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Kathleen Sprows Cummings says the Catholic Church needs wholesale radical transformation

I often use a handy metaphor to explain to my students how feminists have historically differed among themselves in their approaches to bringing about change in patriarchal institutions. Some feminists seek a place at the table; others want to reset the table. The former hope to promote gradual progress from within an existing framework of norms and organizational structures; the latter demand nothing less than radical, wholesale reform.

When it comes to the Roman Catholic Church, I have always been a “place at the table” kind of feminist. When asked how to integrate women more fully into the life of the church, I offer reasonable strategies. Bishops could, for example, recognize that the call for leadership might flow as much from the sacrament of baptism as from that of ordination, and appoint more women to leadership positions at all levels of church governance.

Tuesday’s grand jury report about clerical sexual abuse in Pennsylvania has changed my mind. The sickening revelations — over 1,000 victims, more than 300 priests, 70 years of cover-ups — have propelled me directly to the center of the “reset the table” camp. We need to rip off the tablecloth, hurl the china against a wall and replace the crystal with something less ostentatious, more resilient and, for the love of God, safer for children. 

Long before I was a historian and a professor, I was a child in the Archdiocese of Philadelphia. The parish and the schools and the priests and the sisters formed me as a person of faith. I am still blessed by the grace of all the many sacraments I received there: baptism, first communion and then twice-weekly Eucharist, regular confession, a memorable confirmation (during the blizzard of 1983) and many years later, matrimony. I treasure memories of equally sacramental moments experienced during annual service trips, weekly volleyball games of the Catholic Youth Organization and daily laughter-filled conversations with the boys and girls who became lifelong friends.

In 2005 a grand jury report from Philadelphia tainted those memories, naming as it did two sexually abusive priests who had served at my parish and several more who taught at my high school. Even in the midst of so much grace, it turned out, sin had abounded, and I wept for the victims, who had been my classmates and neighbors.

Tuesday’s grand jury report, which involves six other Pennsylvania dioceses, has also devastated me personally. Many names are familiar: I attended college in one diocese, and have researched and written about two others. Above all, I know Pennsylvania Catholics, who are generally more inclined than Catholics from elsewhere to place Father or Monsignor or Bishop on a pedestal and deem him above criticism or even suspicion. The consequences of gullibility, to our shame, are made manifest in the report.

I mourned privately 13 years ago, but today I state publicly that the church must come to terms with the sins of its past and reform itself so thoroughly that they will never be repeated in the future. People can point out, and they surely will, that the Catholic Church has not cornered the market on sexual abuse of children and young people. Yes, I realize that. Nonetheless, it is clear that the scale of the abuse is magnified in an institution whose leaders time and again chose self-preservation over the protection of the most vulnerable people entrusted to their care. ...

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