[This is Bishop Paul Marshall's December 2009 column for secular newspapers throughout our 14 counties. It is published by The Morning Call, Allentown, on the first Saturday of every month. It usually appears also in ten additional papers. The combined circulation of papers that publish the column regularly is more than 400,000. More than 140 columns have been published over the past 13 years. If your paper does not publish the column and you would consider bringing it to the attention of the editor, please email Bill Lewellis, email@example.com]
Just when we religious leaders thought we were done with large-scale sex scandals, a bomb was dropped in Dublin, but I came away from that story somewhat heartened. Church leaders may be getting it at long last.
Irish Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of the RC Archdiocese of Dublin responded with humility and candor to the official report of decades of abuse of children by priests. He made no excuses for the activities of rogue clergy or the worse sins of his predecessors in covering them up. He cooperated with investigators and turned over church records.
When the report was complete, he offered a humble apology to victims and their families, and acknowledged that the harm they have suffered cannot be erased.
It is a shame that American media did not give his courageous statement much coverage, There was something to learn in the tragic tale. There was no defensiveness or evasiveness in the Archbishop’s remarks, a model of humility and contrition. He went the considerable extra mile in revealing the extent to which the police had colluded in protecting the church rather than its victims.
It is hard enough to acknowledge one’s own failings. To bear the weight of blame for hundreds, if not thousands, of others, requires a strength of character that may in the end be somewhat redemptive in a terrible situation.
His words were not typical of our culture. Religious and corporate leaders in this country seldom apologize. If anything, they lie, spin, or misdirect, as the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report of sexual abuse made painfully clear.
While the failures of moral leaders are very upsetting, not taking responsibility is not the sole turf of clergy. It is a human failing. Where have been the apologies from the people who brought us our current economic crisis or who have disgraced our nation with their “black” operations abroad? How often has any president, governor, or mayor in living memory simply said, “I was wrong?” The downward slope from “the dog ate my homework” is slippery indeed.
Taking responsibility is seldom easy, and Archbishop Martin is for me something of a hero in his forthright and principled response to a moral crisis. He put people ahead of institutional or personal concerns, the mark, I think, of a godly human being.
Therein may be the clue to our own moral growth: forming the habit of putting simple truth and the welfare of the larger community ahead of personal comfort.
On the eastward drive from Lebanon on Route 78, a billboard that proclaims, “Your sin will find you out.” This Old Testament passage from the book of Numbers (32:23), rather than being a general religious bromide about a final judgment, had a very specific meaning.
Some of the Israelites asked for permission not to wade across the Jordan. Pleading agricultural advantage, they wanted to avoid the struggle for the new homeland.
Moses responded to their dissembling with the words of the billboard. He promised them that not taking responsibility would bring lasting trouble. Their abandonment of the community in its moment of crisis would find them out, and mark them as people of very flawed character.
The good news in Numbers was that the men of the tribes of Reuben and Gad did not desert their community and did join the fray. They chose the more difficult path, kept their integrity, and also got the fields and grazing land on the safe side of the river.
The Irish church will be healthier for the Archbishop’s candor. What situations can be healed when each of us takes responsibility for our actions? What would change in the world if nations took responsibility for their policies and deeds? I believe that the planet would be a better place.
[The Rt. Rev. Paul V. Marshall is bishop of the Diocese of Bethlehem, 14 counties of eastern and northeastern Pennsylvania. His recently published book, Messages in the Mall: Looking at Life in 600 Words or Less (Seabury), is a collection of ten years of his monthly columns for newspapers. Additional columns, now more than 140, and sermons by Bishop Marshall are available at www.diobeth.org.]