The Theological Privation of the Catholic Church’s Response to Clergy Abuse

By: Daniel Griffith

September 25, 2019

The Role of Theology and Organizational Structure in Addressing Clergy Sexual Abuse

Initially in 2002 and again last summer, new allegations and institutional failures emerged that resulted in widespread anger and dismay among Catholics. The global Church continues to experience a full-blown crisis. While some positive steps have been taken, many questions remain unanswered and the path ahead unclear. Some have referred to 2002 and the present moment as twin crises—the original abuse of minors on the part of clergy and systematic attempts to cover up the abuse on the part of the Church hierarchy.

The ombudsperson for victim-survivors in the Twin Cities refers to the response of the Catholic Church to victims as an inversion of the moral order. Victims were abused at the hands of clergy and after coming forward to tell their truth, they were abandoned on the side of the road and in some cases treated as enemies of the Church. The effects of the twin crises have been manifold and grave, leaving the Church and her worldwide communion reeling. The path forward requires honest introspection and a plumbing of the depths of Catholic theology to grasp where we have erred and the wisdom needed for restoration.

Some may ask how the Church’s theology and organizational structure have impacted its response to clergy abuse. The serious failures of the institutional Church in its response to clergy abuse and victim-survivors is a result of betraying its own theology and ethical foundations. Simply put, the institutional Church in its response to clergy abuse transgressed biblical theology, the humble model of Christ as servant, and Catholic social teaching. Rather than argue that the Church should change its theology to respond more adequately to the abuse crisis, I suggest that the Church failed to follow the sure light of its own tradition and teachings. Several examples illustrate these ecclesial failures and the attendant harm.

First, biblical theology manifests particular attention to the use of power, especially as it relates to the poor and marginalized. The critique of the prophets is most strongly leveled against those who exercise power in a manner indifferent to those who are suffering—the anawim (the poor) and those without power. The standard of justice in Hebrew Scripture is right relationship with God and neighbor. Catholic social teaching, relying on biblical and theological foundations, understands authority as a servant of the common good. Authority is unconcerned with its own self-preservation, but rather always on serving the goods entrusted to its care. This is precisely where the Church gravely erred—in putting the reputation and preservation of the institution ahead of justice and the plight of those who had been harmed. 

Second, and correlatively, the person of Jesus Christ and his mission is initiated in a way that speaks both of humble service and bold proclamation. This dialectic of God’s humility and boldness, results in a Gospel proclamation that is dynamic, universal, and fecund. The way that bishops have exercised authority stands in sharp contrast to the universal and dynamic mission of Christ and the Church. Many commentators have pointed to the insularity of the bishops—borne of a closed and clerical culture—that has resulted in a lack of perspective, effectiveness, and accountability. During my brief tenure in the chancery of St. Paul and Minneapolis, I referred to this cultural phenomenon as “chancery legionnaires,” which I believed resulted in an ecclesial air that inhibited the health and well-being of the Church. Christ, in his model of humble service, presents an authentic image of leadership which furthers the vitality of the Church and its mission.

Finally, Catholic social teaching provides both a sharp rebuke to Church leaders and a path toward greater justice and restoration. The social teaching of the Church seeks to promote a more just and humane social order and can also provide a framework to attain justice and critique structures of sin. When one applies the principles of Catholic social teaching to the twin crises, a troubling picture emerges. In its response to victim-survivors, the Church has violated nearly every one of its principles of social teaching and has perpetuated structures of sin that have inhibited the health and flourishing of its communion. By promoting a victim-centered response to the clergy abuse crisis, Church leaders will affirm the dignity of victim-survivors, further their healing, and help move the Church from this present moment of darkness to one of greater light and restoration.

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