Amid the darkness of the sexual-abuse scandal now rocking the Roman Catholic Church, some reform-minded activists have seen a few slim rays of hope.
The urgency to find a solution to the problems and efforts to prevent more abuses of minors are raising awareness of reform movements that for years have struggled to be heard.
“It's a silver lining of this very difficult time,” Sister Christine Schenk said in a lecture this week at Corpus Christi Parish. She is a co-founder of FutureChurch, a national organization formed in 1990 that advocates the ordination of women and the married in order to counter the priest shortage.
Adding to the possibility of reforms, or at least debate on the issues, is the frail health of Pope John Paul II, who turns 82 on May 18. The Pontiff not only has rejected ordination of women, he has forbid church leaders from even discussing the issue. His successor may not be as conservative.
“I do see this as a watershed,” Sister Christine said. “It is a new moment.”
Michael S. Rose, author of Goodbye! Good Men, a book that deals with problems in the seminary, said via e-mail that media coverage and public concern over the church sex scandals “is probably the only way to reform the way dioceses handle the problem of abusive priests. For too long they've systematically been sweeping the problem under the rug, which, in effect, aids, abets, and facilitates future problems of sexual abuse against minors.”
Measures advocated by FutureChurch and other groups within the Catholic Church, such as Call to Action and Celibacy Is The Issue (CITI), are being discussed anew as potential steps for preventing cases of pedophilia and other clergy sex offenses.
By increasing the pool of candidates for the priesthood, they say, church leaders can be more selective in whom they admit to seminary and through research they could more readily screen out potential sex offenders.
“This is a great opportunity for change,” said John Kennedy, a trustee and vice president, membership, of the local Serra Club, which promotes religious vocations and spirituality in the Catholic Church.
“If they examine the problem, they'll find what needs to be changed. If they don't examine the problem, they'll be off target,” he said. “I was delighted to see in the cardinals' statement [after this week's Rome summit] that they want to take a look at seminaries. You have to go back and see who these predators were. ... You need to look and see how did these guys get in, how they did they stay in, and how did they get off track. If they had maintained celibacy, we wouldn't have an issue.”
The Rev. Jim Bacik, pastor of Corpus Christi Parish, also sees a chance that the current crisis could yield some positive results.
“I do like to try to find hopeful signs in the middle of this,” Mr. Bacik said. “I hope it does raise discussion of ordaining women and ordaining married men.”
Dr. Eileen Condon, former professor of Catholic thought at the University of Toledo, said one possible benefit would be for people to begin “to talk honestly” about clergy sexual abuse. She was skeptical of any short-term solutions, however, and said the pain of the victims overshadows talk of silver linings.
Mr. Rose, the author, said that while there is potential for the church to change the way it deals with sexual offenders, there is no chance that it will reform its policy on ordaining women.
“I think it's quite silly for anyone who understands the Catholic Church to suggest that anything will foster discussing the possibility of ordaining women to the priesthood,” Mr. Rose said. “The church simply does not have the ability to ordain women.”
He also believes that allowing priests to marry would not cut back on sex-abuse of minors unless the church makes marriage mandatory for all clergy.
“If a married priesthood is the answer to the clerical sex-abuse problems, then it would only stand to reason that all priests ought to be traditionally married in the church - that is, to a woman,” Mr. Rose said. “... If priests are only given the `option,' as Cardinal Mahony and others promote, then those priests who choose not to marry would still be bound to celibacy. And if celibacy is the cause of the so-called `pedophile priest' problem, then the unmarried priests would presumably still pose a problem to society.”
Some conservatives who oppose reforms have accused special-interest groups of being crass and self-serving by promoting their causes during this time of crisis.
“I think it's ludicrously laughable that these dissenters are taking this opportunity to advance their own personal agendas of women's ordination and married clergy,” said Mr. Kennedy of the Serra Club. “The Pope has already spoken about these issues and rather than continue to fight under the false banner of dialogue, they ought to just start pulling together and get on the same team or leave.”
The Rev. Stephen R. Majoros, pastor of St. Joseph Catholic Church in Toledo, said he does not believe the current crisis will open the door for reform.
“The position of the church on married clergy and the position of the church on celibacy is not going to change,” Father Majoros said flatly. “The problem is restricted to the United States, and the Holy Father is concerned about the whole world. The United States may be the leading country militarily and economically but the church here is an infant church. The tail will not wag the dog.”
Most of the discussions now going on are not supported by the Vatican and church leaders and are therefore invalid, he said. And a change in leadership will not change its doctrine, he added.
“The teachings of the church are independent of the Holy Father. He is the voice of Christ but the doctrines of the church remain the same.”
Dick Torio, a local concerned Catholic, said some activists who claim to be working within the church are actually undermining the Pontiff.
“The Pope is the vicar of Christ on Earth. He's the head of the church on Earth. No group is correct unless the Pope agrees,” Mr. Torio said. “If you don't believe, if you're a dissenter from the church's basic teaching, you're not a Catholic. You may call yourself a Catholic, but you're not a practicing Catholic.”
Francis Kissling, president of Catholics for a Free Choice, asserted that if something is wrong, church members have a moral obligation to seek a solution.
“I don't care what your issue is, I don't see how you could be a Catholic who is concerned about the church and not get involved in this,” Ms. Kissling said from Washington. “You can't be silent on this. ... You must speak out on an injustice of this magnitude whether it is `your issue' or not your issue. To be a Catholic is to have the courage to be critical even when it hurts.”
She said she was “profoundly disappointed” by the outcome of the cardinals' summit in Rome, and as a result she plans to take the case of clerical pedophilia to the United Nations, where Catholics for a Free Choice has limited representation. She will argue that the Vatican has broken U.N. treaties on the rights of children, which includes a ban on pedophilia.
“Activists must use every avenue available to bring about justice, and this is one of the vehicles available to us,” Ms. Kissling said.