As the Catholic hierarchy meets in Rome to address the ongoing sex abuse scandal Pope Francis talks extensively about transparency, honesty, compassion, forgiveness and redemption. These are all worthy goals as the Church seeks to formulate rules, procedures and safeguards to ensure that criminal attacks on children, young adults, now nuns will be dealt with swiftly and completely. The bishops at this historic conference know that the world is watching and that the Catholic faithful expect strict policies to be put into place not only to respond to the crisis but also to avoid a further erosion of Church support.
But one of the key stumbling blocks to meaningful change on the issue of sex abuse are the twin issues of authority and control. At the core of the crisis is the horrible rape of innocents and the cover-up, which is centered in the refusal of Church leaders to be bound by state investigatory power or to work with lay boards to put an end to this tragedy. There continues, even today, the view within the confines of the hierarchy the belief that the Church is above the law and that those outside the inner circles of authority have little standing in the resolution of this scandal.
The mindset among too many bishops is that the Catholic Church is their church and their power domain and that those lay members have little claim to interfere. This position, if not dogma, has isolated the Church from achieving its stated goals of transparency, honesty, compassion, forgiveness and redemption. The hierarchy has become one large circle of Yes men shutting out the faithful who clamor for reform and the legal community who are sworn to uphold the law.
Because of Pope Francis’ early comments about the conference that suggest no major policies will come forth, the people in the pews are getting frustrated and angry. Church attendance is down and also financial contributions. Now there are some who are talking about creating a movement to switch the relationship between the bishops and the faithful – it is the Church of the faithful not of the hierarchy and in the future bishops and even parish priests should be under the direct control of local parish councils.
Such organizational heresy is still in its infancy and may just be temporary feelings of sadness that the Yes men refuse to relinquish their hold on the levers of power. Ceding power to the faithful, if it does occur, will be a long struggle and talk about transparency, honesty, compassion, forgiveness and redemption will increasingly be empty words. New goals must now be introduced to the conversation, goals such as cooperation, shared power and indeed democracy. We will just have to see how this struggle plays out. The bishops will not give up without a fight, not after hundreds of years of exercising unchecked authority and control.