Excommunicating the Pope

A Catholic friend of mine and I were discussing the act of excommunication recently.  He believes that the Church ought to exercise its right to excommunicate people more often, not for punishment’s sake alone, but as a necessary act to call for repentance and reconciliation.  He believes the Church should be able to say when someone has stepped out of bounds so that the person can be lovingly called back into community.

When described in this way, I can understand excommunication as a step in the process of reconciliation. We are required to speak the truth in love to one another, not to punish, but to restore.  This is particularly poignant during the season of Lent, when frankly, we spend six weeks similarly excommunicating ourselves by recognizing our own need for repentance and reconciliation.  My problem, as it relates to my Catholic friend’s Church structure, is that excommunication only goes one way.  What happens when the Pope needs to be excommunicated?

I didn’t ask this question in abstraction.  Quite seriously, I feel that as a fellow Jesus follower, I could have provided ample reason to have excommunicated Pope John Paul II (as beloved as he was, for a good many reasons).  His utter lack of responsibility and accountability in dealing with the issues of clergy sexual abuse is worthy of every form of excommunication we could imagine.  If as Pope his job is to uphold the values and theology of the Church, then he failed in every possible way.  There is nothing about his actions that show a value for the sanctity of human life  for which the Catholic Church is so honorably known.

With a heavy heart, I fear I may have to say the same about Pope Benedict.  As you may have heard, the same scandals that made headlines in the US are surfacing in Ireland, Australia, Canada, and the Pope’s home country of Germany.  News articles like this one and this one raise these questions once again- WHY is the Catholic Church turning a blind eye to these victims?  WHY are these priests being moved from one diocese to another, where they repeat the same crimes upon a new batch of innocent child victims?  WHY are our Catholic brothers and sisters not doing something to hold their religious authority figures accountable?


Or, consider this:  when a car company was recently faced with the mounting evidence of a threat to human life,  despite their initial lack of thoroughness, they have now responded far more than the Catholic Church has, with far less evidence.   If Toyota can respond in such a manner (at no small financial cost to the company at what could be the worst possible economic moment), what does this say about the Church’s lethargic, even defiant reluctance?  Does Toyota have a higher moral code than the Vatican?  Does a for-profit global corporation have a structure more capable of responding to the endangerment of human life than all of Rome?

Sunday night I attended a candlelight vigil to stand with victims of clergy sexual abuse whose stories are surfacing around the world.  Many in attendance had suffered abuse at the hands of American clergy, and I was humbled by their bravery to give voice to their experience even as their own Church so vehemently denies it.  (Read this article from just yesterday.)  I was also deeply saddened, as I witnessed the eyes of those who fear that history will keep on repeating itself because no one seems willing to call for change.

As if the devastating effects of clergy sexual abuse are not enough, will we make them stand isolated in their suffering, with no intention toward justice or reconciliation in sight?  Who in the Church will call these priests and authority figures out of bounds by their actions (and unwillingness to act) so that they can be called back into rightful Christian community?

I was fortunate to meet Lisa Kendzior, the DFW leader for SNAP (Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) on Sunday night.  If you know of anyone who has suffered clergy sexual abuse in the Catholic church or elsewhere, Lisa and SNAP are fantastic resources for healing and grace.  You can email her at lisa.kendzior@verizon.net and find out monthly meeting information.


  1. Wonderfully written.
    And, again, thank you for standing with us. As damaging as the silence is, these moments where we can have a voice are incredibly healing and empowering.

  2. John ThurmanMarch 16, 2010 at 1:47 pm

    Danielle, have you heard from a Catholic priest going prison for committing these crimes? I have not read a story that asserts as much. If anyone has any information on this, then I would like the opportunity to view this material. Audrey, my wife, and I were recently in Ireland when the sexual abuse scandal broke there. The scandal has rocked the entire country’s faith. The newspapers there contained graphic information on decades of abuse at many locations. It was interesting to dissect the view of Irish with respect to what is reported here in the United States. Danielle, I did not mean to break away from your original message. And as Sarah mentioned above, your message is beautifully written and powerful in its voice.

  3. John ThurmanMarch 16, 2010 at 1:48 pm

    Correction to my first sentence from above. It should have read, “Danielle, have you heard of a Catholic priest going to prison for committing these crimes?”
    I apologize for my lack of proofreading.

