Priests know what it's like to enter the pulpit facing scriptures that appear to have been torn from the headlines.
That happened just the other day, with news that one of America's most powerful Catholics -- retired Archbishop Theodore McCarrick of Washington, D.C. -- had been accused of the sexual abuse of boys, as well as decades of seminarians.
Days later the Sunday Mass lectionary featured the Prophet Jeremiah, speaking for Jehovah: "Woe to the shepherds who mislead and scatter the flock of my pasture."
That reminded Father John Hollowell of the Archdiocese of Indianapolis of even stronger words from St. John Chrysostom, the early church's most celebrated orator: "The road to hell is paved with the skulls of erring priests, with bishops as their signposts."
Priests who took their vows during the clergy sexual abuse scandals a decade or so ago thought that they had heard it all, said Hollowell.
Now, with hellish reports about McCarrick the "wound in the church continues to be infected and it oozes with fresh pus. … Everyone says the same stuff -- that everybody knew, and nobody knew what to do about it, and nobody knew who to tell and there's a fresh trail of people discovered to have been destroyed by his crimes and his actions," he said, in a sermon posted online.
What happens now? While many powerful voices in the American church remained silent, or offered public-relations talk, several bishops in smaller dioceses wrote urgent letters to their flocks.
Bishop Michael Olson of the Diocese of Fort Worth (.pdf here) focused on this stunning fact: One of the men accusing McCarrick of years of abuse had been the first child he baptized after his ordination as a priest.
Yes, the Vatican removed McCarrick from public ministry. Yes, Pope Francis accepted his resignation from the College of Cardinals and ordered him into seclusion and a life of prayer and penance. But new allegations keep emerging about this man's sins and crimes, noted Olson.
"The evil effects of these actions were multiplied by the fact that financial settlements were arranged with victims without transparency" or restrictions on McCarrick's ministry, wrote Olson. Thus, the "alleged crimes of the former Cardinal have caused such further damage to the integrity of the hierarchy and mission of the Church that his prompt reduction canonically to the laity should be strongly deliberated. …
"Justice also requires that all of those in Church leadership who knew of the former Cardinal's alleged crimes and sexual misconduct and did nothing be held accountable."
If Catholics have learned anything from this scandal -- especially reports of systemic abuse of seminarians -- it is that priests must reject "third way" fantasies offering a compromise between marriage and their vows of celibacy, argued Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of Albany, N.Y.
"As clearly and directly as I can repeat our Church teaching, it is a grave sin to be 'sexually active' outside of a real marriage covenant. A cardinal is not excused from what a layperson or another member of the clergy is not," wrote Scharfenberger.
"There is no 'third way.' 'Sexual activity' includes grooming and seduction. … The psychological and spiritual destructiveness of such predatory behavior, really incestuous by a man who is held up as a spiritual father to a son in his care," cannot be minimized.
A doctor in his diocese, he added, said it may be time to close the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops since its "credibility is shot, probably for decades."
In his sermon, Father Hollowell said church leaders -- in Rome and in America -- will mull their options. But the crucial question is what he will do as a priest, and what the faithful will choose to do.
"I'm not even sure I can say I fault people who leave," he said. "But I want to challenge … you to run back into the building that is on fire and help put it out and help rebuild. I don't fault you if these past 17 years have made you seriously question your Catholic faith -- it certainly has made me question mine."
But Catholics at all levels of church life, he said, must realize that "I can still be a saint as a Catholic layperson, even if some in the hierarchy of the church are living completely morally bankrupted lives."