Opening the System

The Catholic hierarchy can heal the church by opening itself to change

If you have ever driven by the papal nuncio’s residence on Massachusetts Avenue, you may have seen a man standing in front who is protesting about priests who sexually abuse children. I do not know this man. But his public protest, and the thousands of personal stories from victims, demonstrate that the sex-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church is about people who have been harmed, and about an institution that for decades attempted to pretend that no harm had occurred.

This scandal is about the execution of power in a closed system: the power of the abuser-priest over the child or teenager, the power of the bishop over the priest and the Catholics who live in his diocese, and the power of the Vatican over the bishops. Closed systems are very good at keeping secrets.

The clerics are only a small part of the Catholic Church, but they are sometimes thought of as the entire church. Catholics are a diverse group of people who draw strength and support from Catholic traditions and practices, and who have a surprisingly wide variety of beliefs.

This scandal has taken place within the clerical part of the church. In addition to power, it is about dishonesty. This is self-evident and includes the scapegoating of gay men in a gay-panic defense that some church officials have attempted to use to deflect attention from the real issues.

Additionally, this dishonesty includes the Catholic Church’s teaching regarding sexual ethics, which is disingenuous and based on an outdated theory. This teaching does not make any attempt to include the lived experience of sexually active, adult Catholics, nor are the insights of modern science considered relevant. It is simply a collection of biases. Gay men and lesbians are very aware of the consequences of this flawed teaching.

The men who committed these crimes and the bishops who covered them up are publicly committed to a celibate life. They are also the primary teachers of Catholic thought regarding sex and relationships. I would suggest that the discordance between thought and action on the part of the 4 percent of priests who have been identified as abusers is due, in part, to the fact that the church’s teaching about sex is seriously flawed.

If you asked the average Catholic to identify the characteristics of a moral sex act, he or she would begin by talking about the context of the relationship within which the sex occurs, not whether pregnancy is possible. Also, the average Catholic would be able to distinguish between an illegal act, which should be reported to the police, and something that may be kept private and dealt with through personal prayer and penance. Bishops must cooperate with prosecutors and immediately report suspected abuse to the police.

The powerful in the Catholic Church still do not seem to grasp the culture change that must take place if they are to regain the trust of those who are deeply disappointed because of the mishandling of this outrage. I believe that the quickest way to create this needed change of culture within the ordained ranks of the Catholic Church is to begin ordaining women and married men as Catholic priests. This broader range of human experience within the priesthood could lead to a more balanced view of life by those who wear the Roman collar, and it would alter the status quo that currently produces a worldview and a power structure within the hierarchy that is too insular. More freedom for theologians to write about sexual ethics and the devolution of power away from Rome would also help.

I hope and pray that the pain suffered by the victims of abuse is not in vain because a church that properly responds to them will not only demonstrate its compassion, but it will be a more loving and just environment for all of us who value our identity as Catholics.

Allen Rose is president of Dignity/Washington, a community of LGBT Catholics. He can be reached at .

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