Offices of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Harrisburg, Pa. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
Columnist

The crisis of the Catholic Church is not a matter for Catholics only.

Love it or hate it — or anywhere in between — this is one of the most important, influential institutions in world history, with boots on the ground in every corner of the world. Its good works are monumental. No agency, I suspect, has built more schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, orphanages and clinics. No patron has inspired and endowed more masterpieces of music, art, architecture and literature.

Its scandals and sins are monumental as well; no adequate accounting of the past millennium could be written without the Reformation, the Inquisition or the trial of Galileo. That’s why the voluminous report by the Pennsylvania grand jury on coverups of alleged sexual assaults by priests is so important.

Nothing in the report, not even the child pornography or the sadism, is new. Attentive Catholics and outside observers have been reading about clergy abuse and scofflaw bishops since the 1980s, when investigative reporter Jason Berry exposed the scandal of a serial molester in the diocese of Lafayette, La. Paul Hendrickson, then of The Post, detailed his own experience of sexual humiliation as a teenager while training to be a priest in his 1983 memoir “Seminary.” Journalist Carl Cannon wrote presciently in 1987: “The church’s reluctance to address the problem is a time bomb waiting to detonate within American Catholicism.”

What the grand jury added was a sweeping documentation of the ubiquity of the abuse culture. The report could have made it clearer that in all six of the dioceses investigated, a majority of priests have carried out their ministries without offense. What is crystal clear, however, is that hiding credible accusations of sexual assault — even at the risk of enabling future rapes of other children — was routine business, year after year and decade after decade, for bishops in every corner of the state.

We already had a sense of this corrupted hierarchy. Some of the most prominent church leaders of the past two generations have been exposed for their complicity in protecting offenders: Cardinal Bernard Law in Boston, Cardinal Roger Mahoney in Los Angeles, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia and his predecessor, Cardinal John Krol, and so on. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, former head of the archdiocese of Washington, recently resigned from the College of Cardinals after multiple accusations of abuse were lodged against him.

These were among the most powerful men in the church; what was known and done by them was of course known, and thus condoned, by their colleagues and superiors in Rome. As the scandal has spread around the world — the victims finding their voices in many languages and dozens of countries, from Australia to Chile, Ireland to Tanzania — a conclusion has become inescapable: This great church, so charitable in so many ways, has been morally blind.

I don’t mean the hundreds of millions of lay Catholics around the world. Their awareness of this problem has grown slowly but steadily from hushed whispers a half-century ago to a mighty roar of outrage in response to the Pennsylvania grand jury. Things have reached the point where proposals to boycott the collection plate are being aired even in the conservative National Catholic Register. “As a Church hierarchy, we have worn on folks’ last nerve,” writes Monsignor Charles Pope of Washington.

It is church leadership, from the popes all the way down, that hasn’t been able to tell right from wrong. Yet how can this be, in an institution at least nominally dedicated to precisely that task? I think there are two interrelated reasons.

The first is an age-old problem. Since its alliance with the Roman Emperor Constantine in the 4th century, the Catholic hierarchy has been tempted by power. It has cloaked itself in mystery to rule by edict rather than by example. At root, this scandal springs from idolatry: Bishops employ secrecy and deceit to promote the heresy that the priesthood is superior to the people in the pews. The words of John A. Hardon, a Jesuit priest, are as true now as when he wrote them 20 years ago: “Most of the chaos in the Catholic Church today is due to the pride of priests.”

The second is the church’s unfortunate negative obsession with sex — a problem it shares with many conservative Protestant congregations. To a broken world they offer a gospel of no-nos. The church exalts, from the Virgin Mary to the parish priest, the sexless life, as though the very engine of God’s creation were a sign of spiritual failure and source of shame.

The Galilean who preached “love your neighbor,” “suffer the children,” “judge not” and “the Kingdom of God is within you” would weep to read the grand jury’s report. The question for church leaders: Will their response continue to serve their own interests, or, at long last, serve His?

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.