I can testify from a lifetime of personal experience that practice does not really make perfect. Since the presidency of Harry Truman, during which I had the honor of being the youngest altar boy in St. Francis Xavier Parish to serve the standing-room-only midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, I have been a practicing and manifestly imperfect Catholic.
After the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report on sexual abuse, which tells of more than 1,000 victims enduring criminal cruelty at the hands of some 300 Catholic priests, I am consumed with anger toward my church. Of course, I am also sad, but I remain even more furious toward my church's hierarchy and its rush not to console the anguish of and heal the wounds of the vulnerable victims but rather to lead a systematic cover-up of priests' crimes against defenseless children to protect the institutional church from legal liability and deserved public outrage.
Mostly missing from the church's reaction was human sympathy. Absent was any trace of Pope Francis' call for the Roman Catholic Church to become a "field hospital after battle" to first take care of those suffering. The clerical leadership's reaction was instead to turn the crimes and the crisis over to the lawyers and the public relations people, to retreat to a circle of silence. I am angry.
Such bad and indefensible decisions have repeatedly been made in secret rooms where the counsel and wisdom of parents, especially mothers, is neither sought nor welcome. By repeating this pattern of behavior first seen in the Boston Archdiocese in 2002, the hierarchy has provided persuasive ammunition to the church's opponents and critics, neglected the hurting, and failed the faithful.
These feckless church leaders who put the avoidance of bad press and of financial judgments ahead of stopping the abuse, comforting the afflicted and punishing the predators have probably exposed the Catholic Church to greater liability and court judgments costing millions. That such judgments could force the church to cut or even eliminate its admirable missions of feeding the hungry, providing shelter to the homeless and undocumented immigrants, and educating the neglected children of inner cities would be the cruelest of collateral damage. Those in the hierarchy could begin by giving up all their rings, limos and other fancy vestments and trappings of splendor to help pay the costs and thus provide evidence of their contrition. If Pope Francis can ride in a modest Fiat, so can anyone in a Roman collar.
Bishops must publicly apologize for what they have done. They must repent and beg forgiveness from every victim and all in the community and dedicate themselves to repairing the human damage. We are sad, angry and hurting, and we are demanding that our church hold accountable those responsible — no matter who they might be — and commit all of us to taking care, no matter the cost, of all who have suffered because of this sanctioned cruelty. Church leaders should appoint a commission of laypeople, more than half of whom should be women, to investigate these charges of abuse and misconduct against bishops and others in authority. That would be a start.
To find out more about Mark Shields and read his past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate webpage at www.creators.com.