Being Interviewed in Bethlehem on the Birth Narratives of Jesus

Column by Bishop John Shelby Spong on 21 May 2009 0 Comments
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In an interview with Beliefnet, Hans Kung said that the Vatican knew for decades about sexually abusive priests and the Bishops' mishandling of them. In you opinion, why did they allow the situation to continue for so long?


Dear Lancer 92112,

Hans Küng is probably the world's most quoted theologian in the 20th century. A professor of Catholic Theology at the University of Tübingen, he was one of the obvious and clear leaders of the Second Vatican Council that began the Reformation of the Catholic Church under the great Pope John XXIII. He was later removed from the position as Catholic theologian in a purge of liberal thinkers instigated by John Paul II and carried out by Cardinal Josef Ratzinger, who now rules the Vatican as Benedict XVI.

I have read most of his work. I had him lead a clergy conference for the clergy of my diocese shortly after he was purged. I have also attended lectures he gave at Union Theological Seminary in New York. We have eaten meals together on three occasions. I tell you these things to let you know of my great admiration and deep affection for Hans Küng. I also suggest that he knows more about the inner workings of the Roman Catholic Church, so that if he said the things attributed to him in the Beliefnet interview, I would be certain they were accurate.

I am quite certain that sexually abusive priests were well known to Catholic authorities for years. There was a history of bishops and archbishops moving offending clergy to another jurisdiction rather than confronting the issue. My guess is that both the abuse and the cover-up were quite systemic, far more prevalent than has yet been admitted or faced. Perhaps that is the clue to their allowing it to continue. If it was as widespread as we now believe, it must have involved people in high places, including bishops, archbishops and cardinals. A thorough investigation and a complete and honest admission might well have constituted so severe a threat to the life and integrity of that noble institution that they deemed their needs better served by dishonesty rather than honesty, by cover-up rather than admission. Of course, in the long run, the integrity of the Church itself is eroded and the exodus of members that begins as a trickle and ends with a flood.

I do not think Roman Catholic officials have yet understood how many lay people were alienated from the Church by this behavior. Nor do I believe that thus far there has been anything like a full disclosure, so the issue will not end yet. Catholic piety has required the repression of healthy sexuality for service in this institution. Unfortunately, when healthy sexuality is repressed, unhealthy sexuality always rises. Repressed sexuality comes back as pornography and child abuse. Perhaps the place where Rome ought to begin is to ask why sexual abstinence or celibacy is a prerequisite for leadership. I think that is where sickness enters the tradition.

Thanks for raising the issue.

~John Shelby Spong




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