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A Priest Responds to the Catholic Church’s ‘Summer of Shame’

The ongoing scandals are the bitter fruit of a corrupt clerical culture, marked by a widespread failure to accept traditional teaching on sexual morality.

A few weeks before I was ordained a Catholic priest in the late autumn of 1994, my superior in the seminary told me that, in his opinion, it was probably the most difficult time in a century to become a priest. Yet, he went on, it was also the most exciting time. I really did not take much notice of what he said. In fact, in my overconfidence, I thought he was talking nonsense.

The Nazis had a special section of the Dachau concentration camp for priests. The “evil empire” of the former Soviet Union tortured, imprisoned, and executed thousands of priests. And, of course, more recently, many faithful priests have been murdered by Islamists in multiple countries. To even speak of “suffering” priests in the West over the past 24 years would be absurd, histrionic, and untruthful. It would also be an insult to all those brave and faithful men who have truly suffered for their profession of the Catholic faith.

Perhaps it would be more reasonable for me just to describe the experience of being a priest, especially during 2001–02, and at this moment of crisis for the Church. I do this not to elicit sympathy. It is possible that having experienced what seemed to be the worst of times, and now experiencing them again, I might be able to collect some thoughts and shed some light on ways forward.

Sitting in my small living room in the rectory I shared with another priest in the summer of 2002, I spent one sweltering evening surfing all the news channels. Each one, without exception, was leading with, and in great detail, descriptions of the “abuse crisis in the Church.” The horrors of Boston, the cover-ups, the malfeasance: It was relentless, nauseating, and exceptionally depressing. The grotesque sins — crimes — of some priests had besmirched the priesthood, leaving all priests, in the eyes of many, “potential pedos.” The biblical image of “striking the shepherd and the sheep scattering” came to mind very easily. If ever priests had been on a pedestal, it had now been quickly kicked away, and with some glee. The anger, revulsion, and desire for change were all justified. There was, and is, no excuse — and no suffering that was not deserved, even by the majority of priests who were living faithfully.

The U.S. bishops, charged both with being spiritual fathers to their priests and with the duty to protect their flock, rushed through what was called the “Dallas Charter,” to protect minors and put in place measures to discipline and remove priests, and others who worked for the Church, who had been “credibly accused” of abuse. Notably, the bishops themselves were not subject to the charter’s disciplinary measures. The scandals ebbed and flowed in subsequent years and the U.S. Catholic Church, according to many external auditors, became of a model of safe practice. Ministry changed — Church employees, including all priests, had to undergo all kinds of training, courses, lectures.

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