Christine Schenk

(WOMENSENEWS)–Continuing allegations of sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests that are met with denial, reassignment and confidential legal settlements by some bishops appear to be adding urgency to Catholic women’s calls for greater diversity and participation in church decision-making.

The current abuse scandal began in January, when the Boston Globe reported on court documents in the child-molestation trial of now ex-priest John Geoghan. The documents indicated that Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law knew for at least 16 years of repeated complaints that Geoghan had sexually abused children, yet reassigned the priest to six different parishes.

Since then, additional sexual abuse allegations against priests from the past 30 years, including many in once-confidential legal settlements, have emerged across the United States and abroad. Angered by the apparent failure of the U.S. bishops’ 1992 guidelines for handling abuse allegations, which promised prompt, open responses and relieving the offender of his duties, some Catholics see the current scandal as the failure of a secretive and isolated leadership.

They say that bishops have taken sole responsibility for handling abusers for decades and during those years too many children were damaged by priest-offenders. These reformers want women, parents, and psychiatric professionals involved in handling abuse allegations, as well as mandatory reporting to legal authorities even when the law does not require it.

Kathleen Pruitt, president of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, which represents the 76,000 nuns in the United States, says her membership is deeply troubled and saddened by the suffering and violation of the victims, the acts of the perpetrators, “the institutional church’s pattern of silence,” false allegations and eroded trust in the church.

Nuns Call for More Openness

On April 5, the nuns’ conference called for “openness, radical honesty and transparency” in response to the abuse allegations, an apparent plea to bishops to reveal all they know and work with parishioners in stopping abuse.

More activist Catholic groups advocate a more aggressive response.

“I think what this crisis points to is, we need to take back the church,” says Christine Schenk, director of FutureChurch, a Cleveland-based coalition of 4,000 American Catholics who want to open the priesthood to women and married men and to provide educational materials offering theological support for diversity.

“Catholic church leadership rests solely in the hands of celibate men. What I think has happened historically is a massive ‘not-dealing’ with sexuality in a healthy way,” says Schenk, a member of the Sisters of St. Joseph. “So women and anything having to do with women are verboten; women, and men married to women, can’t be ordained.”

Conservative Catholics such as William Donohue, president of the Catholic League, a group formed to resist anti-Catholic bias, and former U.S. presidential candidate Patrick Buchanan have expressed outrage at the current abuse revelations, but have argued that a stronger emphasis on celibacy, rather than the ordination of women and married men, will prevent future abuses.

Women were prominent ministers in the early centuries of Christianity but, as the religion gained power and prominence in the patriarchal Roman Empire, women’s leadership became less acceptable, historians say. Eventually, a church faction consolidated power and began removing women from leadership. Since the 12th century, the priesthood has been restricted to celibate men.

Priest Shortages Also a Reason for Change

Currently, 27 percent of U.S. Catholic parishes do not have a priest in residence, a stark contrast to the 10 percent in 1996, a 2000 study by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reports. The numbers reflect a similar shortage worldwide, says Schenk. FutureChurch members have presented such information to American churches in their calls to open the priesthood to all who are baptized, not just celibate men.

FutureChurch and other groups argue that church leaders should look like people in the pews.

“We should have at least 50 percent female priests and the same percentage of married priests as we do married people in our congregations. Until we get to that point, we will continue to have things out of balance,” says Schenk, adding that decision-makers with more experience with children may have stopped abusers’ access to them sooner.

“I think a lot of these decisions,” she says of secrecy and reassigning abusers, “were made from the point of view of people who had never been parents.”

“The exclusion of the feminine perspective is not the way I hope we’ll continue as a Catholic community,” Schenk adds.

Six years ago, Pope John Paul II, who appoints all bishops, stated that women’s ordination was not to be discussed, as the church would never permit it. Nearly every bishop has since avoided public statements on the issue, according to Call To Action, a Chicago-based group of 25,000 Catholic parishioners, nuns and clergy members advocating for reforms including a diverse priesthood.

Women Gaining Many Responsibilities, Little Power

Some progress has been made, says Schenk. In the great majority of U.S. dioceses, women have gained influence, taking on leadership positions whenever and wherever they are allowed.

“There are just 47,075 priests in the U.S.; there are twice as many women ministers,” Schenk says. Ministers tend to the bereaved, lead communion services and perform duties not reserved for priests. Eighty-five percent of all Catholic chaplains are now women, says Schenk, responding to needs unmet by a diminishing number of priests.

While women and married men serve as parish ministers and chaplains, only priests may perform the Mass and perform other scared rituals, known as sacraments, such as hearing confessions. And only priests may become bishops, cardinals and popes.

The Leadership Conference of Women Religious released a report in March showing that women’s responsibilities in the church have been increasing in recent years, even to the point of advising some bishops on finance and policy. But the report notes that women remain absent from top posts such as the priesthood.

Change Must Come from Parishioners

“Change in the church has always been from the bottom up,” says Linda Pieczynski, a spokeswoman for Call To Action, which has lobbied for using more inclusive, less sexist language in prayer. Although some Catholic bishops supported changing prayers in response to the group’s request, the Vatican denied those changes. Several conservative bishops do not permit Call To Action to meet on church property.

“This is the time for people at the grassroots to start demanding answers. A lot of priests want to talk about this too,” says Pieczynski, urging Catholics to ask their bishops to make public their abuse policies and financial information on any settlements. Church assets, such as schools and churches, are owned by the local bishop, not the congregation, making financial accountability more difficult.

As frustrated as some women are with the leadership of the Catholic Church, they are not about to give up on it.

“The great saints of the past didn’t leave, they stuck in,” says Pieczynski. “I’ve had a wonderful education by wonderful nuns and priests. It is how you look at church: Is it the hierarchy in Rome or is it the people? It’s everybody.”

Suzanne Batchelor has also written for, WebMD, “Healthline Texas” and the National Science Foundation series “Earth and Sky.”

For more information:

Call To Action:


Leadership Conference of Women Religious: