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Appleby sheds light on sexual abuse reports

Claire Heininger | Tuesday, March 2, 2004

Bless us Father, for we have sinned.

The phrase drilled into penitent Catholics for generations took a grave turn Friday when the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops disclosed two reports that detailed the nearly 11,000 child sexual abuse allegations made against priests since 1950. As the weekend passed, the nation’s Catholics and non-Catholics, clergy and laity alike weighed in on what many have labeled the bishops’ own act of contrition.

Notre Dame history professor and Kroc Institute director R. Scott Appleby – who addressed the bishops on June 13, 2002, when they first convened in response to the scandals – added his own voice to the debate Monday. And while he praised the reports as a step towards accountability and engagement on the part of the hierarchy, he maintained the Church can’t yet be forgiven – nor is it trying to forget.

“Closure isn’t a word I would even think about using yet,” Appleby said. Despite the cooperation and apologies offered by many bishops across the country, he said that others are still too rooted in their beliefs about Church infallibility to see the people behind the staggering figures.

“There are many bishops who have been contrite, who are repentant, but we need to go much further,” he said. “Some bishops still don’t seem to get it, [because] they are still so beholden to a certain idea of the Church that it blinds them to the suffering of the victims.”

Reaching out to these victims, Appleby said, should be the Church’s first priority – and will require a certain dose of humility to be considered real penance.

“Repentance is manifested more than ritually,” he said. “The idea of nailing an apology to the wall of a cathedral, well that may be something. But repentance is a changed attitude towards the victims … listening to their stories and allowing themselves to be converted into sympathy.”

But while sympathy is one thing, accountability is another. And although the bishops admitted their transgressions in the reports, Appleby said the several resignations that should be the next step are not likely to follow. Citing a “required solidarity” among U.S. bishops, Appleby said he wouldn’t be surprised if deference to their “fraternity” was taking precedence over individual morality.

“I think many of the bishops probably have their own opinions – which I would share – that there should be resignations of bishops who repeatedly reassigned predator priests, that that should be the way the Church repents,” he said. “But their sense of obedience to the Pope is so profound that if he tells them to resign, they’re going to resign.”

“They’re going to be respectful of that vertical relationship,” Appleby continued. “I can’t imagine them commenting publicly that ‘We think Bishop X should resign.'”

The clerical silence that Church structure can impose should stand as an incentive for lay Catholics to take on more authority and responsibility, he said. Though Friday’s reports were sponsored by the Council, the verdict delivered was entirely determined by a lay review board – a step Appleby called “absolutely necessary.”

“The bishops needed to take authority to clean up their own house and they recognized that they would not be credible by themselves,” he said. “While [the members of the review board] are Catholic, they are independent, and they are very critical of the bishops in that report.”

Appleby believes that such crucial lay authority should not be confined to uncovering and assessing the abuse scandal. And just like the road to repentance, achieving lay involvement will be a grueling but vital process.

“I hope that one of the results of this sad and tragic episode would be for the laity to take responsibility … to take co-ownership of the church with the priests and religious,” Appleby said. He listed parish and diocesan councils as structures that are already in place to increase lay power in personnel, management and finance areas, but said that motivating Catholics to give up their free time and their resources to help a struggling Church would be difficult.

The challenge to do both – to be professional and to be Catholic, and to let the Church reap the benefits of the two – is one that falls squarely on the shoulders of current Notre Dame students, Appleby said.

“We’re at the crux of a generational change where the millennials, as you’re now called, could really make the church an afterthought – and a lot of people have – or could revitalize it,” he said. “And if Notre Dame students don’t work to revitalize it, then who else would?”

Appleby stressed that despite the alternate sorrow and finger pointing that have characterized the scandals’ – and now the reports’ – aftermath, neither the Church’s role in helping the poor and marginalized nor its sacred identity should not be forgotten. And students today, he added, must demand a large part of that identity for themselves.

“I’m hoping that Notre Dame students will recognize that however flawed and imperfect the church is … it is worthy of their most zealous reform,” he said. “The church is going to rise and fall on your generation in a way that hasn’t been true before.”