Real change starts with people, not clergymen

Frank Yonkof

Late last week, I was greeted with the sad news that a Belgian bishop voluntarily resigned, after admitting to sexually abusing a child many years ago. The news came among a slew of other resignations by high-ranking clergymen across Europe, stemming from abuse cover-ups to misused orphanage funds.

Needless to say, my heart sank at that point. Like many Catholics, I had tried to convince myself for years that these cover-ups only took place in one or two dioceses where the bishop simply panicked when learning of the disturbing revelations.

Even when it became clear that many U.S. bishops were involved in cover-ups, I kept telling myself that it was only a problem in America, but the clergy in Europe, where the true roots of Catholicism lie, remained steadfast to their morals. Now, it appears I have no excuses to give myself. Widespread cover-ups in the Catholic Church are a reality.

As with many Catholics, my faith in our church has not been shaken. Only in our church hierarchy.

Perhaps what is most frustrating about this scandal is the effect it will have on the younger generation of Catholic priests. The really good priests will now have to live with the stereotype of being a child molester, while potential priests may just stay away from the seminary altogether.

And in a world where warlords kill thousands in Africa and half of the U.S. population is against universal health care, we desperately need good priests to advocate for what is right.

In the midst of this devastation, I am still convinced that the Catholic Church will overcome these obstacles and become a leading example of redemption. But change will have to start with the Catholic lay people, not the clergy.

In order to prevent the abuse and cover-ups from happening again, we must understand how it happened in the first place. Unfortunately, many bishops handled abuse claims like CEOs protecting their organization. Once more, their prominence as higher-ranking clergymen probably helped them avoid tough questions that needed to be asked.

Like many Catholics, I had grown up loving the church’s traditions. Of course, the traditional role of the higher clergy is something else I love, with their elaborate clothing and the special duties they perform. Although it is the same mass celebrated around the globe, communion feels much more special when it is distributed by a bishop, which is

kind of sad when you stop to think about it.

I had unknowingly elevated the clergy to a higher level in my own mind. While the office of bishop calls for a humble individual to act the role of a “shepherd,” I was looking for a leader with all the pomp and circumstance. As much as I would like to believe this is my own personal problem, I fear that many Catholics around the globe are the same way.

Ironically, the clergy themselves have sought to downplay their own roles with the reforms of Vatican II in the 1960s. The pope no longer wears an extravagant Papal Tierra and is no longer carried around on a portable throne. Even at the parish level, the role of priest has shifted. The majority of parishioners no longer go to a priest to seek advice for tough decisions, and many priests come down from the pulpit to give their homily.

Perhaps we Catholics are afraid to give up the old traditions that really have no spiritual merit. To be honest, I don’t even know why we use incense in the church, but I know that my heart longs for it. As one priest I know pointed out, people think traditions like the Latin mass will hearken us back to a time where we don’t feel so insecure.

In reality, it’s all about nostalgia. But this very role provided a blanket of secrecy to the bishops, which eventually led to the cover-ups. So it’s clear that something has got to change.

But before we can ever hope for change in the church, we as Catholics have to re-evaluate the role of these traditions and the role of the clergy. This self-reflection is certain to be a difficult task and might force us to give up the traditions we love, but this is one of the central themes of Christianity: The right thing is always hard to do.

Frank Yonkof is a sophomore newspaper journalism major and columnist for the Daily Kent Stater. Contact him at [email protected].