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The recent grand jury report in Pennsylvania prompted me to read article after article about The Catholic Church’s sexual abuse crisis.

sexual assault

I read calls for admission and contrition. “I implore Francis and other church leaders to go further than exhortations of prayer and reform. I ask them to apologize,” wrote Amanda Zamora.

I read about cause and solution. “Male domination has always engendered sexual exploitation,” wrote Rich Procida. “The solution … is to move away from a celibate, all-male priesthood, personal salvation, moral purity, and orthodoxy, and refocus instead on doing social justice work,” he recommended.

I read about deflection and denial. “There’s no on-going crisis—it’s a total myth,” wrote The Catholic League’s William Donohue. “There’s no institution, private or public, that has less of a problem with the sexual abuse of minors today than the Catholic Church,” he continued. “The war on the Catholic Church … by Pennsylvania … is strewn with lies, hypocrisy, bigotry, and corruption.” (The Catholic Reporter).

I could go on quoting others but, instead, I’ll tell my own story. At fourteen, I was sexually assaulted by a priest.

Writing those words is hard. I’ve never discussed the matter publicly, perhaps because the abuse was an event—a one-off, not a pattern. I went on with life.

Over the years I didn’t spend much time thinking about what had happened to me. But like a recurring nightmare, others’ stories never, ever went away. Here and abroad. Church cover-up. Over and over again.

Over the years I didn’t spend much time thinking about what had happened to me. But like a recurring nightmare, others’ stories never, ever went away. Here and abroad. Church cover-up. Over and over again.

What bothers me is that never once—in all those years—did anybody associated with the Church say a word in my presence about what priests had done to children. Nobody said a word about what the Church might do in response, how the Church would make things right.

Never. Ever. It was like ‘it’ had never happened or, if it had, it was ‘over there,’ not here. Not relevant. Not to be discussed.

What do I make of this? I think Gail Collins and Bret Stephens framed it correctly in their recent New York Times piece. They refer to it as an institutional breakdown. How does that happen? It results from a pattern of attitudes and behaviors. The institution comes first. Protect the institution no matter what. Defend and deflect. Paint a picture of honor, exceptionalism, and distinction. Never waver!

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The Catholic Church has loads of help doing all of that, too. Come thick or thin, many affiliates maintain support. They defend the Church. They deflect criticism or (at the very least) put criticism out of their minds.

That unwavering support makes serious institutional change impossible. It counters outrage, shields authority figures, and protects the status quo. Authority figures retain power. Affiliates become enablers. In crisis, one group has the other. Generals need troops, after all.

I know the drill because, for decades, I gave the Church a pass.

I remained a faithful Catholic, matriculating through Catholic elementary, high school, and college—even thinking seriously (at one time) about entering the priesthood. My wife and I were married in the Church. Our son was baptized in the Church. We attended Sunday Mass for decades. We were Catholic, after all.

But there were always creaks in the foundation. For years, my wife and I went parish hunting, searching for ‘the right parish’ to join. That approach worked for a while, but the quest was flawed by design. How so? We were searching for an organizational oasis amid an institutional minefield.

Institutional transformation is a better quest. The Church needs to be rebuilt from the ground up, guided by answers to fundamental questions: If the Church never existed—and we were establishing it from scratch today—how would we structure it? How would it operate? Those aren’t theological questions, they’re INSTITUTIONAL.

And they’re important questions for another reason. Institutional reform often comes by way of addressing the most pressing matter (sexual abuse in the Church’s case). But when you focus on the most pressing matter only, you address the manifestation of the problem, not the underlying problem.

While it’s unpalatable (outrageous even) to typify sexual abuse in the Church as a red herring, that’s what I believe it to be. If priests’ sexual abuse stopped tomorrow, my take is that the Catholic Church would still need wholesale change.

Go ahead, defend the Church. Say I’m out of line. But, first, try this experiment. Think about other institutions that are in serious distress. What might you find?


The Catholic Church has company.

Frank Fear