I was shocked by a recent Associated Press headline that read: "U.S. Catholic church moving faster on abuse cases." Not because it was news to me, but because it was making news. At a time of great sadness, anger and confusion, a media outlet appeared to be honestly trying to understand and report what is actually happening now in the Roman Catholic Church in America. After an Easter-time frenzy of calls for the pope's resignation, this wire story was an acknowledgement of reform and leadership.
Read between the lines, and you see a story of penance and perseverance, about an institution that -- despite all its flaws -- challenges us to live differently than the gods of popular culture would have us do.
The article told how, after receiving an allegation this month of abuse by a priest back in the 1970s, the archdiocese of Denver took "swift and public" action against him. (The priest, the Rev. Melvin Thompson, now 74 years old, claims he is innocent.) Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput suspended the accused from all church and priestly activities -- despite the fact that the accused has, in Chaput's words, "been a popular and effective priest, respected by his brother priests and well-loved by many parishioners" and that there had been "no previous allegation of any sexual misconduct with a minor" in the priest's long career. But, as Chaput explained in his letter to the faithful in parishes where Thompson has served, the painful move is "a necessary course to protect people's trust in their parish and in the archdiocese."
It's horrendously painful for victims to have to relive abuse, and it's unjustly painful for an innocent priest to be accused. But the Church is doing its due diligence, necessarily and vigilantly. The Denver police won't be investigating because the case falls outside the statute of limitations, but the archdiocese has no such luxury, and Thompson has no such protection. The archdiocese, following norms now in place throughout the United States that were established by the national bishops' conference after the wave of scandals in Boston, is working to guarantee the protection of children, the beneficiaries of so many of the services of the Church.
The story of Thompson's accusation provides a snapshot of the way the Church currently operates. As New York's archbishop, Timothy Dolan, has put it, "just as the Catholic Church may have been a bleak example of how not to respond to this tragedy in the past, the Church is now a model of what to do."
The Church has had a grueling awakening, as everyone knows. And officials acted -- from Washington, D.C. to Rome. And while bishops in Europe clearly still have lessons to learn, Pope Benedict XVI has been a hero in this story. Knowing the mission and heart of the Church, knowing the need to protect the most innocent among us, knowing what is right from wrong, he has led reform efforts. What was once tolerated is no longer.
Every Catholic and admirer of the Catholic Church will be deeply disappointed, even scandalized, by the failings of Church officials. This is not, however, a reason to lose faith. Sin is a constant, but we must go on living, working and believing.
The Church, as Pope John Paul II explained in 1980, endures "not by the work of human beings, but through the power of Christ's gift. To believe in the power of the Church does not mean believing in the power of the people who compose her, but believing in Christ's gift: in that power that, as St. Paul says, 'is made perfect in weakness' (2 Cor 12:9)."
The Catholic Church is undergoing a painful but necessary renewal. If you know your history, you know the Church is not -- as some have hoped -- going away. She has stood athwart the culture of the times, and will continue to do so, with her bedrock fundamentals in place.
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