Should I Stay or Should I Go?

This article is reprinted from The Tablet.

Fresh revelations of sexual abuse by priests in Germany and Italy have provoked a tide of anger and disgust. I have received emails from people all around Europe asking how can they possibly remain in the Church? I was even sent a form with which to renounce my membership of the Church. Why stay?

First of all, why go? 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 offence 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.

But what about the cover-up within the Church? Have not our bishops been shockingly irresponsible in moving offenders around, not reporting them to the police and so perpetuating the abuse? Yes, sometimes. But 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.

But what about the Vatican? Pope Benedict has taken a strong line in tackling this issue as prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF) and since becoming Pope. Now the finger is pointed at him. It appears that some cases reported to the CDF under his watch were not dealt with. Isn’t the Pope’s credibility undermined? There are demonstrators in front of St Peter’s calling for his resignation. I am morally certain that he bears no blame here.

It is generally imagined that the Vatican is a vast and efficient organisation. In fact it is tiny. The CDF only employs 45 people, dealing with doctrinal and disciplinary issues for a Church which has 1.3 billion members, 17 per cent of the world’s population, and some 400,000 priests. 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.

People are furious with the Vatican’s failure to open up its files and offer a clear explanation of what happened. Why is it so secretive? Angry and hurt Catholics feel a right to transparent government. I agree. But we must, in justice, understand why the Vatican is so self-protective. There were more martyrs in the twentieth century than in all the previous centuries combined. Bishops and priests, Religious and laity were assassinated in Western Europe, in Soviet countries, in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

Many Catholics still suffer imprisonment and death for their faith. Of course, the Vatican tends to stress confidentiality; this has been necessary to protect the Church from people who wish to destroy her. So it is understandable that the Vatican reacts aggressively to demands for transparency and will read legitimate requests for openness as a form of persecution. And some people in the media do, without any doubt, wish to damage the credibility of the Church.

But 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.

Confidentiality is also a consequence of the Church’s insistence on the right of everyone accused to keep their good name until they are proved to be guilty. This is very hard for our society to understand, whose media destroy people’s reputations without a thought.

Why go? If it is to find a safer haven, a less corrupt Church, then I think that you will be disappointed. I too long for more transparent government, more open debate, but the Church’s secrecy is understandable, and sometimes necessary. To understand is not always to condone, but necessary if we are to act justly.

Why stay? I must lay my cards on the table; even if the Church were obviously worse than other Churches, I still would not go. I am not a Catholic because our Church is the best, or even because I like Catholicism. I do love much about my Church but there are aspects of it which I dislike. I am not a Catholic because of a consumer option for an ecclesiastical Waitrose rather than Tesco, but because I believe that it 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.

  • Charles White

    I agree, the Catholic Church is far better then the US public school system in comparing the percentage of child abusers, the problem is when an adult in the school system is discovered abusing children they are prosecuted, the Catholic Church has always covered it up and moved the abuser to a new location to feast again on the innocent, there is no greater a crime then to molest children in the eyes of God and the Catholic Church compounds the sin in massive dereliction of its spiritual duties by moving a soul robbing child molester to a new location and leaving many more innocent children again to be destroyed! This makes it an even worse offence! Jesus forgives but the sinner is still expected to receive the earthly punishment for the crime yet the Catholic Church has thought out history set itself above the punishment, the Catholic Church must come clean and repent, giving all those that have committed such a deviant and crushing crime up for the punishment they the abuser must receive, the Church must pay those victims of their blatant injustices!

    • Kevin in El Paso

      But you lend credence to the trial lawyers’ lies some amount of money (less 30% fees plus court costs and investigative expenses, of course) can “make things right.”

      It is also just silly to act as if the Catholic Church is a monolith. At any rate, if you get what you want, all of those abused will still have been abused, they’ll just have more money with which to be miserable if they never find peace. And the abusers, most of whom are dead or in their pitiful eighties, will often not have anything more done to them than already has been.
      All you want, when it really comes down to it, is for innocent pewsitters to reach into our wallets and enrich trial lawyers. That is the only guaranteed result of what you espouse.

