Jennifer Neville, Special to The Catholic Virginian

Speaking at Immaculate Conception Parish, Hampton, Friday, Jan. 18, Massimo Faggioli described the sexual abuse crisis currently rocking the Catholic Church as “the equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis” and “the most serious crisis in the Catholic Church since the Protestant Reformation.” 

Faggioli, a professor of theology and religious studies at Villanova University, spoke as part of the parish’s Bishop Keane Institute lecture series. More than 200 people attended his presentation “The Abuse Crisis and the State of the Catholic Church Today.”

He called the sexual abuse crisis, which exposed a “critical and disturbing failure of leadership” of the bishops, “a real wakeup call” that has caused four key issues to emerge: whether to “decentralize” or maintain the Church’s hierarchy of a strong Vatican, the Church’s reliance on bishops, the role of lay people in the Church and the formation of priests in seminary, an institution which he said has been largely the same since its creation four centuries ago.  

The contemporary sexual abuse crisis is a global problem of a global Church, Faggioli said, noting that reports of sexual abuse of children by clergy have surfaced in Australia, Ireland, India, Germany, France and Spain. 

Allegations were so rampant in Chile that the 30-some bishops there offered to resign, making it the first time in the Catholic Church that a collective episcopate did so. Pope Francis accepted approximately 25 percent of the resignations. 

Allegations of clergy abusing children have surfaced throughout the United States. The former papal ambassador to the United States reacted to the abuse crisis by trying to connect the scandals to “several issues” and calling for Pope Francis’ resignation, Faggioli said. 

“That is the Church equivalent of the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Faggioli asserted. “We never went that close to the whole thing blowing up. And this is a trauma that we are still digesting in the Catholic Church.” 

Catholics are facing the question as to whether the Church today is too large to be managed from Rome. There were roughly 2,800 bishops in the early 1960s. Now there are 5,000, Faggioli estimated. He asserted that Pope Francis “thinks the global Church cannot be run like it was in the 16th century from Rome” and has told bishops to take more responsibility, but they have been slow to do so. He added that Vatican II gave the lay people a bigger role in the Church, but that change has been largely on paper.

Although the Catholic Church in America has rightfully been reproached for mounting charges of child sexual abuse, Faggioli said the country is actually ahead of some others in developing policies to prevent child abuse and to identify it when it does happen. 

But the survival of the Church requires more.

“This work will take a long, long time,” Faggioli said. “It is a very, very delicate moment. It is hard, but it is very necessary.”

Faggioli said Pope Francis is the first pontiff to systematically fire bishops who have been convicted in the secular courts. However, he noted, not adhering to the Church’s “virtue” of “caution and patience” can backfire sometimes as it did when the pope accepted the resignation of an archbishop in Australia who was convicted last summer of failing to report abuse by a priest 40 years ago. The archbishop’s conviction was eventually overturned.

Faggioli likened the contemporary abuse crisis to the severity of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century in that it exposed denial, cover-up and corruption in the Catholic Church and threatens its unity. 

“Our frustration is because we have come to the awareness — intellectual, spiritual, historical — that there has been a massive failure of leadership in the bishops,” Faggioli said. Catholics, he maintained, are “asking more questions” of the hierarchy, especially the papacy, than ever before.

“Our level of tolerance has gone down, and our expectations have gone up,” Faggioli said.