A recent AP report added a new insight into the Roman Catholic clergy abuse scenario that few have been willing to consider. Under John Paul II the church was recovering from a notable loss of priests, many of whom were leaving the priesthood to get married in the 1970s. John Paul made it harder for priests to leave the priesthood as one of several papal responses to the crisis. Since entering the priesthood involves a sacramental oath, and the reception of holy orders, leaving it for laicization requires what is often a lengthy church trial. This trial was often shortened, following Vatican II, making it easier for a priest to leave. But all this changed in the late 1970s when John Paul II changed course. These facts are not really debatable as much as I have been able to perceive from my study of the issue. (I am open to understanding this response better since I have no axe to grind here at all.)
What does this have to do with the clergy sex scandal? Well, in Illinois a priest named Alvin Campbell was convicted in a court of law. His bishop recommended that he be removed from the priesthood. The court records, now made public, show that then Vatican refused to defrock this priest based on the request of the priest himself. The case went to the Vatican where Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, now the pope, ruled that “The petition in question cannot be admitted in as much as it lacks the request of Father Campbell himself.” This statement occurs in a July 3, 1989 letter to Bishop Daniel Ryan of the Diocese of Springfield.
It is no surprise then that AP refers to changes in the Vatican which “hamstrung U. S. bishops struggling with an abuse crisis that would eventually explode.”
I have several observations: (1) The response of the Vatican was not an obvious attempt to cover-up the sex scandals. (2) This response was wrong and reveals just how the Catholic doctrine of the priesthood can still leave it less than fully open to public scrutiny and (at times) proper corrective discipline of its own priests. Thankfully, this is being changed but “it is long after the cows were out of the barn” as a farmer friend once put it. (3) Nothing has convinced me that Cardinal Ratzinger covered up sexual predators but a lot of this does show that the institutional life of the church provided a series of problems that make it very hard for the Catholic Church to deal the modern world in the way that seems natural and completely straightforward. Critics will seize on everything they can and there is material here to be seized upon. Sadly, unless you have listened to the victims of these sexual crimes you have not anguished deeply enough with the “little ones” to be a credible source of correction. This is what troubles so many of us, both in and out of the Catholic Church.
Vatican II opened the door to new understanding of the priesthood, stating that the priesthood did include all the faithful. But Vatican II also said that there were still essential differences between the ordained priesthood and the common priesthood, which is Rome’s doctrine of the priesthood of all Christians. But Vatican II clearly did not go very far in specifying what constitutes this difference. Ecumenical conversation has forced further Catholic thought on the matter, which I particularly welcome as a non-Catholic. But I think there is still a long way for the Catholic Church to go in this conversation. I pray that this scandal will ultimately prove to be a means of purification and reformation. I think most of my Catholic brothers and sisters agree, though some will still defend the church in the face of obvious moral error.