Melinda Henneberger

After Pennsylvania sex abuse report, is it too late to save the Catholic Church?

A Catholic church in Pennsylvania
A Catholic church in Pennsylvania NYT

The New York Times ran a depressing but not very surprising magazine piece recently that in essence said it may be too late to save the planet from the ravages of climate change now, because we blew it back when we could have acted in the 80s. While we were slam dancing, hanging out at the multiplex and generally ignoring the Cassandras of science, a window was closing.

That’s how I see the Catholic Church after this week’s awful but not out-of-nowhere grand jury report out of Pennsylvania about the more than 1,000 children who were sexually abused by hundreds of priests in that one state over the last 70 years: “There have been other reports about child sex abuse within the Catholic Church. But never on this scale. For many of us, those earlier stories happened someplace else, someplace away. Now we know the truth: it happened everywhere.”

Two of the priests mentioned in the report spent time here in the Kansas City area, and if you still don’t think “everywhere” means every single corner of our country, I envy your innocence.

Also as with climate change, our bishops had decades to respond to what they knew, but instead wrote notes of consolation — to the abusers. For too many of the 34 years since Jason Berry and the Kansas City-based National Catholic Reporter began documenting these crimes and their cover-ups, the most common reaction has been to lie and to litigate, to pay and then pray.

Sixteen years ago, after The Boston Globe broke the story of sex abuse and cover-ups in their archdiocese, American bishops were finally forced to respond, and came up with a no-tolerance policy for new abuse cases.

Only, the bishops continued to cover up their own crimes. Supposedly, this ugly issue was all in the past. But because these “leaders” still had so much to hide, here we are again, only the recurrence is worse than the original cancer. I’m not being the least bit glib or sarcastic when I say that I know now how Trump voters felt two years ago: Burn. It. Down. Turn every last Bernini into bread and vaccines.

Yes, Pope Francis has done so much right and so much good. But I’ve never seen any evidence that he understood that if he didn’t get this issue right, too, there would be no one left in the pews to disillusion. Or that if he enabled the enablers, no one would remember his beautiful Laudato, si, which is about climate change in the same way that Dante’s “Inferno” is about a tour of hell. (It is, but that’s just for starters.)

Earlier this year, Francis defended his appointment of a Chilean bishop accused of covering up abuse. More than once, he called well documented accounts to the contrary “calumny.” After Cardinal Sean O’Malley of Boston, who knows plenty about what happens when abuse is ignored, publicly differed from his friend Francis, the pope did send an investigator to Chile. Eventually, he admitted his error.

Unfortunately, though, I know of no calumny against priests in my church that comes close to the depravity described in the 900-page grand jury report. And again, how do we know about their weirdo collections of victims’ pubic hair and menstrual blood and their passing around of children they marked with gold crosses? Not because our rape-tolerant bishops breathed a word about it, but because they were dragged blinking into the light.

Five years into this pontificate is awfully late for this particular coming-to-Jesus. So late that, like damage to the planet, the damage to the church may be impossible to reverse.

This week, when I asked a friend who knows everything that twitches at the Vatican why Francis was not on his way here already, he said, “It’s August! You know nothing happens in Rome in August.”

Which is true, but also telling: There are still working telephones, yes? And planes taking off? To me, the pope’s leisurely response says that he’s just one more holy man who doesn’t have a clue in Dante’s hell about this issue. And after all we’ve been through already — some of us, anyway — that’s no excuse.

Vatican spokesman Greg Burke, who happens to be from St. Louis, did belatedly put out a statement that Francis stands with victims. The president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, of Galveston-Houston, called the grand jury’s findings a “moral catastrophe.”

But it’s far, far too late for words alone to make any difference. “What is needed now is not just promise of change,” said Bishop James V. Johnston Jr., of the Diocese of Kansas City-St. Joseph, “but a demonstration on the part of the bishops of a change of heart and deep contrition.”

I’ll believe in that transformation when I see an independent accounting of exactly what happened in every state. And when, like the bishops in Chile, every American prelate who allowed this evil to go on offers his resignation.