Addressing the abuse isn’t enough.
I started serving mass in the fifth grade in the central Minnesota German Catholic town of Cold Spring. I did not know that Father Othmar and Father Augustine were sexual abusers. It was unthinkable, and if I had been abused, my parents never would have believed me.
But sexual abuse was happening, in Cold Spring and elsewhere, to thousands of boys and also to women under the guise of “counseling.”
It challenges credulity to think every abbot at St. Johns Monastery over the years was unaware, as both Abbot John Eidenschink and Abbot Timothy Kelly committed sexual abuse. St. Cloud Diocese Bishops Joseph Bush and Peter Bartholomew when I was growing up knew as they moved abusers from parish to parish. How could every single archbishop and cardinal not know?
And, yes, the same likely goes for every pope, including Francis.
Now they beg forgiveness and provide promises of “never again.” But of course, when caught, many common criminals do the same thing.
Our archdiocese now has ironclad policies and practices in place so that abuse cannot occur again. This is good but is hardly a cause for self-congratulations. As much as the church hierarchy wants to move forward, the Catholics of the world are demanding more. The message Francis is getting in Ireland is clear.
The survival of the Catholic Church is not just about preventing terrible crimes that have been committed by thousands of priests, bishops and cardinals over the past millennium and covered up at the highest levels. It is a lot more than that. The Catholic Church must undergo substantial change and it does not have much time.
The Catholic Church is frozen into the past. How might the church substantially change so that it might possibly be of service to millennials and Gen Z in the 21st century?
First, it must permit priests to marry; attracting additional stable individuals with a desire to serve. Biblical scholars agree that several of Jesus’ apostles were married, so the celibacy practice has no biblical base.
Second, the “women need not apply” policy must end. Like men, women are called by the Spirit to be priests. Does anyone seriously believe that if Jesus Christ were walking the streets of the world today he would bar women from serving as priests in his church? Hardly! Other denominations that follow the same Christ and have essentially the same Bible have recognized that women indeed are worthy to serve as ministers and bishops. The Jewish faith also agrees. We actually do have about 300 women in Europe and the United States who have been ordained by male bishops in “good standing” in the church, but Francis has excommunicated them.
Third, the church needs to accept that people indeed are created as LGBTQ. This is as natural as being straight. It is not an “abnormal condition” treatable by counseling. Welcome them as part of God’s creation. Marry those who love each other.
Fourth, the church can no longer be exclusively owned and operated by the hierarchy. The laity is saying, “This is our church, too.” The laity must become part of the decisionmaking process in their church.
Fifth, forgiveness and trust will come but only with accountability. And just as with the resignations of the bishops in Chile, the resignations of bishops, archbishops and cardinals in this country must happen as well. They all knew of the crimes of abuse and they all committed the crime of coverup. Not a single one reported a single crime to the authorities. Not one. And of course, not one has gone to prison. That needs to happen.
There have been messengers and whistleblowers over time. One was Richard Sipe, born in St. Louis Park and a leading expert on the sexual abuse against boys. He testified at court hearings across the country. He was a former priest and has been urging the church hierarchy for decades about what it needs to do. Sipe was ridiculed by the church. Sadly, he died a few weeks ago. Ironically, I first met Sipe when he was Father Aquinas back in Cold Spring in 1960 when I was a mass-server.
On a recent Sunday, during his homily at St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis, Father James Cassidy said those guilty of this crime of coverup should go to prison. A month earlier, Cassidy said that when he retired, it would be his prayer to be replaced by a woman priest. Father Cassidy understands. We must have priests around the nation join with Father James Cassidy and speak out with a strong voice.
The future of the Catholic Church will require far more than policies preventing sexual abuse. The good news is that the faith given us by Jesus Christ remains strong. It is the church that has failed us. It is the church that must change or become irrelevant. It had best hurry.
Robert Wedl lives in Edina and is a parishioner of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church in Minneapolis. He also was a state education commissioner in the Carlson administration.