Healing the Reformation’s wounds

Archbishop Aquila

Five-hundred years have passed since the Reformation rippled through the Church, causing painful division and spurring changes. Sadly, even more divisions have occurred in that period. But the ecclesial and cultural landscape today is much different than it was then, and we must respond to Christ’s prayer that “we may all be one” (Jn 17:21) by speaking together about our faith, inspired by his Word and the Holy Spirit.

This necessity reminds me of Pope Francis’ passage in Evangelii Gaudium, where he observes that the “credibility of the Christian message would be much greater if Christians could overcome their divisions and the Church could realize ‘the fullness of catholicity proper to her in those of her children who, though joined to her by baptism, are yet separated from full communion with her’” (EG, 244).

Pope Benedict XVI also remarked in a March 2007 message to the Lutheran Worldwide Federation on the need to pursue Christian unity. He said, “(W)e are called in common witness to proclaim the saving message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ to a world suffering distress and seeking orientation at so many points. After all, ‘we boast in our hope of sharing the glory of God’” (Rom 5:2b).

With this in mind, on March 19, I will be joining Evangelical Lutheran Bishop Jim Gonia for a ceremony to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver. It will be an occasion for us to recognize that despite our differences, we are fellow pilgrims who are seeking the face of God.

We also recognize that overcoming historic divisions and healing wounds is difficult. It requires the presence and action of the Holy Spirit. Jesus knew this, which is why he prayed that his followers “may all be one,” just as he and the Father are one (Cf. Jn 17:21).

The noted spiritual writer, the late Carmelite Father Wilfrid Stinissen, described the Holy Spirit as “the great ecumenist.” He says this is because if we let the Holy Spirit “live in and through us, we grow in unity, whether we will it or not. It is his ‘charism to make all things one. He makes the Father and Son one God. He wants to make all denominations into one holy Church and all people into one body” (The Holy Spirit, Fire of Divine Love, pages 10-11).

The reality is that there is much that Lutherans and Catholics have in common. Over the past 50 years our two churches have engaged in a theological dialogue that has found 32 points of agreement between us. Among the key areas of agreement are an acknowledgement of the apostolic nature of the Church, recognition of the divine origin of the ordained ministry and its necessity for the church, and a shared understanding of the Eucharistic presence.

Despite the prevailing cultural winds that would have us discard our belief in the truth and merely search for agreements that allow us to work together, our ongoing dialogue must continue to be grounded in our faith. It must be what Pope Benedict XVI called “a dynamic inspired by the Word of God, by the divine Truth who speaks to us in this word.”

It is my hope that as this dialogue continues, Catholics and Lutherans are able to set aside our suspicions and seek the face of God together. I also ask you to join me in praying for the full unity of all Christians and to seek out opportunities to carry out works of mercy together, building up the body of Christ.

The Commemoration Ceremony will be held at Bethany Lutheran Church in Denver on March 19, 2017 at 3 p.m.

COMING UP: Opinion: There is cause for hope amid dire reports of clergy sexual abuse of minors

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By Vincent Carroll

This Dec. 13, 2019 opinion column was originally published by the Denver Post.

When will it end, many Catholics must wearily wonder. And not only Catholics. Anyone who reads or listens to the news must wonder when the Catholic church sex scandals will ever be over.

But in one major sense, the crisis already has passed and what we’re witnessing — and will continue to witness for years — is the aftermath.

To see what I mean, go to Appendix 4 in the report on sexual abuse of minors by clergy in Colorado issued in October by investigators led by former U.S. Attorney Bob Troyer. There’s a bar graph highlighting the “number of victims by decade the abuse or misconduct began.” Towering above all other decades for the archdiocese of Denver is the bar for the 1960s, representing 74 victims. In second place is the 1970s with 25 victims, and the 1950s is third with 14. The 1990s had 11 victims and the 1980s three.

