By Zoe Leavitt
“We now face the largest institutional crisis in centuries, possibly in church history,” read a National Catholic Reporter editorial from March 26, 2010.
Since the 1990s, when a wave of abuse scandals first came to public attention in the United States and Ireland, abuses by Catholic priests have ignited a firestorm of public controversy, raising questions about whether there are deep-seated institutional problems within the Catholic Church or whether an overzealous media has sensationalized the abuses. Now, with the uncovering of another round of Catholic priest abuses in Ireland, those questions have reemerged in the national dialogue.
And here at the Farm, Catholics are grappling with the same issues, trying to make sense of the abuse scandals.
“My stomach does a somersault every time I hear a news story about this,” said Father Carl Schlichte, associate director of the Stanford Catholic community. “I know the damage that’s done, not just to the victims, but to the other faithful priests and the believers who are just trying to follow the Lord the best they can.”
From editorials comparing bishops to Enron CEOs and preachers comparing the media’s fixation on the abuse scandals to anti-Semitism, many in Stanford’s Catholic community don’t know where to turn for the truth. One of the biggest obstacles Stanford students face is disaggregating fact from embellishment.
“It’s despicable, the [abuses] that went on and the way things were perpetrated,” said Mike Davenport, a sixth-year graduate student in the Catholic community. “But some of the portrayals have been unfair, particularly the way Pope Benedict has been portrayed.”
“You can’t just go to one source–you can’t just go to the New York Times, but you also can’t just go to the most pro-Catholic apologist you can find,” added Charlie Capps ‘10, a member of the Catholic Undergraduate Leadership Team. “If you find a variety of sources, you can sift through all the agendas.”
At Stanford, some Catholics believe that the appearance of out-of-control Catholic abuse deniers stems from a non-tech savvy Vatican. Others feel that the media is to blame, quickly pouncing on any comment and painting it as the opinion of the entire Vatican. Still others believe that the Vatican needs to accept all responsibility for the clergy’s statements.
“The nature of the papal position is that you take responsibility–it puts a huge burden on the Pope; and even though it may seem unfair, it’s the position he’s in. Repentance is the most appropriate response,” said Tommy Pauly ’12.
Students have sought help from each other in making sense of the conflicting media reports and Vatican statements, turning to each other on conversation forums and e-mail chat lists.
While no formal conversation has taken place at Stanford so far, last weekend’s mass did bring up a mention of the abuse. In order to foster more of a dialogue on the issue, Stanford clergy will hold a forum this Saturday led by Thomas Plante, a Santa Clara psychology professor.
Plante, who has worked extensively in examining abuse within the Catholic Church, will bring a balanced, outside perspective to help students put their worries in perspective.
“I’m happily surprised and impressed that they did something, because they didn’t have to,” Pauly said.
In contrast to pundits and many Catholics who believe that massive systemic overhauls are necessary to deal with the Church’s abuse problems, many at Stanford believe that the Church has already made the most necessary changes.
“I think the changes that were to be made have already been made,” Capps said. “The protocol is a lot clearer for bishops now, and what we’re seeing is just more old scandals coming out.”
New doctrines within the Church in the past decade have set up a more efficient structure for dealing with sexual abuse, as well as increased psychological screening for priests. But, while these are steps in the right direction, said Fr. Schlichte, “for better or for worse, the church makes haste slowly.”
Throughout this abuse scandal, Stanford’s Catholic community has focused on the Catholic teaching of repentance to deal with the issue. And they have re-emphasized the importance of faith.
“Even if there could be a good argument made for no more church hierarchy or for priests marrying, I don’t think that is the proper response to these current issues,” Pauly said. “The changes should be more in the heart of the organization, more in coming back to the actual spirit of things, rather than just rearranging.”
Students hope that a focus on the Church’s true values can help it overcome its image in the media and the pockmarks on its conscience.
“These are very un-Christian things,” Davenport said. “If people lived up to their ideals at all levels we wouldn’t have these problems, but we’re only human.”
Capps echoed this view, struggling to find the right words.
“The Church is made up of sinful people–that’s the whole reason we need Jesus Christ,” he said. “To have a solid, robust Catholic faith doesn’t mean you have to believe that everything every member does is always the best thing to do.”
He added, “Believing the facts shouldn’t be incompatible with faith.”