican bureaucracy, so it would be easier for him to replace corrupt or incompetent staff than it would be for someone who does not have Vatican experience. Notably pro-life, he takes part in the annual March for Life in Rome, and in 2015 he spoke at the Walk for Life in San Francisco.
The television age and jet travel have led to an expectation that popes will travel a great deal and will also resemble our politicians in other ways. But what the Catholic Church needs now is someone who will stay home in Rome and mind the store. Someone who knows the Vatican bureaucracy and has the courage to make needed changes. At the local level, the Church needs bishops who will forego most travel outside of their dioceses and focus on supervising and supporting their parish priests.
Finally, I believe the Church should consider making celibacy optional for priests. Many problems of today’s priests are likely due not only to sex, but also to sheer loneliness. It is well to remember that there were married priests in early Catholic history. And that priests in Orthodox churches and ministers in Protestant churches have shown that married clergy can be both happy and effective in their work. I suspect they may also be more helpful in marriage counseling than most single people are.
This is not to say, however, that other churches have no problems with sexual abuse of children. Such abuse crosses denominational lines. According to a 2007 article in the Insurance Journal: “The three companies that insure the majority of Protestant churches in America say they typically receive upward of 260 reports each year of young people under 18 being sexually abused by clergy, church staff, volunteers or congregation members.”
The challenges that all churches face today are enormous, but they need not be disabling. Perhaps the most important virtue right now is courage.