Timothy Radcliffe on the Implications of the Sex Abuse Scandal

EverdayThomist is a big fan of Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominican Order and author of numerous very fine books, including two of my favorites: What is the Point of Being a Christian? and Why Go to Church? His recent treatment of the the sex abuse scandal in The Tablet is characteristically insightful and nuanced.

First, Radcliffe addresses those who want to leave the Roman Catholic Church in protest of the way the sex abuse crisis has been handled.

Some people feel that they can no longer remain associated with an institution that is so corrupt and dangerous for children. The suffering of so many children is indeed horrific. They must be our first concern. Nothing that I will write is intended in any way to lessen our horror at the evil of sexual abuse. But the statistics for the US, from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in 2004, suggest that Catholic clergy do not offend more than the married clergy of other Churches.

Some surveys even give a lower level of offense for Catholic priests. They are less likely to offend than lay school teachers, and perhaps half as likely as the general population. Celibacy does not push people to abuse children. It is simply untrue to imagine that leaving the Church for another denomination would make one’s children safer. We must face the terrible fact that the abuse of children is widespread in every part of society. To make the Church the scapegoat would be a cover-up.

Then he addresses the much stickier issue of the cover-up within the Church. After all, people are not angry primarily because priests abused young children, but because the bishops and other members of the Vatican hierarchy did nothing to stop it. Radcliffe admits that the bishops have, at times, “been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse.” “But,” he goes on,

the great majority of these cases go back to the 1960s and 1970s, when bishops often regarded sexual abuse as a sin rather than also a pathological condition, and when lawyers and psychologists often reassured them that it was safe to reassign priests after treatment. It is unjust to project backwards an awareness of the nature and seriousness of sexual abuse which simply did not exist then. It was only the rise of feminism in the late 1970s which, by shedding light on the violence of some men against women, alerted us to the terrible damage done to vulnerable children.

Moreover, he notes, we should remember that the Vatican is a tiny organization, with only 45 employees working for the Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith, which must deal with the doctrinal and disciplinary issues for 1.3 billion Roman Catholics (comprising 17 percent of the world’s population, 400,000 of them priests). He notes, “When I dealt with the CDF as Master of the Dominican Order, it was obvious that they were struggling to cope. Documents slipped through the cracks. Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger lamented to me that the staff was simply too small for the job.”

But Radcliffe is not trying to simply defend the Vatican. For those who are sick of the New York Times’ seemingly anti-Catholic coverage (see here and here), Radcliffe reminds us that we “owe a debt of gratitude to the press for its insistence that the Church face its failures. If it had not been for the media, then this shameful abuse might have remained unaddressed.”

What I love especially is how Radcliffe concludes with the implication for Catholics debating whether or not to stay in the Church. Catholicism, Radcliffe insists, is not a choice, and he insists he is “not a Catholic because of a consumer option for an ecclesiastical Waitrose rather than Tesco.” His response deserves to be cited in full. I am a Catholic, he says, “because I believe it [the Church] embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.

When Jesus died, his community fell apart. He had been betrayed, denied, and most of his disciples fled. It was chiefly the women who accompanied him to the end. On Easter Day, he appeared to the disciples. This was more than the physical resuscitation of a dead corpse.

In him God triumphed over all that destroys community: sin, cowardice, lies, misunderstanding, suffering and death. The Resurrection was made visible to the world in the astonishing sight of a community reborn. These cowards and deniers were gathered together again. They were not a reputable bunch, and shamefaced at what they had done, but once again they were one. The unity of the Church is a sign that all the forces that fragment and scatter are defeated in Christ.

All Christians are one in the Body of Christ. I have deepest respect and affection for Christians from other Churches who nurture and inspire me. But this unity in Christ needs some visible embodiment. Christianity is not a vague spirituality but a religion of incarnation, in which the deepest truths take the physical and sometimes institutional form. Historically this unity has found its focus in Peter, the Rock in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the shepherd of the flock in John’s gospel.

From the beginning and throughout history, Peter has often been a wobbly rock, a source of scandal, corrupt, and yet this is the one – and his successors – whose task is to hold us together so that we may witness to Christ’s defeat on Easter Day of sin’s power to divide. And so the Church is stuck with me whatever happens. We may be embarrassed to admit that we are Catholics, but Jesus kept shameful company from the beginning.

