I write this piece at the end of the most solemn of all weeks of the Christian faith: Holy Week. I have shown my bias. I am a practicing Catholic. I am also a nurse practitioner who works on a daily basis with abused children. It is accurate to say that every day I interact with at least one child and family who has experienced the tragedy of sexual abuse. As a Catholic, and as a health professional deeply immersed in this issue, I wish to weigh in on the current controversy.
There is no doubt that the sexual abuse crisis is the spiritual cancer of the Catholic Church. It is the sore that will not heal. Here in Milwaukee, the issue is being played out again, as new reports surface speculating what Pope Benedict knew of the abuse of children at St. John's School for the Deaf in Wisconsin, and what he did (or didn't do) about it. On Easter Sunday, after Mass, our own pastor apologized once again on behalf of our Archbishop. The issue is alive and well in our city and in our parishes.
I also bring a somewhat different view of those who are outraged and sickened by the newest twist to this scandal. While I believe that pedophile priests and their enablers and protectors should be held accountable under the law, I do not think the Pope should resign. I would like to suggest two things the Pope could do instead.
First, he should distance himself from extreme, almost fanatic apologists such as Bill Donohue of the Catholic League. In a recent interview with CNN's Larry King Live, Mr. Donohue stated almost gleefully that the rape and molestation by Catholic clergy was not pedophilia, but rather homosexuality because "most of the victims were post-pubescent." Addressing a church sex abuse victim on the CNN panel with him, Donohue smugly declared: "That's not pedophilia, buddy. That's homosexuality."
Let me say one thing very clearly. In almost 20 years of dealing with this issue on a daily clinical basis, I have never heard the issue framed in terms of "post-pubescent boys," nor one of homosexuality. In my professional experience, I have seen no connection between sexual orientation and the sexual abuse of a child, including post-pubescent boys who, contrary to Mr. Donohue's ill-informed interpretation of biology and law, are in fact children. For the Catholic Church or its prominent defenders to frame the issue in terms of homosexuality is to almost re-open the Inquisition. The Pope must put an end to that sort of rhetoric.
The Catholic Church has made some commendable progress in recent years in "safeguarding" its children. But to use this as an excuse to demean and dismiss valid reports and instances of sexual abuse is to once again punish and re-abuse the victim. ("We put a safety plan in place and we think it works, now please quit bothering us with all your old and new allegations.") Gloating over the gains of newly developed programs will not return the innocence stolen from deaf Wisconsin schoolchildren whose only misfortune was to enter the confessional with Fr. Lawrence Murphy. It is the nature of child sexual abuse for victims to carry this trauma throughout their entire lives. What the Church and its apologists must explain is why such safeguards were not in place 40 years ago -- and what justice will be offered to the victims.
Finally, we must stop comparing the current criticism of Pope Benedict to the suffering of Jesus, as some have suggested. "[O]ur earthly shepherd [is] now suffering from the same unjust accusation and shouts of the mob as Jesus did," said New York's Archbishop Timothy Dolan during Palm Sunday Mass.
Jesus would not be flattered at the comparison. We must be very clear that no group has been more maligned, deceived, intimidated by the Catholic Church in the early years of this scandal than the brave victims and their families who came forth to report the abuse. They paid a high price in those lonely isolated years. Their stories still need to be told. The Pope should instruct his apologists to back off from this false rhetoric that somehow equates victims as perpetrators.
It is also important that we not contextualize this sex abuse scandal as "the Church's 9/11" or "the Church's Holocaust." Such imagery denigrates all human tragedies. The sex abuse scandal is its own stand-alone historical tragedy. It needs no comparisons. Ask any victim.
While I support calls for reparations to the victims and accountability for the perpetrators, I believe the Church has a deeper responsibility to atone for its crimes. I would suggest that the Vatican erect a monument or a wall, preferably at the entrance to St. Peter's Basilica, that would display the names of the thousands of victims of abuse. In every sense of the word, these individuals are martyrs. The Pope should also make an effort that every Good Friday be a special Day of Atonement for these victims. We must never forget them.
How then should the Pope state his position? Ironically, I would advise Pope Benedict to heed the words of the great humanitarian atheist of the 20th century, French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus, who wrote: "All our troubles spring from our failure to use plain clear-cut language. So I resolved always to speak and to act quite clearly."
My plea to Pope Benedict is to finally do the right thing: You are not the chairman of Toyota. You are the leader and spiritual head of the Catholic Church. The victims of tragedies such as happened in Ireland, the school for the deaf in Wisconsin, and countless thousands all had their childhoods stolen. They cannot be recalled like a vehicle with a brake problem. Clear your calendar for the next six months. Meet with victims. Actually go to Ireland and other places in Europe and even the school for the deaf. Listen to them and ask their forgiveness.
Chances are, if you did these things your popularity might wane with certain Catholics who prefer the Toyota model. But the profound message it would send to the rest of the world, including the Church's detractors, would carry infinitely more weight than even your resignation could.