Sunday, December 6, 2009

Scandal and the Church

No homily this week--I am in Toronto for the annual meeting of the board of Renewal Ministries. But just before leaving I had a long conversation with one friend in Ireland and an e-mail from another. The e-mail got me thinking, not for the first time by any means, about scandal in the Church.

Here's what it said: "Am I just angry, or has the institutional church become a hindrance to the mission for which it is intended? I think I may join the calls for reform. We need bishops to be above all else preachers of the Gospel and shepherds of the people. It's time to acknowledge that it ain't gonna happen from inside the walls of a chancery office. We need to start looking at new models - or maybe old models, I don't know, but we definitely need a different model than the one we have at the moment."

It won't be easy, but I am going to try to respond--over a period of time--pulling together a number of thoughts I've had since the clerical abuse scandals first hit Canada at the end of the 1980s. The most direct response to what my friend said will come later, when I draw on the insights of one of my professors who has written extensively on the need to see "the institutional Church" as one with the "spiritual Church" or whatever you want to call it. But I want to approach this systematically first.

I propose to write (briefly, I hope) along the following lines:

1. the Old Testamant: the infidelity of the Chosen People does not negate the Covenant; the psalmist's laments.
2. the Gospel: the case of Judas; the weakness of Peter; the fact that Christ died to save the worst--knew the worst.
3. New Testament: Paul's account of sexual immorality in the first communities; the Epistle of Jude.
4. scandal in the early Church and dissolute Popes in the Medieval Church.
5. Lumen gentium 8 and Gianfranco Ghirlanda's reflection on its analogy between the Church and the Incarnate Word.
6. Organizational behaviour: the current controversy in the RCMP, Watergate.

As you can see, I think that we need Scripture, ecclesiology, Church history and a bit of sociology to make sense of these dreadful things, along with some psychology (an area where I probably won't dare to tread).

I warn my readers--all eleven of you--not to expect a whole lot, but I guess a blog permits some random thoughts developed over time. But since I will be spending time this week with both Ralph Martin and Father Benedict Groeschel, both prophetic voices in the Church, I may well be inspired by their wisdom. In the meantime, one can only join Isaiah in his lament "O my people who have been threshed, beaten on my threshing floor."


  1. I am looking forward to your considered response.

    Child abuse is such a most horrible thing. People need to talk about this. This scandal in Ireland is tearing us apart. There is a lot of pain, a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, loneliness, and fear. We feel betrayed and allied with the victims of abuse.

    I wrote my own thoughts here.

  2. I look forward to Msgr Smith's comments especially since his suggestion that the abuse of power is not new neither was the abandonment of our Lord's teaching by those who were/are in favored positions. In our last parish, our priest was charged/convicted and ended up serving a 9 month sentence in a provincial correctional facility. While there he was assigned to the laundry. It was a humbling experience to say the least. Our family knew the priest well, he baptized our children, taught our boys how to serve at mass and led us in the Stations of the Cross during Lent. He was a very humble priest who let his guard down many years ago and thats all it took for Satan to gain a foothold. I could not condemn him or hold it against him. I felt sorry for him but was comforted in our Lord's mercy and compassion for him and willingness to forgive over and over again.

  3. I often speak with my mother regarding this subject. We just don't understand how society is unable to accept that from any given large population of trusted professionals (be it teachers, doctors, police or priests) that there will be a small percentage of deviance. There is, of course, human weakness, and then there is something much more than that. Whether it's a compulsion, an addiction or a mental illness, these are issues that exist in every sect, whether or not we want to accept it. A corrupt police officer chooses his own misdoings, but does not reflect on the entire body of the RCMP. For the most part, it's a functioning and well-run system that keeps society safe and in line despite the flaws of certain individuals. I see the scandal in the Church in the same light. Is this "scandal" new? Probably not. Should we judge the Church on a whole based on the aberrant actions of a small percentage? Not more than I would judge the healthcare system based on the illegal activities of one doctor. Every system and institution will have deviant members, but their actions are flawed individually, not on behalf of the group. I think we need to start taking each case as it is and regarding them as isolated transgressions committed by a member who is not well.

  4. The issue of prime concern and the cause of very much anger in at the moment in Ireland is how Dublin Archdiocese dealt with allegations of child abuse by priests - i.e. The Murphy Report concluded that bishops prioritised the protection of assets and prevention of scandal ahead of the protection of children - a policy of "coverup".

    If bishops, the successors to the apostles, prioritise the property and status of church institutions ahead of the lives and souls of children, then I think it is time to take a serious look at the role to which they are assigned. We need them to be disencumbered from corporate administration so that they can be above all proclaimers of Christ and shepherds of His people.

    As Monsignor Smith is a theological expert in this area I am looking forward to hearing his thoughts about this aspect of the scandal in particular if eventually he has the time to address it.