To Fix the Sex Abuse Crisis, We Need a Window — and a Mirror

There are two sets of hard truths we have to face about the sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church.

One has to do with the behavior of the institutional Church. To understand that one, we need a window: More transparency on the part of Church bodies, and more oversight by laity willing to look at the Church honestly and thoroughly, pointing out the true accusations, and the false ones as well.

Others have argued better than I can about what kind of window we need.

But the other hard truth about the sex abuse crisis in the Church has to do with the behavior of all of us — the People of God, the laity. To address that one, we don’t need a window, we need a mirror. What do we need to see there?

First, we need to see when we have led others into sin.

Listen carefully to what Jesus Christ had to say about our responsibility to children: “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened round his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.”

Those are strong words, but notice: He didn’t say that whoever hurts a child would be better off dead — he said whoever leads a child astray would be better off dead.

In other words, Jesus isn’t just condemning abusers, though he is certainly doing that. He is also condemning any one of us whose leadership causes a child to embrace immorality.

That is why, during the first iteration of the sex abuse crisis, in 2002, when Pope John Paul II called all the U.S. cardinals to Rome, he told them that people need to know “that there is no place in the priesthood and religious life for those who would harm the young“ — and also “that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality.”

Most importantly, parents and Catholic school teachers also have to be “totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality.”

The fact is, through misdirection, lack of vigilance, failures of courage, and false charity, our generation has aided and abetted the spread of sexual sin on a massive scale rarely seen before.

Sexual sin is at the heart of the family breakdown that is the leading cause of poverty, and of the hookup culture that metastasizes into a culture of harassment. Sexual sin is at the heart of the STD epidemic, the abortion holocaust, and the horrors of human trafficking.

The world desperately needs Catholic wisdom on sexuality. They need to hear it from us.

Second, we have to recognize our own double lives.

It is true that that the double lives of priests and bishops is shocking and unacceptable. But rectories aren’t the only place harboring a culture of secrecy. In many homes, one or more persons is secretly plunging online into a world of ugly sexual images, becoming more and more addicted and seeking increasingly perverse thrills.

“What does it mean to speak of child protection,” Pope Benedict XVI asked American bishops in 2008, “when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?”

The morality crusades of the past, where parents challenged explicit lyrics in songs and racy magazine covers in grocery stores look quaint now, with hardcore pornography free to stream unhindered in every unfiltered home.  Why aren’t we doing more to stop it? The sad truth is that too many adults would rather risk exposing children to porn than risk losing their own access to it.

The mirror would also show a very different crisis: The loss of the sense of sin.

In the midst of the scandals of 2002, John Paul issued an urgent, motu proprio document called Misericordia Dei (The Mercy of God).

In it he spoke of the real crisis in the Church — “the crisis of ‘the sense of sin.’”

He saw churches worldwide with long communion lines and short confession lines — or no confession lines at all. He ordered several changes:

  • Confession should be available at set times, not by appointment only.
  • Confession times should be convenient.
  • Confession should be available before Mass, and even during it, when possible.

The lack of confession is a huge problem in the Catholic Church, because we are supposed to face God with awe and reverence, recognizing his greatness and our unworthiness. Those in a state of mortal sin are not to receive communion at all. Pope Francis stresses this, Scripture stresses it, and Aleteia has made it a point to try to address it.

This is serious business. St. Josemaría Escrivá recounted how a “saintly young priest, who was found worthy of martyrdom, wept at the foot of the altar as he thought of a soul who had come to receive Christ in the state of mortal sin!”

That kind of faith changes you. Lack of it changes you, too. If you are willing to receive Jesus Christ in communion today without confession, it is hardly likely you will live your life so as to be ready to face him when you die.

So, yes, it is important that the bishops and priests repent and reform.

But, God help us, it is equally important that we all repent and reform along with them.

Image: tschundler, Flickr

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes

Tom Hoopes, author of The Rosary of Saint John Paul II and The Fatima Family Handbook, is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Kansas and hosts The Extraordinary Story podcast about the life of Christ. His book What Pope Francis Really Said is now available on Audible. A former reporter in the Washington, D.C., area, Hoopes served as press secretary of the U.S. House Ways & Means Committee Chairman and spent 10 years as executive editor of the National Catholic Register newspaper and Faith & Family magazine. His work frequently appears in Catholic publications such as Aleteia.org and the Register. He and his wife, April, have nine children and live in Atchison, Kansas.