      • Jim C.

        You do realize that the lawyers who defend the Church when its victims seek the justice that the Church, in the interest of self-preservation, had no interest in serving are also "trial lawyers," don't you?

  • ginjar

    Sexual abuse,(not minimizing), is not the root of the problem with the universal church, it is a symptom of the disease. The invalid teachings concerning Yahshua, the risen Messiah is the starting point of the problems plaguing the church and her offspring. That is to say the institution and its offshoots are corrupt. I am not placing that judgment on the individuals therein, for no one can judge their hearts. Surely though dogma and teachings can be studied and judged,( line upon line and precept upon precept), as we are directed to do.

    • maryann

      I don't know what "invalid teachings concerning Yashua" you're referring to? It seems to me that the "root of the problem" concerns the Church's past inability to fully vet prospective priests regarding sexual proclivities and their comittment to live out their vocation, and the admittedly wrong tendency of some bishops to try and protect offenders and the reputation of the Church. The members of the Church are products of their cultural environement; priests are not plucked out of the ether and ordained. They come from the culture. The same people who promote all manner of sexual permissiveness in our culture are the ones attacking the Church today, and sadly the attacks will continue. The question before the Church is whether to become more Catholic or less Catholic. You seem to be suggesting that she become less Catholic. That would be a tremendous loss to society and mankind. I am not now, nor have I ever been ashamed to be a Catholic. It is a shame, however, that many Catholics are abandoning the Church much like the apostles abandoned Christ at the foot of the cross.

      • jinjar

        I did not post my comments to insult or argue with Catholics or Protestants.who in my opinion are one and the same as stated in my post. I was baptized and raised and then schooled by Franciscan nuns. It was a it was a wonderful and grade a education that I received at the hands of the, (mostly capable), nuns. In my opinion after a lifetime of serious study of the scriptures I can find no legitimacy for the dogma of the church that changed the Messiah's resurrection from Truth to easter. Names are important they tell us with whom we are dealing. It is not a question of shame but rather of Truth. All of the Apostolic teachings reside in the bedrock of Genesis through Malachi with no speck of contradiction. There is improper translation on some points that could cause confusion but that is easily overcome by ferreting out the original source. My point is simply that for me the teachings of the universal church and all the off shoots have a corrupted root and has veered away from those Biblical writings from its inception. Again this is not an indictment of any follower of any church it is simply my opinion concerning dogma and why these problems arise.

        • MaryAnn

          I don't understand your comment "the dogma of the Church that changed the Messiah's resurrection from Truth to Easter"? What dogma are you referring to? Easter is the High Holy Day of the Catholic Church precisely because of the truth that Jesus Christ rose from the dead, thereby conquering sin and death. That is the Truth that the Catholic Church proclaims. I am not offended by your comment, I just don't understand it.

          • jinjar

            I am not a teacher and can only discuss my opinion and conclusions on my beliefs based on facts. Passover is a high holy day of the Bible which the Messiah celebrated and the Apostles continued to do as he requested. Instead of a sacrificial lamb it was now to be done because Yashua fullfiled the prophecy and did indeed overcome sin and death. Followers of the "New Way" also continued to celebrate the passover and the rest of the holy days that the Messiah himself followed. Recorded history and all Biblical scripture New and Old Testament testifies to when the death, burial and resurrection occurred and I do not find it to be in the time line ascribed to by the Church . I hope this helps clarify my opinion which as I say is based on what I have learned.

      • Ben

        It's always encouraging to see that there are articulate and intelligent Catholics who are willing to stand up and speak on behalf of the Church. God bless you! I am a little tired of reading lapsed catholics who abandoned their faith and like to present themselves as authorities on Catholicism. The Catholic Church is a collective and living witness that goes back two thousand years (more if you include the OT). It's a witness that is consistent and coherent and has been time and time again proved to be correct. If people are willing to consider the facts of the matter, it's a witness that is irrefutable. Hence the passion and irrationality of Catholic hating.

