It’s now been almost a year since the latest wave of the clerical sexual abuse scandals in Catholicism erupted with news that the Vatican had removed then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from ministry following allegations deemed credible by a review board in the Archdiocese of New York.
How bad have things become over that year?
Well, one measure is this: Arguably the most prominent Catholic bishop in America, and by consensus the most talented natural communicator and evangelist among the current crop of U.S. prelates, felt compelled to bring out a new book today in which he urges, almost begs, rank-and-file Catholics not to just walk away.
“I have written this book for my fellow Catholics who feel, understandably, demoralized, scandalized, angry beyond words, and ready to quit,” writes Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of Los Angeles, known to millions of Catholics in America and around the world through his Word on Fire ministry and his “Catholicism” TV series.
“What I finally urge my brothers and sisters in the Church to do is to stay and fight-and to do so on behalf of themselves and their families, but especially on behalf of those who have suffered so grievously at the hands of wicked men,” Barron writes.
Barron’s short new book is titled Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis, and it’s published by Word on Fire. Thanks to benefactors who underwrote the cost, it’s being sold at just $1 a copy, and all profits will go to organizations supporting abuse victims.
In an interview shortly before the book appeared, Barron told Crux he decided to write the book in January, largely on the basis of his experience as a bishop in the Santa Barbara region of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
“It was a lot of pastoral contact in the Santa Barbara region, where I’m dressed up as a bishop and symbolizing the Church,” Barron said. “There was just a huge amount of tears and anguish, along with some anger, although that wasn’t predominant … it was just deep bitterness, frustration about this whole thing,” he said.
To be clear, the book is not an apologia by Barron for how the Church has handled the abuse scandals. Though he’s a bishop and now a member of the administrative committee of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, the group’s main governing body, Barron can be as searing as any critic or reformer in his description of what’s gone wrong.
On McCarrick, for instance, Barron is clear that simply taking away his red hat and then expelling him from the priesthood doesn’t mean the case is closed.
“The question is how someone like McCarrick was able to perdure for so many years rising through the ranks of the Church,” he said. “Clearly, something was wrong with the way the system was functioning.”
Barron has called for a full investigation of who knew what, and when, about McCarrick on the floor of the U.S. bishops’ conference, and he repeats that call in the book.
In the book, Barron bluntly calls on Catholics to push back.
“Fight by raising your voice in protest; fight by writing a letter of complaint; fight by insisting that protocols be followed; fight by reporting offenders; fight by pursuing the guilty until they are punished; fight by refusing to be mollified by pathetic excuses,” he writes.
Barron said he understands the impulse to express protest and disappointment. In the secular world, the way to let a company know you don’t like its products is to stop buying them; in politics, you show disapproval of leaders by not voting for them. In the same way, many Catholics may be tempted to manifest their anguish over the abuse crisis by not showing up.
As Barron sees it, however, that’s cutting off one’s nose to spite the face.
“There’s never a good reason to leave the Church,” he said. “It’s leaving the mystical body of Christ, the sacraments, the Eucharist, the means to eternal life.”
“Boycott? That’s doing enormous self-damage,” he said. “It’s way too high price a pay.”
“If you have found in Jesus everlasting life, salvation, the answer to the deepest longing of your heart, then no matter how difficult things become, and no matter how many of your fellows might drift away, you must stay,” he writes in the book.
Short of that, he urged Catholics to do what it takes to “ring the bell,” and said he could even understand why some may want to suspend giving money to the Church until they see real change.
“I want to rouse the lay faithful to fight for their Church,” he said.
Barron compares the abuse scandals to Abraham Lincoln’s determination to pursue the Civil War.
“He knew that slavery constituted a rot upon American democracy, a disease that undermined the principles of our founders. Therefore, despite the pain, he had to fight,” Barron writes.
Barron, of course, is not the only Catholic prelate to pen an extended reflection on the abuse crisis. Pope emeritus Benedict XVI recently stirred the waters with a lengthy essay in which he located the roots of the scandals in the sexual revolution of the late 1960s, along with relativizing trends in Catholic moral theology following the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).
Barron said he found Benedict’s analysis helpful, though he noted that it didn’t appear until he was already done with the book. He agreed there was a sort of “anything goes” ethos in seminary life for a while following Vatican II. As a veteran seminary professor and administrator himself, however, he said the situation doesn’t require some complex new theoretical framework.
“It’s not about delving deep into psychology,” he said. “It’s about watching behavior patterns, and I think you can see narcissistic and sociopathic tendencies [in future priests]. Is a guy self-absorbed and indifferent to other people’s opinions, does he have condescending attitudes towards the laity?”
“I was always very interested in the reactions of our lay staff to the students,” Barron said. “Sometimes it would surface only there … a secretary or a lay finance director can often tell you more [about a seminarian’s personality] than anybody else.”
One distinctive element of Letter to a Suffering Church is the Biblical framework Barron applies to the abuse scandals.
“There’s so much insistence on a legal, cultural and psychological framework, but the Bible has an extraordinary amount to say about sexual misbehavior and abuse of power,” he said. “In some ways, for instance, the story of Hophni and Phinehas, the sons of Eli, is such an exact mirror of our present situation.”
“It’s important for Catholics to know that our great master text is all over this issue, and so clear about what we’re supposed to do,” Barron said.
In the end, Barron said he’s convinced that the only way out of the abuse crisis is straight through.
“We have to be open and honest with people, because they’re crying their eyes out about it,” he said.