Palm Sunday marks the beginning of Holy Week in the Catholic Church. Yet this week the dark cloud of scandal once again hangs over the church as millions of Catholics gathered for services throughout the world.
Pope Benedict XVI did not address the growing scandal surrounding pedophile priests in his Palm Sunday mass at St. Peter's Cathedral, other than an indirect reference. The pope prayed in Portuguese, "For the young and for those charged with educating them and protecting them." Yet in his homily the pope said that Jesus Christ guides his faithful, "toward the courage that doesn't let us be intimidated by the chatting of dominant opinions, towards patience that supports others."
No doubt many of the parishioners who crowded into St. Peter's were disappointed that the Pope didn't address the issue head on. But this has often been the failing of the church since this crisis first broke eight years ago. Then it was an "American problem" that church officials at first tried to minimize. The result has been damaging to the church and undermines the institution's "moral credibility," in the words of one Vatican official. Perhaps it is Christ's words, from St. Luke's "Passion," that ring true for many Catholics: "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing."
It has been reported about 4% of American Catholic priests were accused of abuse between 1950 and 2000. In 2003, a group of lay people reported to the U.S. Conference of Bishops a number of possible reasons for the scandal. These included improper screening of candidates for the priesthood, poor training and a pervasive attitude among some bishops that the needs of the Church come ahead of the needs of individuals.
Yet while some measures were put in place to address the underlying problems in the American church, recently more incidents of priestly pedophilia have become public, including in Europe. A priest in Wisconsin abused 200 deaf students and the church hierarchy quashed efforts to give him a trial. Now the Vatican finds itself defending the pope's handling of sex abuse cases both when he was archbishop of Munich, Germany, and when he headed the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.
The Catholic faithful are being truly tested this week, but so too is the church leadership. New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan spoke about the accusations on Palm Sunday, "Sunday mass is hardly the place to document the inaccuracy, bias and hyperbole of such aspersions." Archbishop Dolan noted that Pope Benedict had done more than most to address the problem, "Palm Sunday Mass is surely a fitting place for us to express our love for and solidarity for our earthly shepherd now suffering from the same unjust accusation and shouts of the mob as Jesus did."
In many local parishes priests addressed the scandal. One courageous priest, speaking in a voice filled with sadness and frustration, warned that there are no "short cuts to resurrection." He observed that the scandals were "poorly handled by church management," and called for truthfulness and a "searing admission of past wrongs." Innocent lives have been damaged, and in some cases destroyed, by the appalling sex abuse scandals involving Catholic priests. While such repulsive behavior has been reported in other religions and cultures, it must not be minimized by this church.
The church's scandals are a difficult and complicated challenge for the world's most populous religion, but there is no more urgent issue facing Catholicism. Perhaps its leaders should reflect in deep prayer on Christ's journey; from his conviction, to his crucifixion, burial and then his resurrection.