Christians last week marked the beginning of Lent, a time for spiritual reflection and contemplating a broken world in need of salvation.
As Lent begins, the two Montana Roman Catholic dioceses proceed at different points with lawsuits which allege sexual abuse and cover-up by authorities years ago. It’s purely coincidental that news of these lawsuits and a bankruptcy by the Diocese of Helena come on the heels of Lent.
And yet coincidence is indeed beautiful in its timing.
Not enough can be written and not enough damning words can be said about the alleged abuse that took place in the Roman Catholic Church, where priests and institutions may have permitted sexual predators license to prey upon the most vulnerable in the church, the children. Of all the things Jesus made clear in the New Testament, few words were more pointed or unequivocal than those he spoke against those who would harm children.
Yet, this is not an editorial adding our condemnation for a stiff-necked church unwilling to admit its role in unspeakable crimes. It wasn’t just institutional indifference, it went beyond that.
It would be easy and indeed tempting to say that in both dioceses’ case, any admission of wrongdoing or legal settlement is too little, too late. Instead, though, we’d suggest that Diocese of Helena may truly being trying to do the right things in the midst of a terrible situation.
In its settlement, which includes a $17.5 million payout to more than 350 victims now pending before a bankruptcy court, the diocese will release names of those priests or church employees who stand “credibly accused” of abuse. It has admitted that the hierarchy, including former-but-still-living bishops were complicit in that abuse insofar as they knew about it but didn’t take enough steps to stop it.
In addition, Helena Bishop George Thomas’ approach has been refreshing. Granted, the number of victims — enough to fill an elementary school — are hard to dismiss. Yet, given a situation that he inherited, he has said that he doesn’t expect the church to quibble over naming abusers.
“The one thing I want to punctuate is that I have been committed from the beginning to transparency. There are no names that I will hold in secret. If an accusation is made against (someone) and the facts line up, I think the public has a right to know.”
Some victims have said that having that transparency will be more important than any monetary award. We have to believe that. Money couldn’t just erase the horrible abuse that took place. Yet, the church’s transparency also allows the victims, as well as the church, several important opportunities.
First, it allows the healing process to continue for the victims. It allows them the opportunity for the church to acknowledge the hurt and reassure victims that it failed to adequately shield them. It also gives them credibility; victims will not be treated as if they are malcontents.
Also important is that it allows the church to move toward reconciliation. How that happens, exactly, is matter for theologians, priests and the faithful. However, the church must not only reconcile itself to those whom it has hurt and to those who placed their trust and faith in it only to have it betrayed, but the church also can move toward reconciling itself to the members who have not been abused, but have stood by only to see a horrible truth revealed about an institution they love.
Meanwhile, attorneys on both sides of cases regarding abuse within the Diocese of Great Falls-Billings seem optimistic about a speedy resolution that would hopefully allow the victims and the church to begin the healing and reconciliation process.
We believe the church must be given credit for moving forward in a more positive, less defensive way. We also hope that change doesn’t apply only to the past, but the future. That is, we hope that these lawsuits that contain such misery and betrayal spur the church on to ensure its training and oversight of clergy and religious orders is fundamentally changed so children are never harmed again.