Dr. Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University issued a stark assessment of the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church during a conference Friday at Saint Patrick Church in Carlisle.
“I believe the Catholic abuse crisis is the most serious crisis in the Roman Catholic Church since the Reformation,” Faggioli told the gathered audience.
Faggioli’s comments came as part of his keynote address during an annual conference hosted by the St. Gabriel ministry of Saint Patrick Roman Catholic Church in Carlisle. This year’s conference, attended by about 50 people, examined the causes of the scandal and provided information about what is being done to promote healing and justice for the victims.
The conference, “Pro Vita: Healing the Wounds in the Body of Christ,” also featured a panel discussion that included retired Pennsylvania State Police Capt. Janet McNeal, who is the safe environment coordinator for the Harrisburg Diocese, and Carlisle-based clinical psychologist Dr. Jerry Mock. The panel was moderated by Col. Celestino Perez, a professor at the U.S. Army War College.
Faggioli said the scandal can’t be understood only in national terms or within a time frame dating back two to five years.
“Where we are now is one particular face of a history that doesn’t begin with the accusation against [former Cardinal Theodore] McCarrick in 2018. It doesn’t even begin in 2002 with the Boston Spotlight investigation,” Faggioli said.
The modern history of the scandal begins at least in the 1980s when journalists at the National Catholic Reporter chronicled cases in Louisiana. Their work was “vilified” in public by church officials, public leaders and intellectuals, he said.
Those attitudes changed by the time of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigation into sexual abuse in the church in 2002, and continued to change through the 2018 release of a grand jury report on sex abuse in the Catholic Church in Pennsylvania.
The Pennsylvania grand jury, convened by the state attorney general’s office in 2016, listened to dozens of witnesses and reviewed more than a half-million pages of internal documents from the Allentown, Erie, Greensburg, Harrisburg, Pittsburgh and Scranton dioceses.
The Catholic Church is the most closely watched organization in the world on the issue though there are other organizations like churches, religious schools and nonprofit organizations that have also been affected.
“The problem that you have is not unique to the Catholic Church. This is not a Catholic Church problem. This is a systemic problem in our society,” McNeal said. “This is nothing new. This has been happening for a long time. What is new is how we’re approaching it now.”
More is known now about sex abuse and the differences between types of offenders than was known before, and McNeal said she is bringing that perspective to her role with the church.
The difference between the Catholic Church and other organizations is that it is doing the work those other organizations are still struggling to begin, Faggioli said.
Faggioli said the church has a long journey ahead of it with solutions ultimately coming from a place a little closer to home than the Vatican in Rome.
“It’s in venues like this that the solution can be found,” he said.
Every community must look beyond a legal and judicial approach and face the spiritual challenges of the abuse scandal. The church needs to give more space and voice to young people as it deals “honestly and transparently” with the scandal.
“We can not get out of this crisis by hoping that we see a list of the accused or guilty that satisfies us,” Faggioli said.
McNeal said she wasn’t sure what efforts were being made to follow up on the clergy who were on the list, but are no longer active in the diocese.
“There’s nothing legally within Pennsylvania that would watch or follow them or report on them. The only thing we have for that is probation, parole and Megan’s Law,” she said.
Absent a conviction, there’s little that can be done.
“The conviction is the public record on that. The allegation is not, and the investigation is not,” McNeal said.
Responding to allegations requires a creativity in church law that hasn’t been explored because it wouldn’t solve the problem in some areas, Faggioli said.
“We need to find a way to involve lay people, lay members of the Catholic church, in evaluating the allegation locally and at the regional level and at the state level,” he said.
The problem is that the church is experiencing “a widespread total collapse of trust” that could lead church members to not trust the lay people appointed by church officials, Faggioli said.
Mock said individual members of the church must take responsibility for their parts even if it’s something as simple as “blindly following.” Supporting the victims begins with being there, acknowledging that the church should be doing better and deciding to be a part of that process.
“We need to challenge our Saint Patrick’s Church and see what we can do for these victims within our church,” she said. “We need to get involved and we need to speak up,” she said.
In his address prior to the panel discussion, Faggioli linked the sex abuse scandal to the Reformation by following the path Martin Luther did when he confronted church authorities in 1517.
The first parallel, he said, centers on corruption. Martin Luther clearly saw corruption in the handling of human resources, money and power in governing the church, and the church is corruption seeing in the sex abuse crisis.
Faggioli pointed to an Australian study that showed 4 to 6% of all priests were involved in some kind of sexual misconduct.
“If it’s between 4% and 6%, it’s not a few bad apples. It’s something else,” he said.
The scandal has moved beyond the criminal sphere to become part of a theological discussion in church about issues such as teaching on sexuality and the celibacy of priests, again mirroring the Reformation in its move from a focus on corruption to investigations into the teachings of the church to determine if those teachings led to the corruption, he said.
These theological debates are the most visible in the United States church, which Faggioli said is the most divided in the world.
“The church in the United States is increasingly in these past few years on the verge of a schism, a formal division. There is no other church in the world that is in dire condition,” he said.
The abuse scandal has played a role in the polarization of the church in this country because the church has mirrored the political spectrum of the country in which being a Republican or Democrat shapes everything.
“The sex abuse crisis has become a tool, a weapon within this war in the Catholic Church,” Faggioli said.
The third similarity to the Reformation is that the sex abuse scandal is playing out on a global level.
“This crisis has now become officially global. It’s no longer just an American problem. It’s no longer a Western problem because we know of cases in Asia, India, Africa, Latin America, Australia,” Faggioli said.