We have ground for hope, genuine signs of vitality and reason to risk optimism! Regular readers will recall that I recently expressed blunt criticism and serious disappointment in Pope Francis [link] accusing him of being insensitive and out of touch regarding clergy sex abuse. I bemoaned the fact that he seemed to defend a perverted “clericalism” that underlies a corrupt power-structure in the Catholic church. I had largely concurred with canon lawyer and priest Thomas P. Doyle: The survivors of abuse and countless others from the church and from society in general have been waiting for three decades for evidence that the institutional church “gets it.” There not only is no real evidence that it has, but from all appearances the hierarchy will remain on the defensive, hoping the problem will go away. Fair is fair so I am here today to suggest — to express genuine hope — that I was premature in my harsh criticism and profoundly wrong.
Over the past 24 hours media have favorably reported on the new Pontifical Commission on the Protection of Minors. It has to be significant that the first to break this story [link] in the U.S. was John L. Allen, Jr. for the Boston Globe. You may recall it was the Globe who tenaciously pursued and really broke open the American clergy sex abuse scandal in 2002. In a journalistic coup and demonstration of its resolve to provide ongoing and incisive coverage, the Globe recently recruited Allen from the equally tenacious, progressive and independent National Catholic Reporter. My purpose is not to repeat what is already well reported but to express welcome surprise and highlight reasons to be hopeful.
Of the eight commission members, four are women. I have long argued that had women held meaningful leadership in the Catholic church – or the male hierarchy of college sports a la Penn State — the scandal of sex-abuse would have been addressed and resolved much more swiftly and with immediate reforms. Five of the eight commission members are laypersons. That in itself is a refreshing change. Significantly, one member is an outspoken survivor of rape by a priest when she was 13 years old. Corroborating this non-clerical, non-hierarchical composition is that Pope Francis explicitly left it to the eight commission members to choose their own leadership and selection of additional members.
It also has to be sobering for bishops and national conferences of bishops to recognize that their only representation comes with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM — of Boston! Having only one bishop on a pontifical commission of such import sends a pointed message. Equally significant, and something I have not seen adequately appreciated, is that the other two ordained members are Jesuits. The fact that all three “clerics” are members of religious orders is a message that cannot be lost on church hierarchs! As religious, these three have had very different formation than their diocesan brothers and are much more insulated – and one would hope inoculated – from the careerism that is endemic to ecclesial bureaucracies.
The commission is bound to face strong head-winds of resistance, centuries of entrenched power interests and decades of denial – such is the nature of all abuse of power as with this distinctively “Catholic” manifestation. We owe them gratitude and uncompromising support.
Commonweal magazine provides a little known reason to inspire additional hope [link]. In the current issue editors cite sources suggesting Jorge Bergoglio possesses the finest-honed political instincts of any Argentine since Juan and Eva Perón. Let’s all pray the editors are right — we need such gifts right now!