Dan Rodricks

Dan Rodricks: The Catholic Church apologized and paid damages for decades of abuse. But what has changed? | COMMENTARY

The bell tower and roof of St. Leo The Great Roman Catholic Church appear against a bright blue November sky over Baltimore's Little Italy.

After more than 20 years of disturbing revelations about the sexual abuse of boys and girls by priests and other Catholic clergy, what has changed?

The Roman Catholic Church apologized. It paid out billions of dollars in damages. There have been investigations by journalists, victims, grand juries and attorneys general. The Maryland AG, Brian Frosh, just finished a report, identifying some 600 victims in the Archdiocese of Baltimore over 80 years. “No parish was safe” from predator priests, investigators declared. Frosh said some of the findings made him sick, and he was stunned by the scope of the cover-up.


But this story has been with us a long time. We’ve read numerous tales of abusive priests who were transferred from parish to parish, diocese to diocese, rather than defrocked and reported to police.

What has changed?


Pope Francis has promised more transparency and accountability within Vatican governance to protect children.


But where is the fundamental change in the priesthood that would prevent more horrors like those that occurred for so many years with the full knowledge of bishops?

The priesthood is still the domain of unmarried men, with the exception of Episcopal priests who were accepted into the church by the Vatican. Women are still prohibited from ordination. Priests are still expected to be celibate.

The priesthood remains as it has been for centuries — all male, with the extremely abnormal requirement of celibacy and, importantly, with the power to forgive sinners, including fellow priests.

There it is in the Baltimore Catechism: “The priests of the Church exercise the power of forgiving sins by hearing the confession of sins and granting pardon for them as ministers of God.”

If the focus is sin and not the felonious assault of a minor, if one priest forgives another — rather than, say, reporting his brethren to the cops — then why would anything change in that secretive world?

To whom is a priest more devoted, God or the rule of law?


The late Richard Sipe, the former Baltimore-based priest who spent 30 years counseling those in holy orders, concluded that half of all priests were not celibate; they were having sex in the shadows with other consenting adults. This secrecy, Sipe believed, created a culture that also resulted in the sexual abuse of minors. Sipe concluded that about 6% of the Catholic priests he counseled had sexually abused children.

And that was the big, ugly secret of the church until the end of the last century. It’s been one revelation after another since.

Why did this happen? A report commissioned by bishops a decade ago blamed it on the sexual revolution of the 1960s and ‘70s. But, as Frosh’s report suggests, abuse occurred decades before Woodstock.

After many hours of contemplation, I came to believe celibacy is a big part of the problem. That’s not a liberal view. It’s logical speculation, based on Sipe’s work and a fundamental understanding of human nature.

Celibacy and misogyny kept a lot of good men and women away from the priesthood. By the 1960s, with fewer men entering the priesthood as more left, a shortage seemed inevitable. The shortage appears to have necessitated the recycling of predators — that is, the movement of problem priests throughout a diocese, in part because the hierarchy needed every priest available. (Frosh’s report said one Baltimore parish, not yet publicly identified, had 11 abusers assigned to it over a 40-year period.)

What has changed? The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops just elected a president who has suggested, against studies to the contrary, that gay priests were to blame for the sexual abuse crisis. “I think it would be naive to suggest that there is no relationship between the two,” Archbishop Timothy P. Broglio told reporters during this month’s meeting of the bishops in Baltimore.


You hear something like that and ask: What has changed?

Not much. They still don’t get it.

In addition to Broglio, the bishops elected as their vice president Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who vowed a fight against abortion rights for American women.

The take-away is that the bishops appear more interested in culture wars than in reaching out to the many Catholics who have fallen away from the church, disillusioned not only with the abuse scandal but with the obsessions of the hierarchy — celibacy, the all-male priesthood, opposition to same-sex marriage, opposition to abortion.

I always come back to a simple place and ask: What has any of this to do with Jesus Christ, serving the poor and making peace? How did we go from, “Love thy neighbor as thyself” to all these rules and edicts? How did we go from the gentle prophet to bishops openly expressing a desire to deny Eucharist to those with whom they disagree? Would Christ have denied anyone a taste of the bread of faith?

Like other Catholic baby boomers, I hoped it would come back to me — the desire to return to the Church in which I was raised. I still find it too hard, and it’s profoundly sad.


So I keep things simple. I pull out the prayer of Saint Francis. I consider his pleas. I hold them as aspirations:

“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace: where there is hatred, let me sow love … where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy.” That’s enough for me. That’s plenty.