Sacred Silence has much to say. The body as "playground" was a metaphor used by one priest in justifying his sexual interest in a young male. It is, he went on to say, the "soul" that counts. This is a chilling line of reasoning. Cozzens' thesis is the Church's first challenge is to breakthrough the "wall of denial and silence" that has surrounded the issue of sexual abuse. Sacred Silence, to use President Reagan's phrase, is trying to "tear down that wall." The first part of the book identifies the factors that have motivated "denial" on the part of the clergy (institutional dynamics play a key role here) and the ways that silence has manifested itself, including a brief, but fascinating discussion of the failed efforts of African nuns to generate a dialogue on abuse when they first raised it in 1995. The remainder of the book focuses on potential reforms. Much of the problem stems, in Cozzens' view, from the tradition of celibacy itself. This tradition, he thinks, merits serious re-examination, as do other factors, including an expanded role for women and a revised, more representative process for selecting Bishops.
What disturbed me about Cozzens was not his substantive thesis, but his timid style. Here he runs the risk of sending the wrong signal to church authorities. He recognizes that there is a systemic problem here; that priests, insofar as they have been involved in the abuse of minors, have overwhelmingly selected teenage boys as opposed to girls and; that, more often than not, far too little was done to protect the children themselves (as opposed to the offending priest, as William F. Buckley has observed). With all this, it would seem incumbent on the Church to study carefully the mental rationalizations used by abusing priests, and flat-out irresponsible not to do so. Cozzens is clear, but still stepping carefully when he states: "The results of such studies would be distrubing... yet [are] essential to any long-term resolution." And, "Now is the time for the church to address with compassion and sensitivity a reality it wants to deny.." And, "it is time to tell the truth in love." All this is, of course, correct; the problem is that it is obviously correct. As citizens, Catholics would respond as quickly and as decisvely as non-Catholics to child abuse at a local public school. Recurring abuse and heads would roll, including those on the school board. In this area, it seems, the law is more advanced the institution's moral sensibility. The problem of abuse that the Church faces in the U.S. has, by all indications, been significantly under-estimated in Rome. What's lacking in Cozzens is not so much anger, but a sense of urgency. This problem and accompanying perceptions will not be perceived as being resolved in the absence of significant change. Here, church authorities, who really are Cozzens principal audience, have much to learn from Father Cozzens. But they should not be deceived by his measured tone -- in the timeless institution, time is now of the essence.
Beautifully written, this book is remarkable for its candor, its clarity, and its precision. Something terribly sad and completely unnecessary has fallen over the life of the Catholic community in the United States. It shows itself in many different ways. But its most characteristic feature is inhibited speech and an empty silence where a prayerful, well informed, discerning, and passionate conversation should be going on. For all concerned about the future of the Catholic Church this deeply thoughtful and humane book will explain the attitudes, decisions, and practices that are threatening it. If opening a way for God's Spirit to move freely in the desires and imaginations of human beings is part of what is meant by "prophecy," Donald Cozzens is a clear-eyed, soft-spoken prophet for Catholicism's present situation.