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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 16:24 GMT 17:24 UK
BBC 4 World Forum on the US Catholic Church crisis

  Click here to watch the forum.  

In our weekly BBC 4 World Forum, George Alagiah put your questions to leading Catholic theologian Professor Thomas Groome of Boston College.

A group of US cardinals are preparing to meet with the Pope on Tuesday to discuss the sex abuse scandal that has hit the American Catholic Church.

Over 2,000 priests are now being investigated in a scandal which threatens to bankrupt the Catholic Church in the US.

Central to the scandal are allegations against the church's hierarchy that it knew of paedophile priests who were suspected of sexually abusing children for decades, but moved them from parish to parish when the victims complained.

The crisis is centred around the Archdiocese of Boston. The head of the Archdiocese Cardinal Bernard Law is facing growing pressure to resign.

He admits that the church knew that a Boston priest sent to prison earlier this year was suspected of being a serial child molester - but did little to protect children in his care. In the Boston Archdiocese alone up to 100 priests now face similar allegations.

How serious is this crisis for the Catholic Church in the US? What are the implications for the church as a whole?


George Alagiah:

Andy, UK: Will this crisis seriously undermine people's faith in the Catholic Church as a whole?

Professor Thomas Groome:

I think it will certainly undermine their faith in the institution of Catholicism. But I think Catholics Christians are - at least this is the evidence in this country, here in Boston - distinguishing between their faith in the tradition and their faith in the institution. They are realising that the institution in fact is not an end in itself - it's a means to an end. So our faith is in God and in Jesus Christ and in the Gospels and in the rich Catholic tradition of sacramentality and spirituality. Meanwhile the Church is terribly important to us but we won't exaggerate the importance, as it were, of the institution.

George Alagiah:

Urgessa Bedada, Ethiopia: Why should we go to the Church at all if the ones preaching to us are sinners of the highest order? How can someone like me reconcile my totally disturbed vision of the Catholic Church in the wake of this controversy?

Professor Thomas Groome:

First of all we have to realise that 98% of our priests are fine, decent people - men of integrity who are certainly not paedophiles who sexual abuse minors and so on - we can't tar them all with the same brush. Secondly, one of the reasons I find the Catholic Church so congenial is precisely because it's full of sinners like myself - not criminals - I don't want criminals preaching to me.

But this Church is always a corpus mixtum - a mixed body of saints and sinners which is why so many of us find a home there. So I don't think any of us are entitled to become self-righteous about it - Jesus himself said, let the one without sin cast the first stone. Now I am not referring to criminals, indeed criminals have to be prosecuted by the law of the land and imprisoned. But the fact that my priests are often sinners - that doesn't bother me, in fact it gives me some heart.

George Alagiah:

Danny, UK: The Catholic Church is very strong on protecting the life of the unborn and yet fails children time and time again. As long as this sort of thing goes unchecked then the Church has a lot of work to do. Don't you think that the only solution for the Catholic Church is to become more liberal in its thinking and acknowledge the difference between bigotry and tradition?

Professor Thomas Groome:

I am not sure more liberal is what we need to do. I think we have to return to our roots - the roots of the Gospel, the roots of the early Church and there we find a very different system of priesthood. I think this crisis faces us with the realisation that there has to be a fairer systemic review of Catholic ministry - the structures of Catholic ministry simply have to be rethought.

Now I am sure there will always be a vowed religious life - in others words to be a Jesuit or Sister of Mercy - there will always be the requirement of poverty, chastity and obedience. However, that celibacy is a pre-condition for all priesthood - I think that has to be revisited, likewise the exclusion of women from ministry has to be rethought. But that's not a liberal position - that to me is a return to the early Church, where indeed we find women performing functions of ministry that later became identified with priesthood and we find indeed a married priesthood. So people think of this as a liberal notion but in fact it could be a return to our roots.

George Alagiah:

Dharmarajan Hariharan, USA: Why are Cardinals and Church leaders being allowed to get away with lame excuses for the despicable behaviour of clergymen under their jurisdiction? I was under the impression that paedophilia was a criminal offence. Is the Church receiving special treatment here?

