Amid sex abuse furor, Catholic leaders can rebuild trust

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

Cathal McNaughton/Reuters
A woman holds rosary beads during a Sunday mass in a Church in Armagh, Northern Ireland, Sunday. In a letter of apology read during Sunday services across Ireland, Pope Benedict apologized to victims of child sex abuse by clergy.

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.

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.

This kind of safe and supportive environment would allow priests to admit the smaller difficulties they face, and, as trust builds, would encourage them to speak more freely about deeper personal problems. Discussing symptoms can help group members address underlying disorders.

These meetings could offer a corrective for the all-too-human impulse to act in inappropriate ways from less-than-spiritual motives, prompted by desire for power, out of greed or exaggerated pride, or from the clergy's occupational hazards of loneliness, discouragement, and depression.

Unlike the medieval monks, who were focused on their own efforts to live a more perfect Christian life, the priestly participants in this contemporary practice would have to balance their own needs with the needs of the wider world, especially those of the parish communities that they serve.

Minor problems could be brought out into the open and resolved before any expanded into major scandals. Major problems could be dealt with more quickly and more effectively, before any mutated into actual criminal activity.

Priests would support one another in living out the key values of pastoral outreach: a ministry that does not become manipulation, assistance that does not turn into abuse, silence that does not devolve into secrecy.

A working, contemporary adaptation of the ancient chapter of faults would contribute a great deal to alleviating some of the doubt and isolation that every priest must deal with in the course of his pastoral lifetime.

It would be a step toward a new beginning for the Catholic Church and might save children from the terrible toll of sexual abuse. It would also benefit the local Catholic clergy and demonstrate to the watching world that any papal apology will be backed with tangible action.

Joanne M. Pierce is an associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at the College of the Holy Cross, in Worcester, Mass.


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