On Sackcloth, Ashes and Staying Catholic During the Abuse Crisis

Tod Worner

Tod Worner is a husband, father & Catholic convert. He is a practicing internal medicine physician, lectures on World War II history, and writes regularly for Aleteia and Patheos (as “A Catholic Thinker”). Follow him on Twitter (@thinkercatholic), Instagram (Catholicthinker) and Facebook (A Catholic Thinker).


On Sackcloth, Ashes and Staying Catholic During the Abuse Crisis

Baldassare Franceschini (1611–1690), “St. Catherine of Siena”By Tod Worner
Baldassare Franceschini (1611–1690), “St. Catherine of Siena”
The truth of Christ taught by the Church is not undone by the wickedness of some of his shepherds.

Recently, we have seen the release of Pennsylvania’s sweeping grand jury report on decades-long, stomach-turning sexual abuse perpetrated by priests and covered up by numerous Church authorities. Before that, Washington’s Cardinal Theodore McCarrick resigned amid allegations of sexually abusing minors and seminarians over decades. The response by the Catholic faithful has been horror, by the victims has been a searing recall of wicked acts and by the Catholic Church, a mix of sincere contrition and, at times, tone-deaf defensive maneuvering.

Hundreds of priests. Decades of abuse. Over one thousand children. In one state.

A cardinal with a profound public platform flagrantly (and often indiscreetly) violating his oath of celibacy and preying on innocent youth and seminarians.

This behavior is diabolical and inexcusable. Every instance of abuse — every single act that falls short of a Catholic shepherd’s call to heed and emulate Christ — is a devilish mockery because it violates the health, well-being and dignity of the victim while simultaneously corrupting the pinnacle standard of holiness that a priest, bishop or cardinal is to embody. A victim is left with a sense of desperation and spiritual homelessness. The abusing priest, bishop or cardinal has not only abdicated his credibility as standing “in persona Christi,” but he has done so by horribly violating a member (or members) of the flock he is called to serve. In a way, it is Satan’s finest hour. And it is played out in the center of the Church.

Now, if you’ll indulge me for a moment, I’d like to say something personal about the Truth of Christ and the scandals of men.

With respect to the truth of Christ, I came into the Catholic Church in 2010. From the time my cradle Catholic wife and I started dating in 1996, through marriage in 2000 and until my conversion in 2010 — for 14 years — my wife and I debated and argued, fought and wrestled over why I disagree with the Catholic Church. Let’s start afresh, I implored. Let’s be Episcopalian! Or Methodist! Or, better yet, nondenominational! I railed against the role of the Church hierarchy, the exclusivity of the Eucharist, the call to confess to a priest, the veneration of Mary and the saints, and on and on and on. These (and many more) were the spirited topics central to our debate and discussion. To find the truth, we prayed and attended Mass, talked with Catholic priests and Lutheran pastors, and we read Scripture and the Catechism. We poured over the wisdom of Augustine and Newman, the insight of Chesterton and O’Connor, and the thought of John Paul II and Benedict XVI. We talked about what our faith meant to us in our daily lives and how we could best live it out. We talked about who Christ is and who He wants us to be.

Now, regarding the scandal of men, it was in the middle of my years-long journey to become Catholic that the Boston sex abuse crisis unfolded and came to a fever pitch. And it gave me serious pause. How could this happen? Who are these spiritual leaders that act this way or cover this up? As I considered it further, perhaps the Church (though custodian of Christ’s Truth) had a criminal contingent like any other industry. The professional ranks of teachers, coaches, law enforcement officials, health professionals (not to mention, CEOs, Hollywood actors and producers in the age of #metoo) have all shown that they carry their share of vile predators. Couldn’t it be that the Church likewise has its percentage of perpetrators that no amount of screening and correction will ever fully eradicate? Perhaps. But soon story after story, accusation after accusation emerged in dioceses throughout the United States. Many of the charges have been sweeping enough in their damages that the respective dioceses had to file for bankruptcy. And that is without beginning to delve into international cases in Ireland, England, Australia, Germany, the Philippines, Chile, Costa Rica (and many more).

