Has the Catholic Church in the United States really done enough about the scandal of child sex abuse by priests?
En route to America Tuesday, Pope Benedict XVI told reporters on his plane he was "deeply ashamed" about what had happened. For their part, the American bishops in the last several years have expelled hundreds of abusers from the priesthood, paid out well over $2 billion to victims, and put tough new programs in place in dioceses and parishes throughout the country. The aim has been to compensate for what happened in the past and keep it from happening again in the future.
But the question still stands: Has the church done enough?
To get a rational answer to that, you need to go back to the roots of the clergy sex-abuse scandal.
It's a tangled picture of twisted psyches and ecclesiastical blundering, but the systemic flaw that allowed these grave crimes to go on so long was secrecy. Over and over again, bishops and superiors confronted with the ghastly fact of clerical sex abuse pursued a policy of circling the wagons and keeping mum. The result, unintended but real, was to protect the abusers instead of the abused.
Six years ago come June, at a watershed meeting in Dallas, the country's Catholic bishops promised that would change. In place of secrecy, they said, "transparency" would henceforth be the order of the day.
With a few exceptions, they've generally honored that pledge — where the prevention and detection of sex abuse by church personnel is concerned. But in countless other areas of diocesan and parish life, the church remains a closed book to outsiders, routinely withholding information about finances, governance decisions and other matters that the across-the-board practice of transparency would just as routinely disclose.
To be fair about it, this is not the result of a sinister conspiracy. Longstanding, unquestioned habit is ultimately to blame — a mentality that, when challenged, complacently replies, "We've always done it this way." Nor is the overuse and outright abuse of secrecy peculiar to the Catholic Church. The problem is pervasive in government, the military, schools and the private sector as a whole.
But granting all that, the Catholic Church has a particular obligation today — an obligation arising from the mistakes of the past that helped make Pope Benedict "deeply ashamed" — to lead the way by practicing openness and accountability in a way that makes it a model to other institutions in society. Otherwise, it's easy to predict that the misuse of secrecy sooner or later will lead to more trouble — if not about sex abuse, then about something else.
Only when transparency is universally practiced by the church will it be able to say, "We've done enough," and mean it.
Russell Shaw is formation information director of the Catholic bishops' conference of the United States and a consultor of the Vatican's Council for Social Communications. He also is the author of the forthcoming book "Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church."