When Sister Olga Yaqob ponders the sex abuse crisis engulfing the Roman Catholic Church, her emotions seesaw between her love for the church she calls “my mother” and grief for the innocent children who were molested.
“That children would be misled by somebody they trusted, it breaks my heart to see that —” She pauses and takes a few seconds to compose herself, her voice sorrowful when she continues. “It’s, it’s, as I say, it’s sad, it’s painful. I’m not angry at the Church. I feel sorry for the Church,” says Yaqob, one of the pastoral staff at the University’s Catholic Center.
Since March, when Pope Benedict XVI issued an eight-page pastoral letter of apology for decades of abuse by Irish priests, revelations of abuse in other countries have cascaded from across Europe and the United States. Yaqob, a native Iraqi who defied her family to become Roman Catholic, has had to make a full-court press of counseling, communicating, and prayer for and with shell-shocked BU Catholics.
On the surface, she says, the visible metrics of Catholic life on campus have been unchanged by the conflagration. Attendance at Sunday Mass has held steady, at 600 to 700; none of the 17 catechumens who began preparing for Catholic conversion last fall dropped out. In part, that may be because betrayal — whether the Boston archdiocese’s pedophile scandal earlier in the decade, or as Mary Goldsmith (ENG’08,’10), who helps lead the Catholic Center’s graduate and young professionals group, notes, Jesus’ by Judas — is not new to the Church.
Another possible explanation is that today’s young, active Catholics are what Yaqob calls “the generation of Pope John Paul II.” Reared under that charismatic and theologically conservative pontiff, students like Michael Zimmerman (CAS’11), president of the Catholic Center’s undergraduate executive board, muster what he calls “passionate and orthodox” faith, and skepticism that radical reforms proposed by some, such as ordaining women and allowing priests to marry, might curb abuse. They grieve over the assaults on children, but some also see anti-Catholic bias in coverage of the scandal.
“Sex abuse is rampant throughout society, but it doesn’t have the glam of attacking the Catholic Church,” with its unpopular social teachings on some topics, he says. “I view the authority of the Church as absolute, something I respect when it comes to the faith. That said, there is human fallibility, especially sexual abuse. In the ’70s and ’80s, even psychologists giving recommendations to the bishops were suggesting things that we know don’t work. In that department, they still need to learn how to address things.”
Unlike previous child molestation scandals, the issue this time has touched the pope. Newspapers have reported that in 1980, Benedict XVI, then archbishop of Munich, approved psychiatric treatment for a pedophile priest and was informed of his speedy return to pastoral work, where he molested again. And as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, the pope-to-be declined in the 1990s to discipline a serial abuser in Wisconsin, despite warnings from the priest’s superiors; the priest averted canonical trial by pleading failing health and the statute of limitations. On the other hand, some observers argue that Ratzinger became the Vatican’s most ardent advocate against abuse after he was assigned responsibility for investigating abuse allegations in 2001.
After reading Benedict’s letter to the Irish church, Yaqob met with the leaders of campus Catholic groups, including women, graduate and professional students, the liturgical committee, and a support group that prays for priests.
“I wanted them to hear it from me,” she says. She also asked for Zimmerman’s thoughts on a response. He suggested educating students about what was known, along with voluntary student “penance,” such as fasting or prayer for victims.
Julianne Stafford (SED’07), a special-ed teacher and another leader of the Catholic Center’s professional and grad students group, read through Church leaders’ correspondence about the Wisconsin case, posted by the New York Times. “It is very obvious that in 1974, further action should have been taken by the Archdiocese of Milwaukee,” she concludes. And as for the derailed trial: “It is unfortunate that due process for the victims could not be met.”
Stafford, whose family includes a priest, says clerical dregs of this kind distract attention from the many good ministers doing noble work. “My faith is not shaken by the tragedies that a few handfuls of strayed sheep created,” she says. “I believe that the Holy Father is addressing the victims with the fatherly love that has been demanded of him.”
Goldsmith agrees, saying the Catholic Church is not the only institution or denomination poisoned with sex abusers. At the same time, she says, Catholics do not “accept the fact that abuse of children is endemic to society as an excuse.” Goldsmith favors reforms of the type Massachusetts and the Archdiocese of Boston have implemented, from reporting abuse allegations to police to background checks and training parishes and schools in creating child-safe environments.
But psychologist Ann Hagan Webb (SED’82), New England regional cocoordinator of the advocacy group Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, says those reforms were insufficient for transparency in the Church. Webb also says calls for papal resignation offer a false solution. “I have very little faith in Pope Benedict going forward,” says Webb. “The Vatican’s only chance is to disclose the names and crimes of clergy accused of abuse and especially admit the complicity of the bishops, cardinals, and popes who put the Church’s good name before the safety of children.”
Rich Barlow can be reached at email@example.com.