It has been a terrible summer for my many friends in the Roman Catholic Church. It should have been dominated by the 50th Anniversary of the papal encyclical on procreation, “Humanae Vitae,” on July 25. This was a signal moment for all who stand for the nobility of the human body and the holiness of marriage. Even this Lutheran took a moment to tip his hat at Pope Paul VI’s moral courage and foresight.
Sadly, only days later, a lightning bolt touched off an unrelenting firestorm of contrary revelations. Undeniable allegations of homosexual misconduct with countless seminarians forced the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Two weeks later, a Pennsylvania grand jury released a report revealing the sickening details of sexual abuse involving 300 priests and more than a thousand victims over the course of three decades. Then, a scant two weeks after that, the former papal nuncio to America released a memo alleging the cover-up of McCarrick involved the very highest levels of the hierarchy, even the pope himself.
Through all these terrible revelations and accusations, I watched in silence. As one who recently extolled “Humanae Vitae,” and who regularly writes on marriage and sexuality, I felt obligated to address the issues. But for weeks, I could not bring myself to do so.
Empty Reasons for Silence
I justified my silence, in part, by recognizing that “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Pastors and bishops in every church body have been disgraced by sexual scandal. My own is no exception. Likewise, there have been plenty of cases of cover-up for sexual sins. “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8:7).
Beyond this, it felt like bad form for a non-Catholic to speak on some very Catholic issues. Out of respect for my friends, I remained mostly silent, grimacing with each new revelation and hoping beyond hope that their church’s hierarchy would move mountains to expunge the “velvet mafia” that perpetuated these evils. Many sincere and pious believers feel the guilt by association with the indefensible actions of others.
The guilt by association is not confined to a single denomination. The conflagration in Rome affects all Christians. Even though Lutherans and Catholics remain divided by the most serious doctrinal differences, I am not so naïve as to think that those judging Christendom from outside will care to observe those distinctions.
What Matters Most Are the Victims
But all of these concerns are empty. They are not worth the time of day because they are about institutions and reputations. They are not about people. It is when we place institutions and reputations above the care of souls that scandals like this arise in the first place. Self-defense and institutional cover-up have no place in a moment like this.
The only relevant fact is this: The sins of sexual predators destroy the lives of real people. Let’s keep the proper perspective. It is not a tragedy that McCarrick’s career came to a screeching halt. It is not a tragedy that attorney generals from New York, New Jersey and other states are using subpoenas to examine church records to follow up on abuse allegations.
The real tragedy is that even a single altar boy or seminarian has been scarred for life. The real tragedy is that even one girl or woman was propositioned by her priest. When thinking about scars on the human soul, we cannot pretend that these were isolated moments. These hurting people grew up and carried their pain with them. Some found healing, but others didn’t.
Untold Stories of Lasting Pain
Who knows how many people were plunged into a life-long struggle with substance abuse, depression, unwanted same-sex attraction, and various manifestations of post-traumatic stress disorder? Who knows how many of these victims ended their struggles with suicide?
Who knows how many parents were confused and helpless to understand the sudden and drastic changes happening to their adolescent children? Many unwittingly sought help from the very priest who was the source of the problem. How could they know?
Who knows how these evils have prevented people from marrying and raising a family, or contributed to the breakup of families once formed? The tragedy of sexual abuse is not an isolated moment. Its effects are long-lasting—affecting entire families and generations in a thousand ways that we will never know. These are the real tragedies—not the revelation of these evils and their cover-up years after the fact.
No institution, no human organization, no ideology, no personal privilege is worth protecting at the price of these precious people. So today I am writing, neither as an attacker of Rome, nor as a defender of Christendom, but as a Christian standing in defense of men, women, children together with their eventual spouses, children, and extended families.
A Call to Action
I have a simple call to action for people from every church and from all walks of life. It is this: Do your job without partiality. Do not be swayed by the reputation of individuals or the power of institutions. Rather let your heart by moved by the victims alone—past and future.
If you are a law enforcement official, from the attorney general to a cop on the beat, investigate sexual abuse with the full power of your office. It’s not just about shaming the perpetrator, it is about recognizing the human dignity of the victim.
If you are a church official, call on law enforcement to help you investigate allegations. That’s why God gave us government. In doing so, you will not be destroying your institution, but cleansing it. Christ teaches that we must die in order to live. That applies here.
If you are a victim of abuse, speak up. We recognize how deeply you have been hurt. You need to recognize that too, and seek out healing. You also have an opportunity to prevent the one who hurt you from hurting still others.
If you know of the abuse of someone else, do not remain silent. Encourage such people to come forward and stand with them as they tell their stories. Silence only abets perpetrators. It does not help the victim.
If you advocate for an anything-goes sexual ethic, wake up and see where that leads. Recognize that most of McCarrick’s victims, and a significant number of the Pennsylvanian altar boys, “consented.” Did that take away the damage to their psyche, or did it only add to the pain?
Six summers ago, America was aghast when Louis Freeh reported that, “Four of the most powerful people at the Pennsylvania State University … failed to protect against a child sexual predator harming children for over a decade.” One man, Jerry Sandusky, had used his position to corrupt uncounted young men, while those in positions of authority knew but did nothing. Today, that moral failure is multiplied by thousands upon thousands.
Responding to the Paterno report, I wrote:
This lesson is not only for programs and institutions. It is a lesson for each and every one of us. You are your brother’s keeper. When your brother needs protection, no social program, no political loyalty, no peer pressure is a legitimate reason to fail him. Whatever the cost, whatever the inconvenience, whatever the sacrifice to success, reputation, friendship or social standing, every human being, no matter how small, is your brother; and you are your brother’s keeper.
Those words were never more true than today.