The Catholic Archdiocese of Philadelphia is about to get a new leader: the Rev. Charles J. Chaput of Denver will replace Cardinal Justin Rigali, who was engulfed five months ago in a sex abuse scandal, although he claims that his resignation had nothing to do with the allegations that he protected priests who were abusing children.
Earlier this year, a Philadelphia grand jury charged four priests and a parochial schoolteacher with raping boys under their care. The scandal radiated out, as the grand jury charged that as many as 37 priests remained in office despite allegations of abuse. One member of the church hierarchy was charged with hiding the abuse, and a larger cover-up was suspected.
These claims were particularly alarming in light of the fact that American bishops adopted strong reforms earlier in the decade, including a zero-tolerance policy for priests convicted of abusing children, lay committees to deal with infractions and regulations for reporting of abuse allegations to higher authorities. The Philadelphia case showed that these reforms may not have done much good in combating sexual abuse within the Catholic Church.
“The story that the Catholic bishops have tried to tell is that, yes, the sex abuse crisis is terrible, but it’s in the past,” CNN analyst John Allen said. “They say they’ve been called into account and cleaned up their act. Some have even argued that the church has become a social model for protecting children from abuse.”
Many are increasingly suspicious that the Church is attempting to protect itself, rather than stamping out unethical acts among its clergy. Other bishops are angry because they feel that their credibility is being undermined by the unfolding drama in Philadelphia. The scandal was clearly draining for Rigali, who, according to NPR, “sounded almost relieved” when he announced his resignation.
“It is a formidable task to be a bishop. You ought to try it,” he said.
His successor will certainly have a lot to handle, although as one of the most outspoken and politically conservative Catholic leaders in the country, Chaput is no stranger to controversy. As religion scholar Matthew Schmalz put it: “Archbishop Chaput does have experience dealing with messes.”
According to the New York Times, however, Chaput is not popular among advocates for sexual abuse victims. ”They point out that he fought hard against legislation in Colorado that would have extended the statute of limitations for people who say they were sexually abused to sue the church,” writes Laurie Goodstein. Chaput defended himself by saying that the Catholic Church alone did not cause the abuse, and that other institutions, like public schools, were also responsible.
Chaput may have been appointed to this position to improve the Catholic Church’s standing in the community while cracking down on any abuse. But let’s hope he remembers that the victims of sexual abuse need to be protected too, as well as the thousands of Catholic community members who have undoubtedly been shocked and traumatized by the abuse within their houses of worship. Religious leaders are deeply trusted figures, and it’s important for Chaput to realize that he is there to heal a community, not protect a hierarchy.
Photo from Sean Dorn via Wikimedia Commons.