July 31, 2002
Facing the Fallout
-- Martin E. Marty
Stories about the sexual abuse crisis in Catholicism have moved from the "feeding frenzy" to the "facing fallout" stages. Headlines announcing continued Wall Street traumas have not quite crowded priest-and-bishop news from the public eye. A sampling from last week includes: "Bishops Select Lay Board on Sexual Abuse Review," and "Young U. S. Catholics Seeking to Put Scandals in Perspective."
In our sights this week is a well-written glimpse into the inner world of a priest who will play some part in picking up some of the pieces. Envy him not: J. Ronald Knott is vocation director in the Louisville diocese. (America, July 29-August 5). "I find that a hard job suddenly seems impossible. My aim is to present the priesthood to young people as a chance to "do something beautiful for the Lord." The abuses and cover-ups, he says, have "left me with a sick feeling in my guts." The pickings have long been slim.
Knott reviews a career with downs and ups, but nothing, he says, "has affected me like this damnable sex scandal." But his rage gives over to a heart that bleeds first, for the victims and their families. He had suffered psychological abuse through childhood. It took decades to recover. Sexual abuse, he knows, is worse.
Follow him across the soulscape: Secondly, he bleeds for priests who abused, humiliated in their old age. "I could hate them." But he seeks to "reconcile the large spark of goodness in these men with the evil they have done." Third, the bleeding is "for those faithful Catholics who have been scandalized and have had their faith shaken." Of course, fourth, for the faithful priests "who have to bear the shame brought on a profession they love." Fifth, for the bishops, most of whom were ignorant forty years ago about the problem of sexual abuse, then received bad advice, and then became guilty of cover-up.
Finally, "my heart bleeds for priests like myself who have been thrown into a whirlpool of self-doubt," especially in reaction to the Pope who told new ordinands they "must be perfect." "It has taken me 35 years to quit beating myself up for not being perfect," and now this papal charge. Imperfect, priests are lonely.
Knott turns biblical and theological to point ahead. Jonah 2:8, "when my soul fainted within me, I remembered the Lord." Knott gains hope from the pews, where he "shares the Scriptures" and "breaks the bread" with "solidly rooted" Catholics who somehow know to separate corruption in the church from the message of faith. He hopes for sophronismos, what Paul wished for Timothy (2 Tim. 1:7) when the young man was going to quit. Knott translates sophronismos as "knowing how to act in the face of panic."