Reformation After the Abuse Crisis (Part 2)

Interview With Authors Gregory Erlandson and Matthew Bunson

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By Karna Swanson

HUNGTINGTON, Indiana, JULY 7, 2010 ( As the Church continues to address the sexual abuse crisis, Catholics must be confident that there is a way forward for the Church, and that Benedict XVI is the one to lead it, say the authors of a book on the Pope’s response to the current wave of sex abuse cases.

Matthew Bunson and Gregory Erlandson are co-authors of the recently published book «Pope Benedict XVI and the Sexual Abuse Crisis: Working for Reform and Renewal» (Our Sunday Visitor, 2010). Erlandson is the president and publisher of Our Sunday Visitor Publishing, and Bunson is the editor of The Catholic Almanac and The Catholic Answer magazine (both published by Our Sunday Visitor), as well as a media consultant on Catholic issues.

In part 2 of their interview with ZENIT, the authors reflect on the consequences of the sexual abuse crisis, and what Benedict XVI has done to lead the Church forward.

Part 1 of this interview appeared Wednesday.

ZENIT: In the book you mention that the Church gets all the blame for not responding to the sexual abuse crisis earlier, but that in many instances civil authorities were also slow to respond. Has there been a change in the last 20-30 years in how law enforcement looks on these types of crimes?

Bunson and Erlandson: While there were laws about sexual abuse, there was a tendency in past decades for civil authorities to have the same lack of full understanding of the sexual abuse of minors as everyone else. They lacked both a proper awareness of the deviance and a comprehension of its impact on the children who were abused. As we discuss in the book, many bishops relied on mental health experts to provide guidance in how to deal with abusive priests and accepted the recommendations that a priest in therapy could be given a new assignment. We know now that was a catastrophic mistake.

Similarly, there was reluctance at times on the part of civil authorities to press charges over what they saw as a problem similar to alcoholism or drug abuse. Some civil authorities, in places like Ireland and the United States, did not prosecute sexual abuse of minors out of an excessive deference to priests or a desire to avoid scandal for a religious institution. Pope Benedict XVI pointed to this in his Letter to the Catholic of Ireland.

ZENIT: The Church has been around for more than 2,000 years, and has shown its resiliency by surviving the many crises that have threatened it. Having said that, what have been the consequences for the Church of the sexual abuse crisis? Even more importantly, what have been the consequences for the faith of individual believers, be they victims, the abusers themselves, or the faithful in the pews?

Bunson and Erlandson: The Church has suffered a grievous wound in this sexual abuse crisis. Not only is it a humiliation and a blow to its reputation, but it has had to recognize that those who bore the greatest responsibility for the souls of others — priests, deacons, bishops, Church employees — had failed terribly. The victims of abuse have had their lives shattered and their faith terribly shaken, even destroyed. Worse still, crimes like sexual abuse have a ripple effect, traumatizing and alienating families and friends, and undermining the Church’s witness in the larger society.

The vast majority of priests are dedicated and faithful to their vows, yet they too have seen their reputations maligned and felt the distrust of strangers. In those parishes where children were abused by clergy, there is often distrust and woundedness on the part of the people even when the cases are addressed forthrightly. The priests’ relationship with their bishops has also been damaged. It is not unusual for priests to feel that while they are only one allegation away from having their reputations destroyed, their bishops are not as accountable and their bishops have made them scapegoats for larger institutional problems. Many, including the late Avery Cardinal Dulles, have warned of the rift that can occur between priests and their bishops as a result of this scandal.

The bishops — most of whom inherited cases of abuse from decades ago and lawsuits that deal with those terrible events — have seen a loss of their reputation and moral authority at a time when their voices are most needed in the complex issues of modern times.

For the faithful in the pews who get most of their news from the secular media, the reports have continued to erode faith in the institution of the Church and its leaders. This corrosion of trust has long-term implications that go beyond those who stop attending Mass. Those Catholics who were already alienated from the faith may use the occasion of scandals to formally break with the Church, but even those who stay do not understand the full context or see all that the Church is doing to correct past errors and prevent future ones. It is particularly for these people that we wrote our book, our fellow Catholics who may be getting only half the story.

Benedict XVI has also tied very closely the reform of the Church in the area of sexual abuse to a wider program of spiritual renewal. The crisis has thus provided the Church with the opportunity to bring needed reforms institutionally and a process of spiritual renewal. As you allude, both of these are well in keeping with the wider history of the Church’s aspirations to be in a constant state of reform and renewal, as Pope Gregory I the Great memorably declared.   

ZENIT: You talk about how Benedict XVI has been a leader in this crisis, and that his pontificate will be defined by how he is responding to sexual abuse in the Church. What do you see as the main elements of his response?

Bunson and Erlandson: The heart of our book is documenting the authentic record of Joseph Ratzinger/Pope Benedict XVI in dealing with the sexual abuse crisis, from his time as archbishop of Munich-Freising, to his tenure as head of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to his leadership since his election as Pope in 2005.

As we have discussed, the Pope has been engaged with this issue for years. As head of the CDF, he assumed control over all of the world’s cases in 2001 after the decree was issued by Pope John Paul II centralizing the oversight of cases on the Vatican side. In that position, he became arguably the most well-informed leader in the entire Church about the extent and severity of the problem. He was a supporter of the norms and program of reform in the United States. He has accepted the resignations of bishop all over the world for their failures to provide leadership in handling cases. He has spoken extensively about the problem in his travels, such as his clear words to the United States in 2008 and his letter to the Catholics of Ireland. He has met with the victims of abuse, in the United States, in Australia, in Malta and at the Vatican; he has said that he is eager to meet with victims from Ireland. It is clear also that he plans to continue speaking about this issue, and he is expected to implement universal norms for the Church in this important area.

As we have stressed, the Pope has united these crucial institutional reforms with a wider program of spiritual renewal. As he taught a few weeks ago [during his apostolic trip to Cyprus], the Church can survive persecutions from external forces, but the greatest threat to the Church is from within, from the sins and the failings of her members. Without question, the sexual abuse crisis represents a catastrophe for the whole Catholic world, but following the lead from Pope Benedict, Catholics must not fear the truth, and we can know that a way forward is before us. The Holy Father is our leader in that long and difficult journey.

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