Many people these days seem no longer surprised to hear of reports or news about abuse of men, women and children by members of the Catholic clergy. The numerous clerical scandals in different parts of the world appear to have numbed many Catholics (or worse, have made them cynical). They have become generally unsympathetic to priests or bishops who have been accused or found guilty of sexual offenses and other crimes. The much talked about cover-up by some Church officials of these scandals has drawn the ire of many Catholics and non-Catholics alike.
Sense of Alienation
Of course our hearts go out to the poor victims of abuse, the families they’ve hurt and the lives they’ve ruined. We who have not experienced the same treatment cannot approximate the trauma and emotional pain they’ve gone through. It is normal to be hurt and seek justice and redress; erring clergymen should be prosecuted and made to pay for their crimes. This is not to say that they do not deserve rehabilitation too, where possible.
But should victims of clerical abuse stay away from the Church and the sacraments? Should Catholics leave the Church altogether and join other Christian denominations where the Sunday service, fellowship and camaraderie are mistaken for the Truth? Should they instead join a cult, become Buddhists or dabble in other religions? Should they condemn the entire Church for failing them?
The Human Side of the Church
The problem is that people forget that the Church has its human side. In his best-selling book Arise from Darkness: What To Do When Life Doesn’t Make Sense, the late Fr. Benedict J. Groeschel devotes an entire chapter to developing the right Christian attitude in regard to erring clerics and the Church as an institution.
He says if Church leaders fail us, it doesn’t mean that the Mystical Body of Christ has failed us. He advises Catholics to keep this in mind, otherwise, they will all get angry at God. He says that when somebody complains: “I’m not going to Church anymore. God let me down,” it is Father So-and-so or Sister So-and-so who let him or her down. “They let God down, too,” Fr. Groeschel writes. “The reason the Church fails is it is made up of human beings…It is the human side of the Church that can hurt everyone…,” he says.
The Saints Help Us
Fr. Groeschel gives a glimpse into the lives of a few canonized saints who were terribly hurt by the Church. He particularly cites the example of St. Pio of Pietrelcina (or Padre Pio) who was placed under house arrest by the Holy See. “From the time he received the stigmata till his death, Padre Pio never left the little town where he lived in San Giovanni Rotundo. Never. For years he was not even permitted to offer Mass in public,” he says. And we all know the holiness of Padre Pio – he had the patience and obedience akin to Job’s.
Fr. Groeschel also relates the heart-breaking story of how St. John of the Cross suffered deeply within the Church he had vowed to serve. After he built a novitiate of the Carmelite friars upon the instruction of St. Teresa of Avila (his “mentor”), Fr. Groeschel says “he was arrested, imprisoned in the monastery, and beaten so severely in the refectory that he carried his scars with him to his grave.” Father Groeschel further explains:
His own friars tried to throw him out of the order on the charge of being stupid – this great Doctor of the Church…No one defended John of the Cross. There were all these young friars whom, as novice master, he had trained. He had taught them about the spiritual life, and yet not one of them defended him…He busied himself in his final assignment by working on his great books and doing pastoral counseling with the lay people, since none of the friars would even listen to him.
Time to be Faithful
Fr. Groeschel’s advice to Catholics who have complained about being hurt by the Church and those who have turned cynical: this is a time to be faithful to the Church. He says if we’ve been hurt, abused and persecuted by priests and officials of the Church, we need to ask ourselves these questions: “Did I forget that the Church was made up of human beings with original sin? Did I forget that she is a great dragnet cast into the sea? Did I forget that at any given time in the Church you can find some of the best and some of the worst people? Did I expect too much from mortal human beings?”
Injecting humor in his book, he says that he has known dumb Jesuits, confused Dominicans, proud Capuchins, rich Franciscans, and Salesians who can’t stand small children. “I’ve known merciless Sisters of Mercy and uncharitable Missionaries of Charity and foolish Daughters of Wisdom…” he writes. The author could be self-deprecating: “I am regrettably, a Franciscan of the Renewal who has a long way to go before becoming renewed.”
Complain Wisely, Charitably
Fr. Groeschel advises the faithful to “dissent or complain wisely, charitably, and well.” He says there’s a distinction between an abuse, an exception, and a personal peeve. He practically implores Catholics “to loyally struggle for the Church and try to be faithful to her even when others are not faithful.”
He then ends the chapter with a prayer, which we would all do well to make our own:
Help us, O Lord, when the Church on earth fails us. Help us not to be bitter, not to be rebellious, not to expect much, but following your own example and the example of your saints, let us love and not rebel. Help us to accept and correct without bitterness. Help us to serve and not to expect a reward…shed your grace upon the children of your church so that we may withstand the attacks and scandals of our time…And help us, O Lord, in the midst of all this confusion, to believe in your own words spoken through the apostles to the whole Church, ‘And behold I am with you until the end of the world.’