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What Allows Sex Abuse To Proliferate Within The Catholic Church

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The Vatican has weighed in for the first time since the release of a Pennsylvania grand jury's investigation into sexual abuse in the state's Catholic churches. In a statement, a spokesman for the Vatican said, quote, "the church must learn hard lessons from its past and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted the abuse to occur." The president of the U.S. Bishops Conference also announced today an effort to address what he calls the, quote, "moral catastrophe" within the church. But the church has been here before and made similar promises. In 2002, an investigation in Boston uncovered similar abuses. So what, if anything, will be different this time? I put that question to Mark Jordan. He's a professor at Harvard Divinity School and author of the book "Telling Truth In Church."

MARK JORDAN: This feels a lot like the response of the Bishops Conference in the summer of 2002 when they issued the charter for the protection of children. The problem is the procedures that are being put in place don't address the fundamental issue. There are always two things going on in these abuse cases. One is the actual set of crimes that are committed by the individual priests. But the much larger issue, really, is the issue of the systemic or general problems in the structure of the Catholic Church around issues of celibacy and obedience.

KELLY: When you talk about obedience, are you talking about loyalty to beliefs, loyalty to the bylaws of the church, loyalty to the reputation of the church?

JORDAN: Really, all three, but the strongest form of obedience is obedience - loyalty to one's superiors, loyalty to the chain of command.

KELLY: More so than respect and obedience to the people you serve.

JORDAN: Yes. And this is, I think, the fundamental difficulty of modern Catholicism, that the cult of obedience has really eclipsed the sense of respect of love for the people of God. It's much easier to operate an empire of muffled rooms, a vast honeycomb in which uncomfortable secrets are kept contained.

KELLY: It's interesting to hear you speak about a chain of command. It has military echoes in a way. It almost sounds like a military culture you're describing.

JORDAN: It does indeed, and military metaphors are a significant part of the training of Catholic priest.

KELLY: Is that right?

JORDAN: Yeah. I do often think that the best analogy is to the Marine Corps where the loyalty - the first loyalty that's instilled in the training of new recruits for the Marines is loyalty to the Corps. And in some ways, I think that's exactly true for Catholic priests. Your first loyalty is not to God and not to the people you serve and not to Jesus. The first loyalty is to the church.

KELLY: So do you see this moment, 2018, this grand jury report in Pennsylvania, as a pivotal moment for the Catholic Church in the way that people thought Boston back in 2002 might be?

JORDAN: Well, that's the problem, though - isn't it? - that we thought that Boston would be a pivotal moment, but it turned out not to be a pivotal moment. So the question is what would it take? I mean, we also have a leading American cardinal, Cardinal McCarrick, under suspicion of sexual improprieties over years. So if it's not going to take the suffering of the victims in Pennsylvania, if it's not going to take the revelations about a senior American cardinal, what would it take?

KELLY: I should state that Cardinal McCarrick has denied the allegations made against him and that those allegations are part of what the U.S. Bishops Conference say that they want to investigate going forward. Let me turn your question back on you. What will it take?

JORDAN: Well, I mean, with the Catholic Church, one always has to think in terms of centuries. And I suspect that it will be the pressure of legal authorities outside the church but also the pressure of changing opinion of the faithful within the church. We're increasingly moving into a society where the concealment of sexual crimes by powerful people is simply not acceptable. This is another version of #MeToo, of the #MeToo movement.

KELLY: That's Harvard Divinity School professor Mark Jordan. Professor Jordan, thanks for your time.

JORDAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.