Apologize before being caught

On Aug. 14, a grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that hundreds of Catholic priests had abused 1,000 children in that state. The report relied on thousands of pages of secret church documents with information about the cases. Since the release of the report, bishops in Pennsylvania have apologized and spoken of a commitment to reform, including greater transparency. That is, they apologized publicly for something they already knew, only after that information came to light via the mechanisms of civil society. This seems to me the equivalent of a child apologizing only after being caught.

It would be naive to assume that this phenomenon would for some reason be confined to Pennsylvania, in a church whose hierarchy transcends mere state or national boundaries. It would be naive to assume that such secret documents and knowledge of abuse do not exist elsewhere. I doubt that Catholic priests and bishops in Pennsylvania were simply more thorough in their record-keeping than were their peers elsewhere. And, if those documents were to come to light elsewhere, bishops would certainly issue apologies echoing those heard in Pennsylvania.

I was raised Catholic and attended Catholic schools (including the Parkersburg Catholic high and elementary schools) all my life, though I certainly would not claim to be an expert on the church. But I do not think it takes a theologian’s understanding to suggest that — if the church does indeed intend to move forward in a spirit of transparency — a true act of contrition would involve proactively acknowledging the real scope of this problem, rather than issuing piecemeal apologies as more information from different dioceses becomes available to the public. If it is worthy of apology when the information comes to light, is it not worthy of proactive apology and acknowledgment without being forced into such a position by legal proceedings? Is it not dishonest behavior for one of the largest and most powerful institutions in the world to keep more information — information acknowledging the commission of serious crimes, information detailing gross violations of human decency, information documenting acts which scarred thousands of lives forever — secret?

I ask this in a spirit of humility. Perhaps there are valid legal, organizational, and doctrinal explanations for some of the silence. And perhaps I am wrong and this indeed is somehow an isolated problem that exists only in Pennsylvania, though evidence suggests otherwise. But if additional records of abuse do exist beyond the dioceses of Pennsylvania, would it not be the right, moral, and honest thing to do to publicly acknowledge the real scope of this abhorrent institutional failure? In my Catholic education, I was taught to apologize not for being caught, but for doing something wrong.

Matt Coyne

Chicago

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