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Sorry Works! Reflections on Catholic Church Sex Abuse Scandal

Over the years, many friends and supporters have said to me that Sorry Works! is applicable beyond medicine. I agree, although every situation is unique.  For example, marriage and other family relationships can certainly benefit from apology.  Yet, I think "sorry" can sometimes be harder with spouses because you're sleeping together, raising kids, fighting over money and in-laws, etc.  Marriage and families are complicated and messy.  Conversely, professional relationships such as doctor-patient typically are more linear and distant, and, overall, more positive aside from the one episode that requires apology.   

My thoughts this week have turned to the Catholic Church and apology. The reports coming out of Pennsylvania are absolutely disgusting. The appalling behavior of the predator priests was compounded by the Church hiring sleazy defense lawyers to terrorize victims. And now the Pope and the Church leadership are saying "sorry" and promising changes. 

What can the Church learn from medicine and the disclosure movement, and what can we learn from the Pope and the priests? 

Victims of medical errors often list improving medicine, learning from the mistake, protecting the next patient, etc as their greatest desire, even ahead of money in many cases.  Saying "sorry" without reform is often meaningless.  How many times have these horrific stories of abuse rocked the Catholic Church, the Pope and other leaders say "sorry" and promise changes, time passes, more scandals erupt, and the process repeats.  In my professional opinion the apologies of Church leaders are quickly becoming meaningless.  Real change is needed.  I think, however, reform can be allusive, and you really have to dig deep to understand which way the needle needs to be pushed, whether you are a church, hospital, or a spouse.  There's a lesson here for all of us...

Before I go further, I will disclose that I was raised ELCA Lutheran Church, but I wasn't strongly connected to my church, then I married a Catholic girl and joined the Catholic Church, only to return to the Lutheran faith.  For me, my time in the Catholic Church taught me why the Reformation was important and is still relevant today. Nonetheless, I pray the Catholic Church rights itself because a strong, credible Catholic Church is not only good for Christianity, but also the world.  Moreover, the words below are not anti-Catholic or Pope bashing.

So often I have heard priests and lay leaders in the Catholic Church extoll how they are now protecting kids.  My son briefly attended a Catholic school and we received a lot of information about how they are keeping kids safe -- everyone had to be checked out.  And Church defenders are always quick to point out that most sex abuse cases are from the past, and, besides, a child can just as easily be molested by a coach, teacher, or the next day neighbor.  All true. However, the Catholic Church truly has no peer for amount of abuse, the size of the systemic cover up, or the number of dollars spent on settlements and legal fees. Yet, I don't believe child sex abuse is the problem in the Catholic Church. In my opinion, it's just a symptom of a deeper problem that begs for real reform.

As many of you know, a few years ago I was asked to serve on the patient safety committee of the hospital system where my brother died from medical errors.  It's a Catholic system.  During most meetings the person sitting next to me was a nun, and we talked about lots of stuff, including celibacy.  I'll never forget her instructive words, "A few men can be celibate and do it well, but most of them it messes up horribly."  

Let's be honest, the sex drive in men is different and more powerful than most women.  It's just how God made us.  Any wonder the vast majority of pornography is marketed to men?  Healthy sexual relationships, most notably marriage, provide a positive outlet for these natural urges.  Absent positive outlets the hormones will too often lead most men to dark and even illegal places.

Father Alberto Cutie, who was known as "Father Oprah" before he left the Catholic priesthood to marry, wrote an instructive book entitled "Dilemma" where he shared, among other things, all the ways celibacy emotionally damages men. Cutie's book and other recent reports from reputable news outlets have cataloged how Catholic priests engage in a wide variety of destructive behavior beyond abusing children: impregnating nuns as well as female parishioners (and then abandoning them and their children), abusing seminarians, addiction to pornography, and other vices and problems.  Cutie's book even tells of one lonely priest who filled his hours by watching countless movies, so much so that the Church didn't want move the fellow to another parish because no one wanted to go to the trouble of packing up all the movies! 

Perhaps the greatest problem is the lack of priests, as many young men and families realize the unhealthy burden of celibacy. The late Father Joseph Girzone, author of the best-selling Joshua series, predicted a four-fold increase in the number of priests if the celibacy rule was made optional or lifted.  Other credible sources have made similar predictions.

The root problem is not the's sexual health of the priests.  This is the reform measure that has been alluding the Catholic Church.  The "sorries" will continue to be meaningless until this issue is honestly discussed and dealt with in a compassionate and common sense fashion.  Peter and the first 39 Popes were married...

I urge my friends in medicine to keep this column in their heads and hearts as they confront problems that require apologies.  Where is the reform really needed? Should the focus be on a particular doctor or nurse and their clinical skills, or are there bigger system problems?  Or are there even larger cultural challenges that are vexing your hospital or nursing home?  Be honest with yourself before you apologize...


- Doug

Doug Wojcieszak, Founder
Sorry Works!
618-559-8168 (direct dial) (direct e-mail address)

Doug Wojcieszak