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Amid sex abuse furor, Catholic leaders can rebuild trust

A contemporary adaptation of an old Catholic practice could prevent future sex abuse.

By Joanne M. Pierce / May 7, 2010

Worcester, Mass.

From Mexico to Belgium, a new set of sex abuse accusations against the Roman Catholic Church – and the protests that go along with these accusations – have underscored a serious crisis for the church.

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The furor over the possible role of Pope Benedict XVI in covering up sexual abuse cases in Germany and the United States even disrupted traditional religious services during Easter, the holiest season of the Christian liturgical year.

Acutely aware that the whole world is watching, Catholics everywhere are asking: How do we restore trust and confidence in our church leaders? How do we begin again?

IN PICTURES: Pope Benedict

Fortunately, the church can answer these questions partly by drawing constructively from its rich past. Catholicism is a faith structure built on important landmarks in tradition and history. Too often, these have been overlooked or misused for ideological or political reasons; the "left" often dismisses it, while the "right" tends to idealize it.

But consider this: In the early Middle Ages, members of monastic communities met regularly in assemblies called "chapters." They'd discuss monastery business, hear a sermon or lecture, or receive instructions from the abbot. One of these meetings was called the "chapter of faults."

This meeting focused on correcting or guiding the conduct of every member of the community.

One by one, individuals stood in front of all present and accused themselves of various "faults," usually infractions of the monastic rule, which listed all community regulations. (Personal sins, like violations of the Ten Commandments, were dealt with by private confession.) When each was finished, the other monks or nuns were invited to join in, voicing any other "faults" they had witnessed.

The religious superior would assign a specific (often public) penance. No one, not even the superior, was exempt from this regular scrutiny.

The process was meant to be done in the spirit of charity and to assist each member's spiritual growth. It also acted as a check and balance to help community members live together in deeper unity and peace.

Bringing this practice back has been raised before in other Catholic contexts (as in a national examination of conscience after 9/11).

Certainly, changes would have to be made; before Vatican II, many experienced the chapter of faults as a kind of public humiliation rather than a positive group experience. But an updated version could work as a response to this current crisis.

What the Vatican needs to do is implement a 21st-century version of the chapter of faults in every diocese around the world (including the diocese of Rome, led by its bishop, the pope). Pope Benedict XVI has a perfect opportunity to introduce this idea at the Vatican summit of the world's priests in June.

Called together by the local bishop, groups of priests from neighboring parishes – through honest discussion, "intervention," and mutual support – would come to know, understand, and respect one another.

Such a shared responsibility in and for the group would be especially important for the solitary parish priest.