March 11, 2019

LEE | The Need for Fundamental Reform in the Catholic Church

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Anger, sorrow, disbelief — these were just some of the emotions I felt upon receiving news that our university’s Catholic chaplain Father Carsten Martensen received allegations for sexual abuse of a minor in the 1970s. To any other individual, this may have been just one of the many recent attestations of the Roman Catholic clergy’s sexual abuse cases. Yet, I had never personally experienced, nor did I ever expect, such allegations arising from within my very own community. The news came as an utter shock and disturbance — to think that the chaplain who had provided significant guidance and wisdom throughout my time here at Cornell may have possibly exploited a child and kept silent for all these years.

Catholicism has been an important part of my life, especially at Cornell. In all honesty, my knowledge on the Bible and of the religion itself is deficient, but being a part of the Catholic community has in many ways enabled me to grow and overcome difficulties throughout the years. I was able to find peace of mind through praying and seeking guidance from a higher being, and I had looked forward to Father Carsten’s positive energy attending mass each week.

So, I deliberated over and over again whether to write about an issue that so personally affects me and my loved ones. But I believe that not speaking up is nothing short of condoning misdeeds. Instead of turning a blind eye or remaining silent, members within the community must demand immediate action to resolve the larger problem of a culture that has sustained such acts. The issue of sexual abuse among Catholic priests and its cover-up have long disserviced the original purpose of the church — far beyond this specific allegation.

The Catholic Church’s response to cases of sexual abuse has been meek so far. For the past several decades, claims have continued to emerge worldwide. One of the most recent large-scale cases involves the Pennsylvania Catholic Church’s cover-up of over 300 priests who had victimized more than 1,000 victims during a span of 70 years. Such news illuminates the process and culture through which sexual misconduct has been disregarded or tacitly permitted. Priests are safeguarded by an institution that conceals cases of sexual misconduct time and time again, so as to protect the abuser more so than the victim.

Last month, the Vatican held its first-ever summit on sexual abuse, a milestone amidst the church’s lukewarm responses that have failed to openly rectify or even discuss the issue. Pope Francis’s address in the four-day summit focused on the present day, acknowledging the matter in question as a serious and pertinent call for present-day resolutions. Yet, his statements were disappointing in many ways — as he provided guidelines calling for a change of mentality and stronger rules, but laid out few concrete measures for fundamental reform. To the dismay of many Catholics, he did not take definitive actions such as the church-wide dismissal of abusive priests and bishops who conceal sexual abuse cases.

The Catholic Church must seek progressive measures and put an end to the power relations that sustain a culture of dominance and avoidance of uncomfortable matters. A practicable first step may be supporting state legislation lifting the statute of limitations for sexual abuse cases specifically involving minors. The church must scrutinize and look into all possible options to determine which course of action would be most suitable to tangibly stop the implicit allowance of abuse.

I hope that the Cornell Catholic Community and Diocese of Rochester will react promptly and righteously to these horrifying allegations of sinful acts, as the church so preaches. I, like many other Catholics, appreciate that the matter has been revealed to the public instead of being covered up, which has been the case for so many priest abuse claims. If true, the abuser ought to never fully be absolved of his crime, as the victim will never wholly recover from the trauma. I urge the Diocese to thoroughly investigate and continue to work with both sides to reveal the truth. I further implore our faith community to ensure taking serious reformative measures to prevent sexual abuse, especially against minors, regardless of the outcome of this specific allegation.

DongYeon (Margaret) Lee is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. She can be reached at margaretlee@cornellsun.com. Here, There, Everywhere appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.