As the report observes, “Roman Catholic clergy child sex abuse in Colorado peaked in the 1960s and appears to have declined since. In fact, the last of the Colorado child sex abuse incidents we saw in the files were 1 in July 1990 and 4 in May 1998.”

In other words, nearly 70 percent of all the abuse documented in the attorney general’s report within the Denver archdiocese occurred a half-century or more ago.

Denver’s history differs somewhat from the national experience, but not wildly so. Researchers at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice concluded in 2004 after examining the national data on accusations of sexual abuse by Catholic clergy between 1950 and 2002 that “more abuse occurred in the 1970s than any other decade.” The 1960s were also atrocious years for Catholic youth and so was the first half or so of the 1980s.

It appears that accusations in the years since have held to the same chronological profile. Mark Gray, a survey researcher at the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University, reported recently that CARA has analyzed 8,694 accusations of abuse made between 2004 and 2017 (compared to 10,667 earlier allegations studied by John Jay researchers). The result: The distribution of cases is “nearly identical to the distribution of cases, over time, in John Jay’s results.”

In other words, a large majority of the accusations of abuse that have surfaced in this century are also dated to the horrible era of 1960 to 1985.

This pattern even holds for incidents in last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report, although news coverage often left the impression that it recounted a fresh flood of new incidents. The report’s scope and details were certainly new and devastating, but most (not all) of the incidents and perpetrators were old (or dead). Those accused of abuse in the Pennsylvania report, for example, were on average “ordained as priests in 1961,” according to Gray.

Given this context, it’s hardly surprising that “the most prolific clergy child sex abuser in Colorado history,” according to the special investigator’s report, namely Father Harold Robert White, was also ordained in 1961.  His depredations “continued for at least 21 years,” the heyday of sexual abuse and church complacency, during which time he “sexually abused at least 63 children.”

Chilling.

I am perfectly aware that the Colorado investigation hardly exhausts the number of victims of clergy sexual abuse. It covers diocesan priests but not those who served in religious orders. Records are likely incomplete and some perhaps destroyed. And the actual number of victims certainly exceeds the number who have come forward.

There is also the question of a reporting time lag — the fact that victims often don’t muster the courage to come forward for years. But if this had been a major factor in the reduced number of incidents after 1985 at the time of John Jay College’s 2004 report, that number would surely have seen a disproportionate surge by now. And yet it has not.

The authors of the state investigation emphasize that they are unable to reliably say that “no clergy child sex abuse has occurred in Colorado since 1998,” and warn against concluding that clergy child sexual abuse is “solved” given ongoing weaknesses they outline regarding how the church handles allegations.

Their caution is understandable given the church’s history in the past century (in the report’s words) of “silence, self-protection and secrecy empowered by euphemism,” and their recommendations to strengthen the diocese’s procedures are for the most part on point. But it is also true that child sexual abuse will never be “solved” in the sense of it being eradicated — not in religious denominations, and not in schools, daycare centers, scout troops, youth sports, and juvenile social service and detention facilities, to cite just some of the venues that predators unfortunately exploit and where an accounting for the lax standards of the past has not been undertaken.

John Jay College researchers also released a followup study in 2011 in which they noted, “the available evidence suggests that sexual abuse in institutional settings . . .  is a serious and underestimated problem, although it is substantially understudied.” Meanwhile, “no other institution has undertaken a public study of sexual abuse and, as a result, there are no comparable data to those collected and reported by the Catholic Church.”

Early this month, Bishop Richard J. Malone resigned from the Buffalo Diocese over gross mishandling of sexual abuse claims. He likely won’t be the last. Meanwhile, Catholics still await the Vatican’s promised explanation for how defrocked former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, who allegedly preyed on seminarians for decades, could have been promoted time and again. Is there any credible defense?

So the bad news hasn’t stopped. But behavior in the priestly trenches actually is much improved, and that is surely cause for hope.

Email Vincent Carroll at [email protected]