  • WolfDog

    Excellent article. It should be required as a Sunday homily in all Catholic Churches.

    • ben

      Ever heard of the 1st amendment to the Constitution? On whose authority ought we require that such and such be the content of a homily in any church of organization? I hear such things as this said all the time about the Catholic Church, that 'they' ought to close it down, ban the clergy, or whatever. Who is 'they'? The secret police?

  • Kevin in El Paso

    On two things will I comment:
    “Of course, the Vatican tends to stress confidentiality; this has been necessary to protect the Church from people who wish to destroy her. ”
    Father or Brother Tim, I do hope you understand that it is much more than mere people who seek to deprive mankind of the Graces won by way of Christ’s Cross.

    “I am not a Catholic because of a consumer option for an ecclesiastical Waitrose rather than Tesco, but because I believe that it embodies something which is essential to the Christian witness to the Resurrection, visible unity.”
    I am an adult convert and therefore perhaps a bit too strident about this fact; I am Catholic because of two scriptural events. Jesus instituted the Eucharist withn benevolence of forethought for those who would accept the teaching. Jesus also deliberately established the Church upon that fervent, though not always constant rock, Peter. Neither you, nor I nor any man living has the spiritual authority to remove that commission.

  • USMCSniper

    Keep your religious psycho-babble. All organized religion is a blatantly dishonest attempt to arrive at a comprehensive view of the universe and our place in it as a species. The late George Carlin knows this well:

    • Kevin in El Paso

      The late George Carlin is, of course, dead. And if you, and he, are correct, he has contributed his last to humankind and you are a fool to even remember his name.
      Have a nice, albeit bitter, unbelieving day…

      • ginjar

        Very Good Kevin

        • USMCSniper

          Both you and Kevin should come to Jesus, Allah, Krishna, the Great Spirit, Amon, or whatever, and of course the priests and holy men want you to bring your wallets!

  • biggie


    I am grateful, too, for your recognition of the error of "presentism" which I feel has been overlooked either deliberately or thoughtlessly. It is simply incorrect to apply today's sexual sensibilities to the era during which most of these crimes were being committed. How much more incredible to a bishop's ears were the reports of the conduct of certain priests in an era where sensuality was not openly discussed? Then again, from personal knowledge I can attest that the abusers in some cases were able to play their own approach to the young as avant garde, depict their superiors as dinosaurs, and thus more effectively gain access to idealistic and rebellious youth and fend off the "establishment" church. It should not be forgotten these criminals were con men, sociopaths in some cases, well able to navigate the rebelliousness and new awareness of the era to their advantage. While the negligence of bishops cannot be excused, in some cases beyond a doubt it can be explained to the extent that the bishop was just another victim, of sorts, of a sophisticated con.

    • Jim C.

      Indeed this con worked the same in thousands of instances: a priest gained the trust of a family, and that trust gave him access to his victims. What this may or may not have had to do with "avant garde" or "rebelliousness" is immaterial and specious. The priest once enjoyed a position of privilege, and the perverts happened to come in all stripes.

      Now there are very few sane people who would ever entrust their child alone with a Catholic priest. Think on that: today's priests, maybe unfairly but certainly understandably, will always be looked at askance by a parishioner: "Well, he's not from a poor third world country, so what is wrong with this person that he became a priest?"

      It has become ingrained thanks to negligence and cover-up. And nothing, short of real reform of the institution itself, will EVER change that.

  • Jim

    While I am disgusted by the child sexual abuse scandal, I have no intention of leaving the Catholic Church. When Jesus asked his apostles at the end of the Eucharistic discourse (John 6:66) if they would leave him, Peter said " to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life." Anyone who truly believes this will not leave the Church but will seek reform and renewal. Jesus did not promise that the church would be free from faults or sinners. In the parable of the wheat field (Mathew 13:24) an enemy sowed weeds in the field. the owner allowed the weeds to grow and be separated only at the harvest which will be the final judgement. The Church he founded was from the beginning composed of men with faults such as Peter and Judas. The perfection of the Church as the body of Christ is to be found only in the heavenly Jerusalem of the next world.

