National Catholic Reporter
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Issue Date:  May 21, 2004

From the Editor's Desk

The ache in the Catholic psyche

Some months ago, reader Laurence McLaughlin sent in a photo of the painting we used on this week’s cover.

In a note to layout editor Toni-Ann Ortiz, he said he did the painting “to ease the sorrow,” and he hoped we might find a use for it. The effects of the sex abuse scandal, the betrayal of the “tender ideal” that Fr. Michael Parise writes about, is difficult to illustrate (see story). McLaughlin’s word seems a perfect fit for his painting, because it does, indeed, capture the “sorrow,” that kind of ache in the pit of the stomach that seems a natural companion to this awful, intractable story.

McLaughlin was a priest from 1965 until 1989, when he retired. He was later laicized and married. He’s now 81, lives with his wife, Mary, in Long Beach, Calif., and goes to work painting in his studio nearly every day. In a phone conversation recently he told me he found the scandal stories, the numbers and all the attendant publicity difficult to take. His years as a priest were “happy years for the most part.” If he was shocked by the dimensions of the scandal, he also, as his painting shows, has great empathy for innocent priests whose lives and ministry have been forever altered.

~ ~ ~

There was a telling, if overlooked, comment in John Allen’s article in our May 7 issue. In a discussion about the appointment of a woman to a high position in a Vatican congregation, Allen recalled the comments of Belgian Cardinal Jan Schotte in an interview nearly a year ago on whether women could hold “management” positions in the Roman curia.

“Right now the dicasteries have jurisdiction, and so they participate in episcopal authority. We’re a hierarchical organization and power comes from ordination. So for now, there cannot be a woman,” Schotte said.

Substitute the term “layperson” for woman and you have one part of an explanation for the tensions that have recently surfaced between the National Review Board and many U.S. bishops. Another part is power. Some may protest that ordination is a call to service, not power. Shotte, I suspect, has the more realistic take on the matter.

The problem comes, of course, when the board attempts to exercise oversight. Bishops don’t have overseers. Not only do they not have overseers, there simply is no mechanism with which to hold them accountable for anything.

And yet the bishops have done a lot to measure the problem. They’ve apologized for it and they’ve subjected their dioceses to scrutiny. So why won’t this all go away?

I think, in part, because the anger and frustration in the pews has much more to do with abuse of authority than with specific cases of sexual abuse. It has to do with breakdown of trust and a perceived continued indifference of the bishops no matter how much busy work they put into the problem. We may eventually get an unprecedented profile of child abuse within an institution. But will we be able to restore the relationship between bishops and priests and people? The ache in the Catholic psyche, described in this issue by Fr. Parise and ever-present, it seems, in messages to my voice mail and e-mail and in countless phone conversations, seems to be of little concern to too many bishops.

The ache, however, will not disappear. In our way of attending to it, we’ll keep bringing you the thoughts of those who deal with it regularly. It is a community problem and the best we can do is to provide a place for the community, figuratively at least, to meet and discuss.

-- Tom Roberts

National Catholic Reporter, May 21, 2004

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