America Comment

As the Vatican wavers on a visitation, American laity launch their own investigations

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Few would deny that this is the worst crisis the American Church has faced in living memory. As if the scandal surrounding ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick weren’t enough, a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report released in August identified more than 300 abusive priests – both living and dead – incardinated in the state. That’s more than were named in the Archdiocese of Boston during the infamous abuse crisis of the early 2000s.

Prominent US prelates such as Cardinals Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Huston and Timothy Dolan of New York have publicly requested an apostolic visitation – that is, an official investigation headed by a bishop who acts on the Pope’s behalf. This is standard procedure following major revelations of sexual misconduct within the clergy. But so far, the Vatican has been noncommittal.

On 6 October, The Holy See released a statement promising to “in due course, make known the conclusions of the matter regarding Archbishop McCarrick.” What constitutes “due course” is ambiguous, however; it doesn’t suggest that a visitation is imminent.

The statement also admitted: “It may emerge that choices were taken that would not be consonant with a contemporary approach to such issues”. The Holy See appears to be laying the groundwork for some admission of guilt or negligence by Vatican officials. But there is little detail beyond that hint.

In the absence of official Church action, members of the laity have taken matters into their own hands. On 30 September, members of a new organization calling themselves the Better Church Governance Group (BCGG) met on the campus of the Catholic University of America in Washington, DC. They plan to spend upwards of $1 million on a “Red Hat Report”: a private investigation into all American members of the College of Cardinals young enough to vote in the next papal conclave. Their aim is “to name those credibly accused in scandal, abuse, or cover-ups” by 2020.

But some Church-watchers have accused the BCGG of having another, thinly-veiled agenda: discrediting the Holy Father and his allies. According to Crux, who obtained an audio recording of the meeting, the group’s operations director, Jacob Imam, asked the forty attendees: “What if we would have had someone else in 2013 who would have been more proactive in protecting the innocent and the young?” One of the slides accompanying his presentation allegedly read: “Had we had the Red Hat Report, we may not have had Pope Francis.”

This could simply be clumsy rhetoric. And some conservative commentators less hostile to the Holy Father are willing to give the BCGG a chance, believing that the principle behind the Red Hat Report to be worthy. Among them is Sohrab Ahmari, a senior writer at Commentary. “The Vatican II Fathers emphatically called for serious lay participation and responsibility in the life of the Church,” he told me.

“That call is doubly urgent in this moment of episcopal crisis, and I’m glad the people behind the Red Hat Report are answering it. A project this ambitious and sensitive is bound to ruffle feathers. But you know what’s worse than ruffling feathers? Allowing a predator like Uncle Ted to rise to the cardinalate and shaping the outcome of papal conclaves.”

Yet the BCGG’s efforts are reminiscent of an even more controversial project that LifeSite launched in August. “Faithful Shepherds” purports to inform readers “whether their bishop is faithful or unfaithful to perennial Church teaching” on matters like abortion, education, and the liturgy.

It also recalls the hotly-debated practice of papal polling: surveying the public on their opinions on the Vicar of Christ. This practice goes back to the 1970s; St John Paul II’s approval rating averaged in the mid-80s, while Benedict XVI’s hovered in the 50s throughout his reign. Francis recently experienced a dramatic fall in popularity, however: where a January 2017 Gallup poll claimed that 70 percent of Americans approved of Francis, the Pew Research Center found only 30 percent willing to say he was doing a “good or excellent job” in a survey published on 3 October.

Adrian Vermeule is among the orthodox Catholics who are skeptical of treating the Church “like a merely political body, instead to the Body of Christ”. “Of course, the views of the People of God are essential to the life of the Church,” he told me. But “to form SuperPACs and to create numerical rankings is to apply a modernized technology that implicitly conceives its princes as something akin to representative legislators”. He warns against a “modernism of political technique” that “sits in uneasy tension with the traditionalist goals its proponents claim to pursue.”

Whether one agrees with Vermeule or not, it seems inevitable that members of the laity will take such initiatives until Pope Francis grants a visitation. These efforts may be amateurish, irreverent, or even “modernist”. But the Vatican may take that as further reason to take substantial action against abusers and their enablers in the American Church.

This article first appeared in the October 12 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here