One gets the sense when reading Bishop Robert Barron’s latest book “Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis” of a man in a burning house where he is awake but everyone else is asleep, unaware of the destruction raging around them.
While the Church has been publically engulfed in the flames of the sexual abuse scandal for nearly a quarter-century (and privately, even longer so), the response has been alarmingly, even shockingly, disproportionate.
To be sure, there have many public responses from Church leaders ranging from the pragmatically effective 2002 Dallas Protocols, to the less effective and damaging self-protecting equivocation of ersatz contrition, or in many cases, outright denial and continued cover-ups.
These responses have had a predictable effect. At best they are a glass of water being poured limply onto a 5-alarm fire; at worse, they are added fuel to the fire.
In this short and frank book, Bishop Barron takes a different approach to address the sexual abuse crisis that too few Bishops, priests, and even lay leaders have taken: a direct approach that neither shies away from the horrific reality nor acquiesces to helplessness and defeat.
In a Church that all too often is answering questions that no one is asking, Bishop Barron is sounding the alarm and addressing the fact the 37% of Catholics are considering leaving the Church over the sexual abuse scandal.
It is evident that self-preservation or the protection of the public perception of the Church is not the goal of Bishop Barron. This book is written by a man, though a Bishop himself, that is suffering alongside the rest of us Catholics who are mortally grieved by the horrors of sexual abuse in the Church. In his own words, it is a “cri de cœur”.
In one startlingly clear summation, Bishop Barron begins the book by defining what the Church is dealing with: The masterpiece of Satan himself.
He does not whitewash or equivocate the heinous nature of the crimes perpetrated by his brother priests, even going so far as to recount some of the vilest, repugnant, and sulfur-tinged cases of priestly sexual abuse. This is not done in a salacious way but in a necessary way. Just as a still, grainy, black and white photo of a World War I battlefield fails to evoke the true visceral mayhem and sinewy violence of war, so too does a hushed and sanitized view of priestly sexual abuse fail to create the commensurate disgust and outrage.
In the following chapters, Bishop Barron, in his typically Dominican-esque way, presents a coherent examination of sexual abuse in the Church: the causes, the effects, historical parallels, and a way forward.
In perhaps the most poignant chapter, especially coming from the hand of a Bishop, he asks “Why Should We Stay?”. It is both deeply sad and telling that the discussion of why a person should continue to cling to Christ in the storm needs to happen.
But it does, and Bishop Barron has the courage and clearness of thought to lay out the spiritual case for fighting for the reclamation of the Church and, perhaps counterintuitively in the face of self-inflicted Church-borne scandal, why not abandoning the Barque of St. Peter, precisely when a lifeboat in the stormy seas of modernity is most needed.
In centuries past, crises and moral decay have struck the Church time and again. Moral decay is always, and always will be, the great ailment of the Church. It is not a curable disease. It is the condition which must be constantly treated and managed similar to the way a diabetic must continuously manage their condition to avoid it becoming fatal.
Throughout the ages, some members of the body of Christ have heroically responded in calling for reform and countering this moral decay. Saints like St. Benedict, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Peter Damian, St. Catherine of Siena, Pope Saint Gregory VII, and more.
While the popular mind may think of these characters as “reformers”, it may be more enlightening to think of them as “reclaimers”. They sought to reclaim the Church for Christ. Reform puts into place structures to address moral decay, but reform is a function of reclamation. Reform is only efficacious when the thing being reformed is worthy of being reclaimed.
It is in this tradition that Bishop Barron offers “Letter to a Suffering Church: A Bishop Speaks on the Sexual Abuse Crisis” to the Church. The Church is necessary and worthy to be reclaimed from the damage done by evil priests who were guided by the whispered suggestions of Satan, and it is this point that Bishop Barron’s book so powerfully illustrates.
May it be one of many needed razors to the canvas of the Devil’s masterpiece.