Professor Thomas Groome:

For me, that's a fair question to raise and indeed there may well be criminal charges pressed against some of our Bishops because of their negligence. Here in the United States at least it varies greatly how our Bishops have handled this. I think we should be fair to them by saying this that there are almost 200 diocese here in the United States and not all of them have been egregiously negligent. In fact some of them have handled this in exemplary ways - Milwaukee, Chicago, for example, had far better procedures in place and implemented them faithfully than did say Boston or Bridgeport. So some have done well by it and others have done very poorly and I think we're yet to see the end of this by way of criminal charges and so. I would hope that anybody responsible for the egregious crime against children will indeed be brought to justice.

George Alagiah:

Leonard Herzenberg, Russia: The uncovering of a few bad priests does not mean that the entire Catholic Church is bad. Isn't this simply a witch hunt against Church leaders?

Professor Thomas Groome:

I think it's na´ve to call it a witch hunt. Jesus himself said - the truth will set you free - we have to honour that, we have to accept the truth wherever it may be and face it honestly and with courage. So I don't think calling it a witch hunt is fair at all - in blaming the media and so on, I think we're in denial if we start using that kind of ploy.

George Alagiah:

Sonrisa, Cincinnati, USA: It's high time the Church allowed its clergymen to get married. While this won't eliminate scandalous conduct altogether, don't you think it would cut down on the deviant behaviour of priests?

Professor Thomas Groome:

I think basically she makes a very valid point. I am always amused at my priest friends who make it sound as if they have a tough life whereas I, as a married person, have an easy life. Now anybody with a spouse and a few children knows well that there's a tremendous challenge to a faithful married life and indeed the married life is itself a great call to holiness. So it is na´ve to think that marriage is a simple solution. On the other hand I think the celibacy issue is certainly a part of the reason why we have these egregious scandals in the Catholic Church at this time. Not that celibacy causes paedophilia - I would never imply that - but celibacy causes a shortage of priests which cause these priests to be shunted from parish to parish.

Celibacy at a young age when people are developmentally challenged and just coming into puberty and choosing their identity and so on - to present young men, as they did years ago - the minor seminaries - with the exclusion of sexual activity for their rest of lives, was tremendously repressive. I think that celibacy is a part of a complex conglomerate of reasons and factors that have gone to produce this scandal. I think the changing of celibacy to making it a genuine choice - in other words, if priests want to be celibate then praise God let's accept and support that. But if they don't, then give them the option of marrying. I do think, compared to other communions - we keep as saying as Catholics that it's no worse in the Catholic Church than in other traditions but at least here in Boston the difference in statistics are staggering. So I think we have to face it honestly that there is something awry with the present system of priesthood and we have to have the courage and the faith to put it right.

George Alagiah:

Carys Moseley, Oxford, UK: Do you think that allowing more women priests into the clergy will prevent sexual abuse against children from occurring?

Professor Thomas Groome:

Certainly the vowed sisters of this country have had nothing comparable by way of this type of scandal. I think opening the priesthood to women - first of all Pope Paul VI commissioned a pontifical biblical group of scholars to overview and address this issue and their finding, published back in 1976, was that there is nothing in Scripture that would be contrary or opposed to the ordination of women. So since it is not contrary to Scripture then in a sense that opens it as a theological question.

Some of the arguments that the Church has used against the ordination of women in the past have been roundly rejected and critiqued by great leading Catholic theologians. So I think the issue of women and priests has to be an open question and I do think it would bring a sea change to the quality of life of our priests.

George Alagiah:

Karen, Northern Ireland: Isn't the time now surely ripe for an overhaul of the Catholic leadership, not least Pope John Paul himself?

Professor Thomas Groome:

I think our leaders do have to accept some real responsibility for this. Also I would love to see an overhaul in how our Bishops are chosen because right now they're chosen by a kind of subterfuge - a kind of a backroom politics. There is no participation by the presbyterate and even less participation by the people of God in the choosing of their Bishops. They are venerable traditions by the way in the history of the Church. In the early Church the people had a voice in choosing their Bishops and throughout history the priests of a diocese had a real voice in choosing their Bishop - all of that has disappeared in the past 50 - 60 years. I think we should return to those practices of how our leaders are chosen. Meanwhile I do think that the problem of an enfeebled Pope becomes fairly transparent, especially when the Church faces such a tragedy in a crisis time as we are in at the moment.

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See also:

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