Catholics across the U.S., just as here in West Virginia, are now reading a 103-page book titled "Letter to a Suffering Church," distributed in bulk in thousands of parishes. The author is Los Angeles Auxiliary Bishop Robert Barron, formerly rector of Mundelein Seminary just northwest of Chicago.
Barron readily admits the gravity of the abuse scandals that have ravaged Catholic parishes in dozens of countries and which, he says, have caused 37 percent of practicing U.S. Catholics to consider leaving their church.
While evoking the outrageous abuse behavior of former Washington, D.C., Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and cases of abusive priests and negligent bishops over the last six decades or so, Barron's book reminds us of periodic abuses that have marked the long history of the church.
The worldwide clerical sexual abuse crisis of our day is part of a pattern that goes back to Old Testament times and has occurred also in Christian circles right from the first century A.D.
Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by God to punish heedless sexual abuses (Gen. 19).
In I Corinthians 5, the Apostle Paul warns Christian believers against immorality and cites the case of a man sleeping with his own father's wife.
Among the 265 popes in Catholic history, from Peter to the current Pope Francis, most were honorable and dedicated to the cause of Christ, but a few were truly degraded.
Arguably the worst, Barron says, was Pope John XII, who reigned from 955 to 964. Gathered in synod, his bishops and cardinals endeavored to remove him, charging him with "sacrilege, simony, perjury, murder, adultery and incest." Instead John excommunicated his accusers and had some physically scourged or otherwise tortured.
In the 11th century, clerical abuse of young people was rampant. Peter Damien, a holy hermit and not one to mince words, wrote to Pope Leo IX: "The befouling cancer of sodomy is spreading through the clergy and raging with shameless abandon through the flock of Christ."
Peter Damien especially deplored the abuse of young boys by clergy and the lax attitude of religious superiors who knew about those outrages but did nothing to stop them.
Bishop Barron reports that contemporary abuse scandals were especially flagrant in the 1960s through the 1970s (others have said through the 1990s) and declined precipitously from 2002 onward.
It was in 2002 that The Boston Globe ran a series of exposes on clerical abuses of minors in the Boston Archdiocese, for which the paper won a Pulitzer Prize. Subsequent to that series, the Vatican mandated stricter controls upon candidates for the priesthood, and the Virtus program for all clerical and lay ministers in parishes, aimed at weeding out potential sex offenders.
Barron's book does touch upon the McCarrick scandals but does not mention the case of former West Virginia Bishop Michael Bransfield, accused of self-indulgent lavish living and of sexually abusing young seminarians. Bransfield has been forbidden by the Vatican to return to West Virginia and is awaiting further disciplinary action.
Bishop Barron argues that a wave of "moral relativism" in the 1960s and forward infected both priests and bishops causing many to "wink at sexual crimes."
He called for a renewal of the priesthood and a rejection of "a preoccupation with money or pleasure or career advancement," all of which he said lead to a "falling apart" and "havoc."
Lay Catholics, Barron said, should strive for holiness and create families that will produce a new crop of priests dedicated to proclaiming Christ and challenging "a skeptical and secularist culture" with the Gospel.
Guiding that effort here in West Virginia will be newly appointed Bishop Mark E. Brennan, formerly an auxiliary in the Archdiocese of Baltimore. Welcome, Bishop Mark!
John Patrick Grace formerly covered the Vatican for The Associated Press (1968-1973) and then served as religion editor of The Greensboro (N.C.) News and Record. He is currently a book editor and publisher in Huntington.