  • WeeWilllie

    Oh, the Orwellian black holes. Isn't Vatican secrecy awful. Its secrecy is bad, not good secrecy like the sealing of all the evidence gathered in camera during the Watergate investigation of the House Impeachment Committee and the Sam Ervin committee. The documents of these hearings were sealed for 50 years.

  • Reneeca

    First of all let's get the facts straight since the AP who ran the story about Ratzinger was all wrong! It turns out that Cardinal Ratzinger did not have authority over sex abuse cases until 2001. The case in question was in the late 80's. There is no doubt that there is a coordinated push by the media to go after the Pope and all Christianity. The want to litigate the Vatican because they have already drained the coffers of so many churches that they have had to close. This is in line with these liberals thinking on despising the Churches stand on abortion and gay marriage and other of their ideology and a range of other issues. It is time for people to open their eyes to what the goals of these anti-religion, secularists are trying to do!

    • Ben

      Amen! Every time I peruse these forums about sex abuse and the Catholic Church I am stunned by the Catholic haters who come out of the wood work to vent their spleen. You are absolutely right in your comments. It's not about child protection or justice! If that were the case, they'd examine the evidence and facts, which they obviously don't. It's about bringing down the Catholic Church, the last standing bulwark of Christian civilization. If they can knock off the Church, then the other denominations will fall like a house of cards. God bless you for defending the Church.

  • Jim C.

    The Church could go a long way toward solving its own problems of deceit, abuse, and tone-deafness by getting rid of the ridiculous requirement of celibacy and allowing priests to marry. Celibacy, could of course, still be voluntary.

    That they don't seem to even consider it shows what a bunch of perverse divas are running the show. They like the power. They don't seem to care about the beauty of the faith.

  • Ben

    What a relief it is to read a defense of the Church. Yes, child sexual abuse is horrendous and never defensible. Our diocese of Northern Alaska was rocked in the last decade with a sex abuse scandal and parted of ten million dollars. Yes, some of the accusations were credible and to a reasonable person probably true. Bur most of the accusations took place in the sixties and seventies. It was terrible! But what was just as terrible was the bias and furor of the media and (1) their absolute unwillingness to question the authenticity of some of the accusations (dead priests, decades had passed, complete anonymity of the accusers, total absence of evidence, ambulance chasing lawyers, etc.), and (2) the intensity of the hatred directed toward the Church. It was a lynch mob affair. Why are the mass media in this country such chickens? Or such mindless cows? Isn't it the mission of the media to ask difficult questions and to challenge assumptions. Not in America! From what I saw the attitude of the mass media was: "Get a rope, fellas! We are gonna have us a hangin'."

    • Jim C.

      Three words: Church Cover Up.

      It is very bad policy indeed to defend the systematic abuse of children and subsequent cover-up by church officials that went all the way up the bureaucracy. You say you don't–and then you make excuses.

      I happen to love the faith and plan to stick with it. We have to recognize that the Church has been utterly shameful in its official conduct, with no signs of it abating, given the recent disgusting comments by that old queen who called these scandals "rumors." At the very least, the institution of the priesthood needs serious reform. I won't hold my breath, but I do know what needs to happen. The Pope's pixie dust won't make this just go away like it did in past centuries when they could retreat to the shadows. And that is because we have a "mindless cow" media that exposes to the light of day things previously left to back rooms.

  • Michele

    I am far from embarrassed to be a Catholic. However, I am embarrassed by all those who leave the church and then complain – inside of leading the way if they presume to be so righteous.

  • Michele

    Ben what really amazes me is all those who are screaming "Down with the Church"…and wanting to change the Church…are the first ones to defend abortion as well, Talk about speaking from both sides of the mouth. No to sex abuse but it is okay to kill children. Will wonders never cease??