After the grand jury report: What we're reading about Catholicism, clergy and the future of the faithful

Last week, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court ordered the release of an explosive grand jury report detailing sexual abuse of more than 1,000 children by more then 300 priests over more than seven decades in six dioceses in Pennsylvania. Since the report came out many people, from the Pope in the Vatican to congregants around the country, have responded to the revelations.

Below are some of the reflections on faith and insights on the path forward.

Pope Francis and Archbishop Chaput apologized

Last Thursday, Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Philadelphia Diocese, responded in a column to what he called “an ugly week.”

Chaput calls the report “bitterly painful text” but says that “rage risks wounding the innocent along with the guilty, and it rarely accomplishes anything good.” The Archbishop goes on to discuss reforms that are already in place and to say that “credible people, have challenged its processes and disputed elements of its content.”

On Monday morning, the Pope responded to the report: “We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them.”

Michael Brendan Dougherty of the National Review is skeptical of these responses. “I find it impossible not to notice that these expressions of sorrow never arrive before the courts, the state attorneys general, or the local press arrive on the scene. That fact gives you another idea about what causes the bishops’ sorrow,” he writes.

Some staunch defenders objected to the condemnation

Catholic League President Bill Donohue wrote: “Some Catholics are spinning out of control over cases of sexual abuse committed by the dead and the laicized.” Donhue goes on to attack the media for ignoring sexual misconduct by “Hollywood perverts” and public school teachers. “In short,” Donohue writes, “zero tolerance is only supposed to apply to the Catholic Church.”

In the pews on Sunday, Catholics grappled with the news

Churchgoers leave the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul after Sunday Mass.

Across America, Catholics went to mass on Sunday morning. Washington Post columnist Karen Tumulty was sitting in the pew of her D.C. church and found herself wondering, “Why am I still a Catholic?” She wasn’t the only one. In his sermon the priest posed a similar question, “What am I doing with my life? What am I doing as a priest in this church?” In his reflection of scripture he was reminded that, “there is still the presence of God in this place.” Sitting in her pew Tumulty concluded, “The Catholic Church does not belong to the bishops. Jesus gave it to us. And we must take it back.”

Meanwhile, Dr. Susan Reynolds, an Assistant Professor of Catholic Studies at Emory University, was sitting in a pew in Atlanta. The priest gave a “powerful homily” in which he called for “radical lay-led structural reform. The priest sat down and what happened next left Reynolds with no words.

Reynolds concluded: “People don’t want finessed press releases. They want to name their betrayal out loud, in public, in sacred space, before the tabernacle, before God, and one another. They want to be listened to without condescension. They don’t want easy answers. They want contrition.”

In Philadelphia, Inquirer reporter William Bender went out to speak with Mass-goers on Sunday. One life-long Catholic said, “I love my faith. I will not leave my church. But things need to change. I’m glad that finally it’s being addressed.”

Others weren’t so sure that the church is doing all it can to address the issue of clergy sex abuse, “I don’t have an issue with my faith, I have an issue with the church … Something is not getting addressed.”

Next steps: Some call for women priests, rethinking celibacy

Reforming a 2,000-year old institution is not an easy task.  The Pennsylvania grand jury report comes 16 years after the 2002 explosive reporting from the Boston Globe about abusive priests and systematic coverup. Earlier this year a survey conducted by Pew showed that only 45 percent of Catholics think that Pope Francis is doing a “good or excellent” job in his handling of the sex abuse scandals.

In the wake of this most recent report, writers and thinkers have suggested ways the church might evolve moving forward.

For Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle it is time to clean house, “If Jesus were here today, would He not be running through American cathedrals, knocking over tables as He did with the money changers in the Temple?“

For Tumulty, those who protected abusive priests are just as responsible and there should be “legal consequences for this up and down the line.”

Further, Tumulty says, “The Catholic Church really ought to rethink some of the conditions that have created this culture. It is time for reexamination of the whole roles about celibacy and I also wonder, if there had been some women in these rooms in authority, in decision making positions, would this [cover up] have been the impulse? I don’t think so.”

In November of 2016, the Pope said that he believe that when it comes to women priests “the door is closed” and the ban is forever. In responding to a shortage of priests in the Amazon Basin area, the Pope said that the Vatican is studying the possibility to allow priests to marry. 

But how much of the blame can we put on the culture in the church? Washington Post opinion columnist Elizabeth Bruenig, writes that while there are elements in which the Catholic Church is unique — such a celibacy — we see pattern of abuse and cover up from major institutions that are “free of all traces of medieval superstition — such as Hollywood, for instance.” As next steps Bruenig calls on states to reform their criminal and civil statues of limitations — a move that was recommended by the grand jury report and the Inquirer Editorial Board — and on “lay Catholics” (as herself) to demand that the church cooperates with authorities.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania opened a clergy sex-abuse hotline, which has been receiving many calls.