It wasn’t hard to connect the dots when, after decades of lurid news about the sexual abuse of the young, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger delivered a Good Friday sermon bemoaning “how much filth” was in the church, including “the priesthood.”
Weeks after that signal in 2005, the cardinal became pope. Then at World Youth Day 2008, he said, “I am deeply sorry for the pain and suffering the victims have endured. … These misdeeds, which constitute so grave a betrayal of trust, deserve unequivocal condemnation.”
The pope’s recent letter to Irish Catholics also made headlines, of course. After new cries for repentance, Benedict XVI told the victims: “I know that nothing can undo the wrong you have endured. Your trust has been betrayed and your dignity has been violated. Many of you found that, when you were courageous enough to speak of what happened to you, no one would listen. … It is understandable that you find it hard to forgive or be reconciled with the Church.”
All of these words were spoken in public and, thus, led to debates and discussions around the world. However, in recent months tuned-in Catholics have been reading about a private, strategic statement — by a Catholic layman — that may have had the greatest practical impact in American sanctuaries. The St. Louis Beacon, an independent online newspaper, recently published the document.
The 10-page memo (.pdf here) was written by David Spotanski, vice chancellor of the Diocese of Belleville in Southern Illinois, and given to his bishop on Feb. 22, 2002.
It’s crucial that Bishop Wilton D. Gregory had recently become president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops — just as another wave of abuse reports hit the news. When the bishop began scanning the document, Spotanski took it back and read it aloud, behind closed doors.
“The truth is that our bishops are not doing all they CAN to stop sexual abuse of minors by their brother priests; they’re doing all they CARE TO,” wrote Spotanski. “Like most Catholics I’m stunned and horrified that there’s a distinction. … For a Church that can be so outspoken and uncompromising about the splinters in the eyes of our culture, She has apparently for decades hypocritically concealed a plank in Her own eye from which one could hew an ark.”
In addition to handing the bishop the memo, Spotanski provided a photo of his daughter and two sons, who were 14, 11 and 9 when it was taken. He then placed a copy of the photo in Gregory’s briefcase before every major meeting the bishop attended that year — including a face-to-face meeting between Pope John Paul II and the president of the U.S. Catholic bishops. Gregory also met with Cardinal Ratzinger and other top Vatican officials.
This led to a crucial Vatican summit on the abuse crisis and, eventually, much tougher policies to protect children in American churches.
While that charter didn’t take every action advised by Spotanski, noted commentator Ross Douthat, it’s safe to say that “while the princes of the American church were immobilized by denial … the rough draft of the policy that righted the ship was being written by a middle-aged layman in the Midwest, in consultation with the Catholic dads on his local softball team.”
The New York Times columnist, who is an active Catholic, called Spotanski, the “man who saved American Catholicism.”
If so, the key to the memo was its blunt, personal tone and its emphasis on the damage done to the lives and faith of ordinary Catholic children and their parents. For example, Spotanski asked, what Jesus would say to a cardinal who has “shown himself to be dishonest about his knowledge of the forcible anal rape of children?” He then quoted a bishop as observing, “I don’t think I’d like hell very much.”
Most of all, he argued, Catholic bishops needed to start thinking about their own vows and the church’s future and, thus, stop treating victims like “lepers, sinners, nuisances or threats.” At some point, faithful Catholics would close their hearts and their checkbooks.
When that happened, warned Spotanski, bishops in “tainted dioceses” would have to “choose between their missions and their mansions, their food buses and their limousines, the ‘least of their brothers’ and Brooks Brothers. … The depleted bottom line is that you simply can’t run a major American archdiocese for very long on 30 silver coins.”