Like many Catholics, Michelle Marks hoped the church’s sex abuse scandal that exploded in the early 2000s was over.
“Then, boom, another shocker,” she said Friday, stepping inside the Santa Clara Mission on a tour with her sixth-grade daughter.
As Catholics return to Mass on Sunday — or don’t — many are questioning the atonement of the church hierarchy after a disturbing grand jury report in Pennsylvania revealed that, over seven decades, some 300 priests molested more than 1,000 children and few were held accountable. Now, many parishioners are wondering whether — like the movement that toppled the powerful of Hollywood and beyond — the Catholic Church could finally face its own “#MeToo” moment?
“I don’t mean to be a bad Catholic,” said Marks, visiting from San Diego, “but it rattles your faith.”
Despite skepticism, there are signs this time it could be different.
In a signed statement Friday, more than 140 theologians, educators and lay leaders called for all U.S. bishops to submit their collective resignations to Pope Francis, as did 34 Chilean bishops earlier this year after a sex scandal there.
“The bishops have given the faithful little indication that they recognize and take accountability for the breathtaking magnitude of the violence and deceit that has continued unabated under their leadership,” read Friday’s statement, signed by numerous educators at Catholic universities across the country, including Santa Clara University and University of San Francisco. “Thus, we call on them to follow Christ’s example in offering to the people a willing abdication of earthly status. This is a public act of penance and sorrow, absent of which no genuine process of healing and reform can begin.”
The statement came three days after the scathing grand jury report detailed the depravity of the priests’ abuse on children, from one priest raping a girl in the hospital after her tonsils were removed, to a “ring” of priests who gave their victims gold crosses to wear, marking them as easy prey for other priests in their network of horrors. One priest, after being the subject of numerous child abuse accusations, agreed to quit but not before receiving a letter of recommendation for his next job — at Walt Disney World. The report also detailed what the grand jury called the Church’s “playbook for concealing the truth.” Now, victims’ rights groups are calling for similar investigations in other states, including California.
The statement from the 140 Catholics said, “it is clear that it was the complicity of the powerful that allowed this radical evil to flourish with impunity.”
Sexual abuse of children by priests came to a head in 2002, when the Boston Globe’s Spotlight team exposed widespread abuse in the Catholic Archdiocese of Boston, setting off an explosion of victims coming forward across the country. The Church responded with the “Dallas Charter” that imposed numerous safeguards to protect children, including that priests cannot be left alone with children, and required all cases of abuse to be reported to police.
Since then, the Pennsylvania report said that only two cases have surfaced in the state — an indication that those safeguards worked and that children are far safer than they used to be.
Still, despite reforms, the report said, individual leaders of the church have largely escaped accountability.
“In 2002, no procedures were set up to deal with bishops who didn’t do their job, who covered it up, who didn’t report it to police, who didn’t do anything,” said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a visiting scholar at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, who has long written about priest abuse.
A year ago, he said, he wouldn’t have had faith that Pope Francis would make serious changes — he had defended an accused bishop in Chile. But after sending an investigator there who returned a searing report, Pope Francis called for the bishops’ resignations and has accepted three so far.
Still, many are skeptical that the church will properly crack down on leaders who covered up abuse.
“They’ve done too little too late,” said Will Lynch, 51, of San Francisco, who was acquitted by a jury in 2012 after attacking the retired priest he says sexually abused him. “It only motivates them if it affects their bottom line. I don’t think they’re being accountable whatsoever.”
Many cynics point to Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the former archbishop of Washington, D.C., who was allowed to advance his career despite accusations he had used his position of authority to sexually abuse young priests and seminarians. It took a former altar boy coming forward and accusing McCarrick of molestation for him to resign last month.
For the faithful, it’s another sign that the church has been giving lip-service to accountability.
“That’s the one-two punch Catholics are fighting with,” said Dennis Coday, editor of the National Catholic Recorder, an independent, lay-run watchdog publication that was writing about sexually abusive priests in the 1980s. “If a person like McCarrick could rise through the ranks without being stopped, how can we trust the bishops that they are going to put a stop to this at this point?”
The “bond of trust is gone,” he said. “They have proven without a doubt now with this latest report that they cannot govern themselves.”
The Vatican and the Council of Bishops responded to the grand jury report with epic mea culpas and promises of change. Cardinal Daniel DiNardo from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops asked for forgiveness, saying “we already know that one root cause is the failure of episcopal leadership.” He called for establishing new avenues to report complaints against bishops as well as independent review committees with “substantial leadership by laity.”
Pat Waite, a board member of the Catholic Community Foundation of San Jose and lay leader at St. Francis of Assisi church in Evergreen, said it’s about time.
“There needs to be a much larger lay involvement in understanding what’s going on because the priestly hierarchy has a vested interest in trying to keep things quiet,” Waite said. Also, he added, “it’s time for the church to reassess the role of Catholic women in leadership. I think they bring a sensitivity to the conversation that is lacking.”
So what will be the effect of these most recent revelations on the faithful?
Remarkably, after the 2002 scandal erupted, the effect on church attendance and donations was “very slight and temporary,” according to Mary Gautier of CARA, a nonprofit applied social science research center at Georgetown University that studies the Catholic Church.
Some 80 million Americans identify as Catholics, with 70 million identifying with a particular parish. Those numbers have grown about equally with the overall U.S. population. About a quarter of them go to Mass once a week, just as they did in 2002, she said.
“There’s no simple explanation for it,” she said. “People choose to affiliate with the church or faith tradition based on a lot of factors, related to their family, culture, neighborhood and inner sentiments.”
Marks still wears a cross on a silver chain, and when she visited the mission founded in 1777, she said she still counts herself among the faithful of a religion that has endured controversy and a troubled history — from the Crusades in Europe to the subjugation of Native Americans in California.
“I hold my cross every day,” she said, “and pray for the Church to be improved and cleaned — not forgotten — but cleaned so we can put this in the past.”