  4. Hey John,

    I didn’t know you guys were visiting Ireland during that time. And yes, from the stories I have heard, they are absolutely heartbreaking and unconscionable. You bring up a really good point, which is part of the problem I didn’t address- the Church has managed to “settle” all of these matters “internally” which has kept them immune from public legal forums. Pope John Paul II decided to try the accused priests in private, and then provided no information about what (or whether) steps for discipline or reconciliation were taken. From what I can tell, the majority of the time the priest is reassigned to another diocese which is kept in the dark about his previous history. As you know, this kind of thing would NEVER FLY in public courts or our own neighborhoods, but somehow the Church is holding enough power to keep our public officials at arm’s length. When I say it’s a crisis of justice, I absolutely mean it. (There is a ton of specific info at the Snap website, too, if you are interested.)

  5. John ThurmanMarch 16, 2010 at 8:36 pm

    Thank you Danielle!

    I will definitely look into the SNAP website. We thought about keeping the Dublin newspaper that had dedicated a large section of its print to the scandal, but we did not. Actually, I am going to search for it on-line now. If I find it, then I will send it to you.

    Thanks again for writing on this issue.

  6. Gene JanowskiMarch 17, 2010 at 6:38 am

    “He believes the Church should be able to say when someone has stepped out of bounds so that the person can be lovingly called back into community.” Reminds me of the story of the man who kept hitting himself on the head with a hammer because it felt so good when he stopped.

  7. TomassoTucsonMarch 17, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    I get the feeling that the time is close by, when the pope and bishops, keeping their fingers in the hole to keep the truth from coming out, is not going to do it.

  8. this just came across my reader yesterday. thought it was fitting for this blog entry. http://andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com/the_daily_dish/2010/03/truth-to-power.html

  9. Well said blog. The Pope has not handeled these accusations very well at all and the fact that you bring up Toyota is very interesting. Isn’t it quite embarassing to know that a for profit company like Toyota is more ethical in handeling their safety issues than the Catholic church? As a Catholic I am appalled at the way the leaders of the church have so mishandeled these sex offenders. These priests should’ve been punished not moved around to continue thier crime.

    I feel very sorry for the victims and I hope that the Catholic church takes this as an oppurtunity to make some major changes in the church, once and for all!!

  10. I do too, Linda! Reconciliation requires first the admission of guilt before peace can be possible. I wish those who say this is a “slander campaign” would realize that the truth is trying to come out, and only in acknowledging it openly can any victim or perpetrator find God’s justice.

  11. This has been exactly the answers I was searching for. Remarkable blog. Exceptionally inspirational! The posts are so helpful and also detailed. The links you have are also very beneficial too. Thanks a lot :)

  12. Pope Benedict called for all Priests to be subject to the jurisdictions they are within and the laws of those societies. Pope John Paul II trod the world in order to right wrongs and to spread the message of the Gospel the way it should be spread, in firmness of mind, but with love.

    It is not for the Pope to interfere in individual state affairs, or the law of those lands, ‘yes’ mistakes were made, yes very many made them, but hysteria is not the answer. A cursory look at times gone by doesn’t necessitate making the Church a bullseye, unless one would want to make it such? There are legions of Catholics who were never abused, but have fabulous childhoods, and legions more ready to comfort the downtrodden and those let down and no doubt.

    As Catholics, we render onto Ceasar that which is Ceasars, the ‘law’ has apparently let people down vastly too no? – ‘people’ have let people down, families let members down – the truth is sometimes more detailed than first glance opinion.

    The Pope cannot incarcerate somebody in Austria from Rome – only the Austrians can, and ‘this’ he has called for, for them to be fully answerable to any jurisdiction that convicts in a court of law. He also, like his predecessor apologised publicly, but no apology will do. The hyberbole insofar as Church authority is concerned is a little unbelievable. So too, is the people who see something to lynch when there was nothing they didn’t find in their very own sights.

    The problem is that people didn’t recognise Peadophilia for what it is, and had a tendancy to forgive – this is not uncommon among family members, even if it is horrific. If the Church serves to highlight this folly – well the investigations will be worth every heart broken Catholic person who stays the path, and is sneered at and jeered at as a peadophile enabler at this moment by their adversaries who never bothered looking in the mirror.

  13. Colette, the problem is that Pope John Paul II and numerous cardinals and archbishops have personally shielded abusive priests from the law of the land, as ample investigative work has uncovered. Cardinal Law is only the most infamous case, being removed to Vatican City by the Pope in order to prevent him from being prosecuted for his crimes. In Ireland, the majority of bishops have been personally implicated in the cover-ups, and are *still* engaging in coverups, with the most recent proven cases being *this year*.

    At some point it becomes obvious that the hierarchy is involved in a concerted conspiracy to protect child abusers. The Vatican’s chief exorcist now says that “the devil is at work in the Vatican”.

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