TORONTO — The unprecedented resignation and public apology of a Roman Catholic archbishop in Newfoundland in the wake of a major sex scandal has reinvigorated debate across North America over whether priests should be celibate and has intensified calls for greater lay powers in the governance of the church.
The scandal now unfolding in St. John's, the provincial capital of Newfoundland, is the biggest of its kind in North American church history: 20 priests, former priests and Catholic lay workers have been charged or convicted of molesting altar boys, orphans and other children.
"The church seems now at a point of crisis," says Teresa Wedoff, a spokeswoman for the reformist Catholic group Call to Action, who has been following the Canadian sex scandal and considering its broader implications.
"There are almost two churches evolving," Wedoff says; one in favor of "laying down the law" on controversial matters of sexuality, and the other "saying times have changed and you can't go back to the past."
This week in St. John's, 65-year-old Archbishop Alphonsus Penney put the tension between the two groups into bold relief, submitting his resignation to Pope John Paul II and admitting he had turned a willfully blind eye to widespread reports of sexual abuse of the young by local clergymen under his authority. There are no allegations of sexual misconduct involving Penney himself, merely charges that he covered up the illicit behavior of others.
The archbishop's resignation was all but forced this week when a five-member commission, impaneled by Penney last year to study the charges, issued a 700-page report calling the church's handling of the matter "un-Christian . . . weak, defensive and unworthy of the church."
The report noted that Penney had once accused a mother of spreading malicious gossip when she complained that a priest had molested her infant son, and it concluded that "church officials aligned themselves with the accused."
The commission's public rebuke of the archbishop marks a dramatic departure from the church's normal practice of investigating and, where necessary, sanctioning its own in private. Of the five panel members, only two--a priest and a nun--were clergy. The others were a philosophy professor, a social worker and a former lieutenant governor--not the sort normally given to toppling archbishops.
"That's not happened anywhere," says Richard Sipe, a Baltimore psychotherapist and former priest who expects to publish the first major scientific study of priestly celibacy this fall. "This is unique. I think it truly is precedent-setting, in that people will recognize that they have some power."
Archbishop Penney's response was equally dramatic. In announcing that he had sent his resignation to Rome, the senior cleric apologized to Newfoundland Catholics, adding: "We are a sinful church. We are naked. Our anger, our pain, our anguish, our shame are clear to the whole world."
Penney will continue as archbishop until Pope John Paul II rules on his resignation. Most observers expect the Pope to accept it.
Meanwhile, police in Newfoundland are trying to decide whether Penney violated a Canadian law requiring anyone aware of a child caught in an abusive situation to alert child welfare authorities.
The sex abuse scandal, which began to come under official scrutiny in 1987, has rocked the rural and predominantly Catholic province of Newfoundland, where priests have traditionally numbered among the best educated, best traveled and most respected members of many communities. Church attendance has reportedly declined since the investigations began, and some adolescents say they no longer want to make their first Holy Communion.
Some local priests and parishioners--as well as church activists across the continent--say that Newfoundland's painful example demonstrates as never before the need for an overhaul of the ancient church structures that leave bishops accountable to no one but the far-away Pope.
"Archbishops and bishops are answerable only to the Holy See in Rome," says Jeff Anderson, a Minnesota lawyer who is handling sex abuse cases against the church in eight American states. "There is a crisis in the Catholic Church, one that goes from coast to coast, and one reason for the crisis is this lack of accountability."
Anderson and others specializing in sexual ethics and the church say the Newfoundland scandal echoes a number of isolated sex abuse charges against priests in the United States and Canada. Typically in these cases, they say, bishops have dealt with the problem by quietly moving the offending priest out of his own parish--and into another, unsuspecting one.
"It's like a sexual Watergate," says Jason Berry, author of a forthcoming book on the sexual conflicts of Catholic clergymen. "I'm a Catholic, and I couldn't imagine a lot of these things until I started doing this book."