The Catholic Church, indeed, all of Christendom, is deeply flawed. All those who call themselves “Christian” belong not only to the mystical body of Christ, but also to the “frail, fearfully, and wonderfully made” human institution. If we are critical for the way the humans within the institutional hierarchy have behaved, our response should not be abandonment, but rather, reform. In pushing for this reform, the press is absolutely indispensable, much as they may rile us sometimes. But if the Church is to remain unified, this means that we must bear with one another. We must be content to be a church of sinners dependent on the grace of Christ to hold us together. The Church is not a fraternity or a sorority of like-minded people, nor is it a voluntary association. It is a body consisting of diverse members, often in virulent disagreement, but all standing on the solid rock, not of Peter, but of Christ. And it is from Christ, not the bishops, or the the CDF, or the pope, that we derive our unity. The sex abuse scandal is a tragedy, but it should compel us to ever more turn to Christ for our strength, for our truth, and for our knowledge of the good. And it is from Him that we will ultimately find the source of our reform efforts. Who knows, maybe this scandal, in forcing us to see Christ as the solid rock on which we stand, will be an opportunity for the Roman Catholic Church to forge greater unity with the rest of Christendom.


3 comments so far

  1. Bob MacDonald on

    I continue to think about this not least because it was my experience as a child.

    But a couple of points on accuracy – Peter and the rock story is in Matthew only.

    And you note in this citation: It was chiefly the women who accompanied him to the end. – why then is the RC church like the Orthodox so male dominated in its ruling structures?

    And third – what unity is possible through a structure that is not regarded as in unity even with itself? (I am reminded of that difficult to translate verse in Psalm 122)
    Jerusalem is built as a city
    to be joined with herself as one
    So many possible readings – but it is not Rome or Antioch or Constantinople or Moscow!

    I also search for unity and for real healing for the abusers (mine has died). There is real healing in our Lord Christ Jesus through his death. It is rarely discovered. (Narrow is the way and few there be that find it.)

  2. everydaythomist on

    Hey Bob:
    As always, its a delight to have your voice on the blog. Thank you for sharing something so personal and I assure you that you will be in my prayers as you continue to work through your journey of healing and forgiveness as a result of the grave injustice that has been done to you. I will also pray for the soul of your abuser in hopes that he too may find the mercy Christ has so abundantly offered.

    In response to your points:
    1. As far as Peter and the Rock being only in Matthew, I don’t really see what this has to do with the post. I assume you to mean that this brings the authority of the pope into question. The idea of the pope is not only grounded in scripture but also in the tradition of the church, so the Matthean reference wouldn’t do much to challenge the pope. As far as infallibility goes, it is a medieval idea that was instituted largely to curb the power of the pope so that no individual pope could assert his authority in an unchecked way over the church. The pope currently has to work with the body of bishops in deciding matters of faith and morals. But that’s not really relevant to my argument–the development of the papacy is a matter for a different post!
    2. I agree. Jesus loved women! Women appeared to have great authority in the early church, and definitely seemed more exemplary in their faith than their male companions. Perhaps the sex abuse scandal will be an opportunity to reflect on the dangers of a predominantly male-constituted hierarchy and an opportunity to integrate women into the institutional leadership of the church, a process which is already occurring, albeit slowly. Nevertheless, I remain a Catholic regardless, and as a woman, I look forward to being a part of the continued development of the church towards better representing the church Jesus envisioned.
    3. You’re right about Rome. Rome is accidental to the church, not essential. Although I consider my particular expression of Christianity to be Roman Catholic, the universal church I refer to is not Roman or Byzantine or any other particular location. It is simply little-c catholic.
    Additionally, unity is an ideal, and more specifically, a not-yet realized ideal. The human nature of the church is prone toward strife and divisions so we have to continue to work for unity. We do this by “reform from within,” in my opinion, as we look outside of our tradition to other branches of Christianity and to the secular world for truths that might not be adequately expressed in our own tradition.

    Again, the church is flawed. But its Rock is Christ (not Peter) and it is this rock which will never fail.

  3. Bob MacDonald on

    Thank you for your responses – we would agree on them all. Re Peter – it was just the implication that the story was in Luke and Mark that I was reading into the quote. The story is only in Matthew – that doesn’t make it any the less for me though of course I don’t consider Rocky Peter to the the Rock on which the Church is built. That Christ Rock is fully in the TNK as well as the NT – note I said Christ (not Jesus). The Jesus in whom the fullness of God dwelt bodily is called the Anointed but somehow the Anointing is greater than the incarnate – I search for words to express this as an untrained person, but as one who has tasted that Hashem is good – Psalm 34:8 (9 – the letter tet in the Hebrew).

    Our children sang the Shema as introit last Sunday for Pentecost – it was a lovely statement of unity – so much to be meditated on in these 6 words (music here)

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