Is there hope for real change in the Church?

As hard as it is to acknowledge, it seems inevitable that those from whom we expect more will sometimes fail us. Our leaders are flawed; so are we. We are tempted to protect our own interests, to close our eyes and ears to suffering. We fail to take action; we are slow to take responsibility.

The Centre for Child Protection has followed the difficult news of these days. Last summer, the theme of the annual Anglophone Safeguarding Conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University focused on hope: Is there hope for victims? Is there hope for offenders? Pope Francis’ infelicitous words – experienced as a “slap” by those who have suffered abuse – during his recent visit to Chile might give rise to another question: Is there hope for real change in the Church?

Pope Francis apologized for insisting that victims present “proof” of cover-up by Bishop Juan Barros, admitting that this had caused further pain for people who have been sexually abused. Although the pope still stands by Barros’s innocence, holding that no victims have presented him with evidence of the Chilean bishop’s guilt, he has expressed regret for his choice of words and asked forgiveness for inflicting an unintended wound. He has admitted to having failed the expectations of abuse survivors.

Surveying the multiple disappointments that we witness in the Church – hurting words, poor decisions, stonewalled appointments, obstructed efforts, inadequate policies, outdated models of formation – we may be tempted to despair, to believe that as a Church we don’t really get it. In the face of disheartening news, how can we move forward? How can we work for institutional change? Such questions are legitimate, but they can carry us into depression and, as St. Ignatius of Loyola would call it, spiritual desolation. In his rules for discernment, St. Ignatius reminds us that we will struggle as long as we live, but with renewed effort we shall continue and improve.

Failure, therefore, is also an opportunity to reassess where we are in our safeguarding efforts, to re-focus our energies, and to recommit to our goals. The alternative is to abandon hope and give up. We have always known that transformation is a long, arduous journey, and cultural change in the oldest and largest institution in this world, the Catholic Church, will take many years, maybe a generation or more. Failures along the way are inevitable, but we can allow them to motivate us to strive for more focused and consistent efforts, entrusting them and ourselves to the Lord of salvation.