Karen Peterson-Iyer is an adjunct lecturer in the SCU Department of Religious Studies and an scholar of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Views are her own.
The August 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report of priestly abuse and subsequent ecclesiastical cover-up, following close on the heels of the resignation of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick from the College of Cardinals, effectively delivered a one-two punch to the already-eroded trust of so many of the Catholic faithful. I write here as one with deep commitments to, and respect for, Catholic moral theology and the Catholic Church, though I count myself as a Protestant.
In 2002, when the scandal broke about sexual abuse of minors across parishes in Boston and other U.S. dioceses, I sat mostly on the sidelines and witnessed what felt like a high degree of moral defensiveness and rationalization—“Not all priests are bad.” “Remember that sexual abuse happens outside the church, too.” “Let’s not overreact,” and so on. All true—and, nevertheless, a woefully inadequate place to start.
Today, I’m struck by many responses that are eerily similar: “Not all priests are bad.” “The Church has already grappled with and implemented sensible controls.” Most of the offending priests and bishops have been long gone from their positions.” “Sexual abuse isn’t limited to celibate clergy or restricted to religious quarters.” Again, all true—but highly unsatisfying.
Something important still seems in short supply, particularly within the Church’s leadership: broadly observable, full-throated, moral OUTRAGE about what has happened. Before we engage in a careful, deliberate, measured ethical response, it strikes me as important—in fact, essential—that we first allow ourselves to experience the deep, passionate anger that is natural from the realization that thousands of children were sexually abused and even assaulted, their trust and well-being deeply violated by those who claimed to care for them.
If a group of young parents were consulted for a collective response to the news from Pennsylvania, where would they begin? Would they begin with a defense of good priests, or a careful probability assessment of how often this happens in churches compared with other locales? No. I guarantee they would begin with fury, pain, and gnashing of teeth. They would cry out to God and to anyone else listening with wails that can be heard in heaven. And we should, too—all of us, but especially those in power within the Church.
We in the Christian Church have historically and faithfully voiced passionate outrage on a variety of morally complex subjects; surely we can also allow ourselves—must allow ourselves—the space to feel and express, loudly, our rage at such grievous harm done to children. Anger is not something separate from ethical deliberation; it is, rather, an important indicator of moral harm, giving voice to deep wisdom, and pointing the way forward towards moral insight. And it can function as a powerful motivator to establishing more just and healthy relationships, relationships marked, finally, by love.
Nearly forty years ago, Protestant ethicist Beverley Wildung Harrison wrote eloquently and passionately about the “power of anger in the work of love.” Today, in the name of love, every single person who claims the title Christian must lament and rage in the pit of our souls against this latest news from Pennsylvania. We must demand accountability from priests and bishops and expect that ecclesiastical leaders be filled with a holy anger and sadness proportionate to the depths of this horrific news. Those in power and authority must be called to prayer and repentance, long before the laity is so called. And then, only then, we can think carefully--and work furiously--to keep this calamity from ever happening again.