Educating children and atoning for sins

Thursday, in Rome, the pope asked for forgiveness for child sexual abuse by clergy, while in Baltimore, the archbishop asked for money for parochial schools. And thus we had, on one day, the confluence of two streams of Catholic consciousness that have been flowing briskly this spring: a church whose leadership for decades tolerated immeasurable abuse of children claiming the noble desire to continue educating them.

In March, Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien announced the closings of 13 more schools in Baltimore and Baltimore County, setting off protests and an impassioned but fruitless effort by parents, students and alumni of the Cardinal Gibbons School to save their beloved high school.


The announcement drew attention to steady enrollment declines and to the archdiocese's severe financial losses. Further, the shuttering of these 13 schools raised questions about the church's continued role in educating poor children and the children of the working poor, many of them non-Catholics. "We're educating them not because they're not Catholic, but because we are," Archbishop O'Brien told The Catholic Review. "It speaks to our social justice teaching, our commitment to serving the poor and our belief that every child is deserving of a quality education."

That's the stuff of Catholic tradition that the faithful, and even the not-so-faithful-anymore, could find inspiring and convincing — if not for all the doubts that have been raised, and continue to be raised, about church leaders who claim to stand up for children.


Like a flood that exposes buried artifacts, the spring brought a wave of new reports about the abuse of scores of children by Catholic clergy, in the United States and in Europe. One report, in The New York Times, told of a priest who abused as many as 200 deaf boys at a school in Wisconsin and raised serious questions about Pope Benedict XVI's role in the matter while he ran the Vatican office responsible for investigating charges against priests. Other news reports left doubts about Pope Benedict's handling of abuse cases while an archbishop in Germany.

Government investigations in Ireland have found widespread sexual abuse by priests in Catholic schools as well as cover-ups by church officials and Dublin police.

The Catholic Church in the United States has paid out an estimated $2 billion in abuse settlements, and claims of damages across the country have caused eight dioceses to file for bankruptcy and others to close parishes and schools. There have been thousands of allegations of abuse by hundreds of priests who served in parishes and in schools between 1950 and 2000.

The pope, who met with American victims two years ago, issued a series of contrite statements this spring, even as the scandal spread, with hundreds of new allegations surfacing in Austria, Germany and the Netherlands. On Thursday, Pope Benedict issued another apology for the decades-long nightmare, this time from the Vatican.

What has not been sufficiently addressed in all of this is the lingering effect of the abuse scandal on school enrollment, on the finances of the church and on the power of church leaders to reverse those trends. The scandal's full cost to the church — in cash and in credibility — remains a thing of speculation. In Baltimore or anywhere, when an archdiocese closes schools, unable to continue to subsidize the education of poor children, many Catholics wonder if it's because of all the damages still owed to victims. Also unclear is the extent to which the scandal has affected parents in their decision to enroll their children in Catholic schools.

Now the Archdiocese of Baltimore, having closed 28 of its schools since 2000, steps forward with a plan to reverse the declines and improve the remaining schools. Parishes will be asked to foot the bill, of course. It took a panel on Catholic education 16 months to come up with that novel idea — that the great Catholic diaspora along the Beltway and beyond should pay for the church's mission to improve the lives of poor children, many of them in Baltimore, whether they receive Communion or not.

Certainly that's a worthy mission. But Catholics, both the devout and the struggling, will decide whether their church can be trusted to continue it.

Dan Rodricks' column appears Thursdays and Sundays in print and online, and Tuesdays online-only. His e-mail is