Policies have slowly improved. But as a matter of justice, individual prelates should admit wrongdoing and step down

How could priests do this? Once, again, the Church confronts this question after Tuesday’s release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses over several decades. Even after so many previous revelations, the facts are still horrifying. Some of the details of the report – involving groups of priests acting in concert, behaving in ways sadistic, sacrilegious, and blasphemous – go beyond the imaginations of Hollywood in their stomach-churning brutality and perversity.

But in my experience, the existence of priest predators is not what angers people most. The greatest outrage, many would say, is that bishops were too often anything but shepherds for those victims. Even in the face of grotesque and, it is fair to suggest, demonic abuse, the Successors of the Apostles completely failed.

Time and again victims were not believed. Time and again their silence was purchased and civil authorities were not notified of their crimes. Time and again victims and their families were given false assurances that the abusing priest would no longer be in a position to harm children – when in fact he had been sent to a new parish who had no idea a wolf had just arrived. The anger was and is justified.

Church leaders have repeatedly missed the opportunity to act. In 1992, after the first major scandals had broken into the consciousness of the American Church, the bishops adopted new guidelines. But a decade later, it was clear that the 1992 protocol had not stopped the pattern of cover-up and reckless, dishonest reassignment. Dioceses were still putting children at risk and demeaning the courageous victims who had come forward.

The 2002 meeting in Dallas did establish a much stronger policy (popularly known as “zero tolerance”) than the 1992 guidelines. It has unquestionably helped to make the Church a vastly safer place. But it was not nearly enough, for it did not address the problems of justice and credibility. Why were the 1992 guidelines not enough to end the practice of buying victims’ silence? Why, after nearly 20 years of awareness, were victims and their advocates still treated coldly, suspiciously, and with hostile litigation tactics? Why were abusive priests given more chances to abuse even when (false) promises to the contrary were made? The answer “Because there was no policy” beggars belief. But that was the only answer the bishops were willing to give in Dallas.

What was needed then was the resignation of any and every bishop who had mistreated victims or enabled abuse. Some bishops, including Cardinal Law, said that they offered their resignations and Rome refused. Maybe so, but if there had been a dramatic press conference in Dallas where genuinely contrite bishops – 50? 100? 200? – admitted their own individual failings and announced their resignations, I suspect Rome would have acquiesced.

One imagines that such a scenario would, in the bishops’ minds, have been a destructive one for the Church. The opposite seems to me obviously true. It would have been a moment of healing, and of real leadership. Instead, all of the bishops expressed joint sorrow as if nobody was doing anything right (which was not true) so that nobody would be punished for what he had done wrong. When everybody agrees to share the blame, nobody pays a just price. And these crimes above all cry out to heaven for justice.

Recent events have thus far produced a similar dynamic. Every bishop is sad that Theodore McCarrick rose to power despite what was known about him, but no bishop has yet been willing to say: “I failed to act, and I must spend my days in penance.” Some lonely episcopal voices have noted this. Bishop Michael Olson has forthrightly called for individual accountability by bishops, including before the law. And Bishop Robert Barron has wisely and courageously called for an outside investigation by skilled lay investigators. But that presumes there are bishops who cannot be trusted to do the right thing – to tell the truth – until forced by the press or outside forces. And these are supposed to be shepherds after the model of the Good Shepherd, who was willing to lay down his life, not just his job, for his sheep.