ROME – After the opening week of an Oct. 3-28 summit of bishops from around the world to talk about young people, participants said that many differences in outlook and experience were evident. One of the more striking was this: Exactly how big a deal should the clerical sexual abuse crisis be at this gathering?
Some bishops from countries hit especially hard by the crisis gave it front-burner treatment, while others seemed concerned that the misdeeds of some clergy not outweigh the heroic sacrifices of other priests and laity all over the world.
That distinction was also clear during a panel discussion hosted in Rome last week.
“Despite all the pain,” said Bishop Godfrey Igwebuike Onah of Nsukka, Nigeria, “we feel about the stories that are not so encouraging, about the very negative stories we hear, … [that] there is still reason to hope.”
“There is so much reason for hope that I think that is an antidote, so to speak, to the negative stories,” he added.
Onah spoke at a panel discussion organized by the University of Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Culture in collaboration with the Diocese of Orange in California and Crux.
The Nigerian bishop pointed to the many examples where the Church around the world is an agent of justice, peace and equality, calling faithful not to let the shadows of the clerical sexual abuse scandals overcome the light of the Gospel.
In a slightly different tone, Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles said, “You bet it’s a major problem,” addressing the clerical sex abuse scandals, especially in terms of vocations and youth outreach.
“The Church is losing a lot of its credibility,” Barron said, adding that “having learned the lessons of the past 25 years, yes, transparency is the right path.”
Both bishops’ statements acknowledged the deep wounds that have scarred the Catholic Church following recent scandals, but their answers embodied two different outlooks on how to respond.
The Synod of Bishops, which is focused on “Young People, Faith and Vocational Discernment,” comes on the other side of this summer’s tempest of scandals. They included a Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report, chronicling seven decades of abuse of more than 1,000 victims, and a scathing 11-page letter by a former Vatican ambassador to the U.S. accusing the pope himself of cover-up in the case of ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.
“Even though [the synod] is mainly old people talking about youth, it’s still positive that they are doing that,” Onah said. “It’s about the Catholic Church presenting to the world and to youth positive things about the message of the Gospel.”
Onah said that’s important “especially now that not so many positive things are being said about the Church.”
Speaking at the event were also students from Bermuda, China, Ireland, Italy, Uganda, the United States of America and Uruguay, many of them at Notre Dame, who shared their own experiences of faith.
For Alyson Cox from Indiana, the abuse scandals seriously damaged her faith.
“In light of recent revelations of abuse in the Church in the United States, I have had days where I really struggled with the credibility of the Church,” she said to attendees at the event.
“I am committed to the Catholic Church because I believe it can be an instrument for healing,” Cox, who is a graduate student of law, added, “but right now I think the Church needs healing.”
Barron acknowledged in his remarks that the sex abuse scandals are a main cause for young people leaving the Church or feeling alienated from it.
Clerical sex abuse “can and should be brought up” at the synod, Barron said, adding that it by no means represents changing the subject but rather recognizing the “elephant in the room.”
In the past, he added, the “category of scandal” was very important for many priests, who did everything to avoid threatening the credibility of the Church, including cover-up and corruption.
“That was so important in this sort of moral calculus that you can see why it led to some distortions,” Barron said.
“But how anyone could see that today is a mystery to me.”
Onah offered his “glass-half-full” perspective by drawing from the image of the wounded Risen Christ.
“The fact of being wounded does not deprive the Church of being a healer,” he said, looking straight at the young attendees at the event.
Priests and bishops “are made to believe we are different,” he said, “but we are not.”
Clergy, he explained, struggle with the same emotions, feel the same passions and attempt to achieve holiness in the same way as everybody else.
“If we as Church leaders had realized that earlier we wouldn’t have had to cause all this harm in hiding the fact that we are just ordinary men,” he said.