Pope visit holds mirror up to 'grappling' US Catholics

Pope and PresidentDid the six day visit to the United States by Pope Benedict XVI usher any significant changes in the direction of Catholicism in that country? For prolific writer on religion Amy Welborn, the visit was not only 'busy' and 'rich', — it was a 'mirror held up to American Catholics, asking us to consider who we are, honestly and with humility'.

The reflections in that mirror were often jarringly unpleasant. The institutional crisis wrought by child abuse allegations hovered menacingly over traditional discussions about faith, war and peace. According to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, some 689 new accusations of sexual abuse were made in 2007 alone, with $615 million paid in settlements.

Since 2002, when allegations of sexual abuse within the Boston Archdiocese came to light, charges have proliferated. They were not only directed at individuals such as a now defrocked John Geoghan, but the culture of concealment that had crept around those suspected of abuse. Pointed salvos were fired at Cardinal Bernard Law and former deputies Bishop John B. McCormack and Bishop Thomas Daily for their seeming indifference.

To his credit, Benedict made it clear that it was a problem that had to be confronted, a cultural condition sorely in need of eradication. In St Patrick's Cathedral, New York, he urged officials to 'continue to work effectively to resolve this issue'. At the Immaculate Conception Shrine, he argued that the issue of pedophilia or what he termed 'gravely immoral behaviour' within the Church had been 'very badly handled'.

But the Pope would not divorce the matter of child abuse from the broader assault on community values, perpetrated by, among others, members of the media. 'What does it mean to speak of child protection when pornography and violence can be viewed in so many homes through media widely available today?' The 'manipulation' of sexuality had proven corrosive for the young.

Very little in the way of concrete responses were outlined, though he urged a 'determined, collective response'. And, to the disappointment of some victims, Benedict did not visit the Archdiocese of Boston.

Despite the omission, he made it clear early in the tour that the church would 'absolutely exclude pedophiles from the sacred ministry. It is more important to have good priests than many priests. We will do everything possible to heal this wound.'

The US Conference of Catholic Bishops has undertaken its own steps, drafting an annual report detailing progress made in implementing a plan of child protection outlined in a newly drafted charter.

The Pope found himself in a country where Catholicism is seemingly in institutional disarray and retreat. Out of 19,000 parishes in the United States, 3200 are bereft of a resident pastor, while 800 have closed since 1995. The number of priests started declining in the 1970s, and has continued to do so. Church officials found the Pope's visit a tantalising recruitment drive.

America's Catholic schools have been a particular casualty, a fact that has not escaped Benedict's attention. Some 1267 have closed since 2000.

President George Bush, while not singling out the Catholic pedigree, noted in this year's State of the Union Address that 'faith-based schools' were 'disappearing at an alarming rate in many of America's inner cities'. US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings has called them 'treasures' in decline.

Nationwide enrolment has fallen by a figure close to 400,000. Schools such as the ailing St Monica School of Miami Gardens in Florida are on life support. A loss in enrolment numbers inevitably drives up tuition costs. Schools contract or close altogether.

Dioceses have had to tempt partnerships between the private and public sector to keep schools afloat. But receiving tax payer dollars comes at a cost: a removal of religious instruction from the curriculum. Catholic America is being impoverished at its roots.

Being fully aware of the Catholic retreat in school instruction, Benedict made a plea to Catholic educators at the Catholic University of America in Washington: 'do not abandon the school apostolate; indeed, renew your commitment to schools especially those in poorer areas'.

Benedict leaves a country seeking to grapple with core issues within the Catholic faith, a mirror of problems from recruitment to administrative indifference to internal abuses. The Pope will find the problems of hierarchical complicity difficult to overcome, but the moves by the US Conference of Catholic Bishops have been positive. The work has at least started. Let it now be finished.

Amy Welborn's blog
Benedict XVI's Apostolic Visit to USA, April 2008 (Vatican website)
'Pope visits at a time of problems for US church' (newsday.com)

Binoy KampmarkBinoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, University of Cambridge. His blog is Oz Moses.



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Existing comments

With the concentration of the crime of child abuse centering on the USA, we need to ask what is the scene in Australia. We must broaden the picture by including not only the priests and members of religious orders but any abuser employed by the Church at any level.

The veil of secrecy which seems to prevail in Australia is giving us a false sense of security and the power of the legal and insurance companies is denying victims proper compensation and leaving them to bear the scars alone as they try to come to terms with the betrayal of and abandonment by those whom they trusted and turned to for help.

When we are "celebrating" World Youth Day in Sydney will we remember those whose youth was destroyed by the actions of sexual predators, religious and lay teachers alike, in our schools?

As Catholics we have a duty of care to all victims of sexual abuse in our schools. Compensation must be offered to those currently seeking redress as well as to those who have been treated less than fairly over the last 20 to 30 years particularly those victims who were shunned when the Church ran for cover in the first years of people coming forward with their stories.

Anne Chang | 28 April 2008  

The impact of the Pope's declaration that pedophiles would be excluded from the ministry was blunted by his attempt to shift the blame to the porn industry which flourishes so abundantly in the "christian" culture of the US. Upon looking through the website of Broken Rites with its sad and sorry record of scandalous conduct, the ages of the priests who have been charged would indicate that many of the offenses took place well before the advent of the porn industry with its own disastrous effects on the male population. I think this attempt (and other attempts to shift the blame) looks weak.

graemelawler | 28 April 2008  

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