The Gospel readings from the past week have been a ringing denouncement by Jesus regarding the abuse of the leadership and religious authority of his day. Yesterday and especially today, even more overtly so, as we witness Jesus calling out those scribes and Pharisees who have abused their power and positions: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, you hypocrites. You cleanse the outside of cup and dish, but inside they are full of plunder and self-indulgence” (Mt 23:25).
The most unfortunate part of this Gospel is that the Church today is still not immune from these indictments. Over the past year, there have been reports in the US and worldwide regarding the worst kind of self-indulgence and that is the abuse of children by clergy and cover-ups from those who were placed in positions as shepherds to protect their flocks. This has left a gaping wound in the Body of Christ because of the devastation, first and foremost, to those who have been gravely wounded physically, emotionally, and spiritually, as well as for those families who have accompanied their loved ones through these years of trauma.
Jesus bestowed dignity on the vulnerable youth of his day when he chided his disciples for not allowing the children to be brought to him for a blessing (cf. Mt 19:13-15). Jesus modeled the proper treatment of children and at-risk adults time and again throughout his ministry, and as disciples of Christ, first and foremost, we too are to stand up for and protect the dignity of each person, but especially the most vulnerable among us. There is no defense for these horrific actions, nor the egregious coverups.
The majority of the reports revealed abuses that happened prior to the first significant waves of revelations of 2002. Since that time, many dedicated laypeople and clergy have been diligently working together, to protect at-risk adults and children, to implement strategies and programs of awareness, to educate parents, children and all who work with children and at-risk adults in our dioceses across the country.
Yet, as investigations such as the Pennsylvania grand jury report unearthed systemic abuse, the greater majority of which happened again prior to 2002, each of us are reminded that each diocese needs to bring to light, be transparent, and open records of abuse as far back as they have them and not wait for others to go digging. Those who have been responsible for acts of abuse, those who have been complicit in covering up their actions or shuffling priests around, no matter their level within the hierarchy, need to step down from public ministry. To those who are still hiding in the shadows, they need to remember that Jesus said, “There is nothing hidden that will not become visible, and nothing secret that will not be known and come to light” (Lk 8:17).
There can no longer be a practice of covering up heinous crimes and abusers to protect the identity of the institution of the Church. We are the Body of Christ, and where one suffers, we all suffer. Jesus Christ promoted integrity over identity. The dignity of the person is to be placed before any institution. We need to pray for, while at the same time provide full access to those who have been abused. This means that they are to be heard, that their claims will be fully investigated, and they will have access to resources for healing, mentally, physically, spiritually and socially. Part of that process will be to allow them to share their stories which need to be told and heard. We also need to continue to be vigilant in protecting settings that provide access to children and at-risk adults from predators.
We need not leave the Church because of those who sin, we all fall short of the glory of God. We need not be paranoid either, but we do need to be clear to put boundaries and proven protective practices in place, we need to be alert and vigilant to the warning signs regarding those who do not respect boundaries, as well as be fully open and cooperative with revealing the abuses enacted in the past.
We also need to be authentic people of prayer, because this is also a spiritual problem, and so on this memorial of St Monica, may we seek her intercession in praying for those who have have been abused, for their healing, for accountability for those who have abused, for this darkness to be revealed by the light, and for those who have lost their faith because of the stain of hypocrisy that has tainted the Church. Let us strive to be people of integrity, building a true culture of life, that respects, protects, empowers, and stands up for the dignity of all.
Photo: “Woe to you Scribes and Pharisees” – James Tissot, late 19th century