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Many Catholics call for dramatic change after latest sex abuse revelations

Pope Francis condemned the Catholic Church's role in covering up child sex abuse by priests in his first personal response to a scathing report on misconduct and assault in parishes across Pennsylvania. What would change and accountability look like? John Yang talks with Douglas Kmiec of Pepperdine School of Law and Kathleen Sprows Cummings of the Cushwa Center of American Catholicism.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As we reported earlier, Pope Francis directly addressed the latest findings of sexual abuse in the Catholic Church today.

    In a letter he released to Catholics around the world, the pope wrote of what he called past atrocities and said, "We showed no care for the little ones. We abandoned them."

    He also called for greater accountability.

    Now, as John Yang tells us, many are saying much tougher steps must be taken, ones challenging the church's very hierarchy.

  • John Yang:

    Judy, in his letter to the faithful, Pope Francis said that changing the church must involve the active participation of all Catholics.

    He said, "No effort must be spared to create a culture able to prevent such situations from happening, but also to prevent the possibility of their being covered up and perpetuated."

    A letter from theologians, educators and lay leaders calls for a dramatic first step, the resignation of all U.S. bishops. That letter now has more than 2,400 signatures.

    One of the signers is Douglas Kmiec, a law professor at Pepperdine University and former dean of the Law School at Catholic University of America. We are also joined by Kathleen Sprows Cummings, a historian of Catholicism who teaches at the University of Notre Dame.

    Mr. Kmiec, I would like it to start with you, with that letter, very tough words — tough words in that letter. You talked about the catastrophic scale, the historic magnitude of the abuse.

    Why ask for all the U.S. bishops to submit their resignations to Pope Francis?

  • Douglas Kmiec:

    Well, because we really need to have a clean slate. We need to have an act of contrition, as it were, that is felt and actually has an effect upon the church's direction.

    If you think about this, John, there's three levels to correcting. One is the parish level where the abuse occurs. One is the episcopal level, the leadership of the church in terms of bishops and archbishops and cardinals. And there is the highest level of all, the pope and the Vatican.

    Each one of those levels has to be addressed. But it's only going to happen if the church owns up to the problem being a systemic, cultural problem within its own tradition. And that requires the resignation of all of the episcopate, giving the Holy Father the opportunity to keep those who have maintained the faith, but to exclude those who have not.

  • John Yang:

    How likely do you think that is, Mr. Kmiec?

  • Douglas Kmiec:

    Well, this is — there is a precedent for this.

    The Holy Father himself showed what an open-minded and powerful figure he was when he went to Chile. And there were enormous about abuse in Chile and about their — about the bishops covering up.

    At first, the Holy Father said, oh, these are just distorted news accounts, they're picking on the church. But then he brought in Archbishop Scicluna, a close personal friend and adviser, who did an examination and said, no, this is really something where the bishops themselves have been actively hiding and covering up the evidence.

    For the institutional good of the church, the Holy Father then changed course altogether, and he was offered the resignation of all 34 bishops in Chile. He accepted only three. But that was an important gesture to give the Holy Father that opportunity to clean the slate.

  • John Yang:

    Kathleen Cummings, over the weekend, you had an op-ed in The New York Times. You said the time for gradual reform was over. You said it is time to rip off the tablecloth, hurl the china against the wall.

    What would you like to see happen?

  • Kathleen Sprows Cummings:

    I agree wholeheartedly that it's time for dramatic gestures.

    And I didn't sign the petition, not because I didn't agree with it, but what I was calling for in that editorial and what I wanted to hear from bishops was the spirit of penitence and humility that in fact Pope Francis talked about in his letter, and would have loved to have seen them voluntarily resign, rather than responding to a call from the laity.

    More than that, though, I think that if the bishops were to resign, and several or all of those resignations were accepted, they would be replaced with other bishops. They would be replaced with priests who would be ordained bishops who are coming out of the same culture that I think this most recent report has made clear is the culture that is responsible, not only for the abuse, but for the many years of cover-up.

    And I think prepare Pope Francis also acknowledged Pope Francis also acknowledged that in his letter today, when he blamed the problem, really identified the root of the crisis in a clerical culture.

  • John Yang:

    So how do you go about that, Professor Cummings? How do you go about changing that culture?

  • Kathleen Sprows Cummings:

    To run with the image of the table, which I use, we have — many Catholics have grown up with the assumption and the recognition that it is always the bishop that is at the head of the table, the bishop who always at diocesan levels in charge. In parish levels, it is the priest.

    And I think that what we need to see is that laypeople recognizing that we are the church as well and naming that and, as Pope Francis said in his letter to the people of God, finding ways to not just reset the table and move things around, and not just join bishops at the table, but really change the way the table is figured.

    And so what I would like to see our commissions that investigate abuse in other dioceses in the country, oversight committees that are run by laypeople that don't have to have a bishop at the head in order to give it credibility.

    I would like to see people think. I wrote in my op-ed about growing up in a culture in which father, monsignor or bishop were automatically assumed to be immune from criticism. And in that sense, what moved me to write it was my own complicity in this culture and my own sense, not as an abuser, but someone that was part of a culture that supported it.

    And I think that's what's new about Pope Francis' letter, what I heard in it that was different from other responses, an acknowledgement that this is the problem with the church.

  • John Yang:

    Douglas Kmiec, you talked — let me return to that letter.

    He talked — the pope in his letter talks about sort of the clericalism, the focus on the church, rather than on the lay community.

    How much confidence do you have in Pope Francis, that he can turn things around?

  • Douglas Kmiec:

    Well, he obviously is a person who has a great deal of good will. He has shown himself to be a person who's not judgmental, who is open-minded, and who is willing to go down new directions.

    And Professor Cummings has put her finger on it. It's not just addressing this specific problem of a specific person who's been hurt. Obviously, that person needs great care and great compensation and great kindness on the part of the church, not being rebuffed or hidden away or told that maybe he misunderstood something.

    So, on the parish level, we have to make sure that the victim, the person who's been abused, has been helped.

    At the episcopal level, they have to be constantly of the mind that the investigations that Professor Cummings talked about are being responded to.

    And then, at the larger level, at the Vatican level, here's where Pope Francis is the kind of person who's creatively thinking about the future of the church. To what degree is this problem related to gender? To what degree is this problem related to the fact that there is no real married priesthood in the context of the church?

    Now, these are bigger questions and profound doctrinal questions. But they interrelate with this one, because 90 percent of the cases that are here are cases that are aimed at males, especially male adolescents, middle years and later.

    And, obviously, if you have a seminary that's built all around a male culture, which has all of the associated gender problems with that, you're not actually getting at the root of the difficulty.

    I think Pope Francis is the person who's the right pope at the right time to address those issues.

  • John Yang:

    Big questions, indeed.

    Unfortunately, we have run out of time.

    Douglas Kmiec, Kathleen Sprows Cummings, thank you very much.

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