Laity and the Catholic Sex Abuse Scandal


BOB ABERNETHY, host: Pope Benedict XVI directly addressed the church sex abuse scandal this week. At the Vatican, the pope told pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square the church planned to take action in the face of allegations of abusive priests and negligent bishops. He did not elaborate, but soon afterward the Vatican accepted the resignations of bishops in Ireland and Belgium because of the scandal. Last weekend, during a visit to Malta, Benedict met privately with victims of clerical sex abuse, and with them he prayed and wept. The continuing crisis in the church has left millions of American Catholics sad, angry and wondering what can be done to resolve it. We want to talk about that with Margaret Steinfels, former editor-in-chief of Commonweal magazine, now co-director of the Center on Religion and Culture at Fordham University. She joins us from New York. Peggy, welcome. How do you describe the range of reactions among the US Catholic laity?

MARGARET STEINFELS (Center on Religion and Culture, Fordham University): I think that many people are surprised that this has come back on the TV screen and the newspapers. American Catholics went through this a couple times before, most recently in 2002, and I would say that at this point there is among many people a kind of battle fatigue—why hasn’t this been dealt with?

ABERNETHY: Has it increased divisions among Catholics here, or increased divisions between the laity here and the hierarchy?

STEINFELS: I don’t know that it—I guess we could say that it has increased the ongoing factionalism of the church. Where the right declares this is the problem of the sex revolution of the sixties and homosexuality in the clergy, people on the left say no, no, if we had women priests, bishops, and cardinals this would never happen. So I don’t know that there are additions to this, but I think there is certainly ongoing factionalism among Catholics.

ABERNETHY: The church is a very top-down organization. Are there things that Catholics in the pews can do from the bottom up that might be helpful?

STEINFELS: Of course it’s top-down, but it’s not the Marine Corps, and I do think that at the parish level, and my own parish, for example, the pastor has dealt with this forthrightly and directly, and I think the people in our pews anyway have a feeling, well, here’s somebody who really understands the problem and who’s prepared to talk about it from the pulpit. I think that is a great benefit to those Catholics who actually still go to Mass. Of course, those who don’t don’t hear that message.

ABERNETHY: So what should Pope Benedict do?

STEINFELS: Well, I think the whole Vatican needs to come to grips with this. They need to get the truth out insofar as they know it. They should get it out quickly, and I guess they should stop blaming the messengers, whoever they may be.

ABERNETHY: Do you think the messengers have been exaggerating the story?

STEINFELS: I’ve been a little surprised at the viral nature of the stories, and I do think that there has been a certain lack of professionalism among journalists in tracking down details of the stories, but again I don’t think we should blame the messengers. I think the Catholic Church needs to take this issue in hand and deal with it.

ABERNETHY: Margaret Steinfels of Fordham University, many thanks.