The 2004 John Jay Report commissioned by the United States Council of Catholic Bishops concluded that nearly 11,000 allegations were made against 4,392 priests in the United States over the time frame of 1950-2002. This comprises about 4 percent of the priests serving at that time. So perhaps, one could be affirmed in the notion that this is a small group of despicable figures and not representative of the larger body. But what is concerning (and brought to jarring light in Pennsylvania’s grand jury report) is the behavior of certain bishops in shifting priests, obfuscating or excusing. Even further, the “open secret” nature of Cardinal McCarrick’s behavior or growing allegations coming out of certain seminaries raises concern over dark corners with a culture of acceptance of this behavior. And as many honest and faithful Catholics have criticized, even the responses of officials like Washington D.C.’s Cardinal Donald Wuerl (the former Bishop of Pittsburgh) have carried a certain tone-deaf defensive hunkering that seems more coolly designed for a lawyerly boardroom than for the searing wounds of a disillusioned Body of Christ.

So what is to be done?

In recent days, two biblical passages have found their way into my consciousness again and again as my blood would boil upon hearing one reported abuse after another, one inexcusable malfeasance atop another in the McCarrick and Pennsylvania stories. And given my mood, they are fittingly Old Testament passages. They are about systemic sin that leads God to the brink of wrath. First, this from Genesis 18:20-33:

So the LORD said: The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave, that I must go down to see whether or not their actions are as bad as the cry against them that comes to me. I mean to find out. As the men turned and walked on toward Sodom, Abraham remained standing before the LORD. Then Abraham drew near and said: “Will you really sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there were 50 righteous people in the city; would you really sweep away and not spare the place for the sake of the 50 righteous people within it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to kill the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike! Far be it from you! Should not the judge of all the world do what is just?” The LORD replied: If I find 50 righteous people in the city of Sodom, I will spare the whole place for their sake.

As many are aware, Abraham barters with God even further (down to 10) to remind him that the purity of even a small contingent of souls is reason enough for hope and for preservation amid the iniquity of many.

Now, I firmly believe that the Church is filled with righteous men and women working to bring forth the glory of God. And I do not believe that it is awash with wickedness. In the person of Christ, those many good priests absolve us of our sins, consecrate the Eucharist, baptize and confirm our children, preside over our funerals, marry some and ordain others. They walk with humility and give with great grace. They are there in abundance. AND these faithful leaders and men/women religious are likewise deeply wounded by the depravity of some of their brethren and leaders. Pray for them. Pray with them to weather this storm, to renew their hope and ours, to help us find our way through this desert of sin and betrayal.

The second passage that comes to mind is found in Jonah 3:6-9:

When the news [of God’s wrath] reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, laid aside his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. Then he had this proclaimed throughout Nineveh.

The sins were so abhorrent in the eyes of God that the King’s first duty was ownership, abject humility and with it, humiliation. And the very public acts of contrition were likewise meted out to fellow sinners in the hope of God granting deepest pardon for what was considered the unpardonable.

In the wake of Pennsylvania and of Cardinal McCarrick (and many other concerning allegations), it is not a time for committee work, empty pronouncements and generalized hand-wringing. It is not a time for defensive posturing and media management. It is a time for sackcloth and ashes. If a cardinal could do what he did and if six Pennsylvania dioceses could suffer what they suffered, then the Catholic Church should own where it has failed and seek to eradicate this wickedness root and branch from every diocese on the planet. If the Catholic Church is the custodian of the truth (which I firmly believe it is), then it should have independent investigators (not anti-Church crusaders or in-house “yes-men”) compile a report on all dioceses. Every one. Every cardinal, bishop, priest or man/woman religious that has either abused or been complicit in the cover-up of abuse should be defrocked and criminally prosecuted. Furthermore, there should be NO statute of limitations on prosecution for this villainy. If the suffering of the abused knows no statute of limitations, then neither should the abuser’s culpability.

Finally, words found me, in the midst of this terrible darkness, springing from the limitless hope of the New Testament (Romans 8:35-39):

What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Christ is here. In the midst of this despair and wickedness, He is here. But He has been pierced again by the acts of some of those charged to salve His wounds.

As I said before, in 2010 I was received into the Catholic Church. And to this day, it is still (along with the marriage to my wife and parenting of my children) the greatest calling I have ever answered. The truth of Christ housed in the Church is not undone by the wickedness of some of his shepherds. It further reinforces the need for that truth to purify us. We can love and abide in the richness of Scripture and two thousand years of Tradition even though some of Christ’s ministers have failed spectacularly. So I won’t leave the Catholic Church over this. Cardinal McCarrick and Pennsylvania have reminded me that Christ doesn’t need us. We need him.  Now more than ever.

(May God comfort the abused, the faithful servants of God and the Body of Christ. And may the Saints, living and dead, grant us renewed life and assured direction.)