After Cardinal McCarrick’s fall, we need to make bishops more accountable

Theodore McCarrick (Getty)

The recent fall from grace of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, up to now one of the most influential churchmen in American Catholicism, throws certain questions into sharp relief. Given that his alleged misbehaviour has been widely rumoured for some time (I myself heard some of these stories when I was a student in Rome in 2000), it is only natural to ask why he was made a bishop, then an archbishop, and finally a cardinal, if his faults were common knowledge. If the people who were responsible for the appointments did not know, then they must explain their ignorance.

Once again, at the risk of sounding extremely boring, one must point out that the process of appointing bishops is not working well. There have been too many tainted appointments for the present case to be dismissed as an outlier.

So what needs to change? At present, appointments are made by the papal nuncio who has a list of episcopabili suggested by the local hierarchy, and who then consults people (generally bishops and senior priests) by sending out questionnaires about suitable candidates for vacant sees. The nuncio then forwards a list to Rome, where the final choice is made.

The faults with the system at present may well lie in the initial stages, and perhaps reform ought to focus on who gets onto the list in the first place and how, and who is consulted via the questionnaires. Nominations to the list could be solicited from a wider range of sources than just the episcopal conference of the country – for example, from people in public life and from those working in education and the media, amongst others. The questionnaires could also be sent to a wider range of people; moreover, the nuncio should advise people that they can write to him with suggestions, and that he will take these suggestions seriously.

Bishops still “emerge” as did Conservative leaders of old, from discussions in “smoke-filled rooms”. The process should be opened up, to allow a plurality of voices to be heard.

The other thing that the McCarrick affair exposes is the way that bishops are often, like the great feudal lords of old, accountable to no one, and able to act as they please behind closed doors. Bishops’ exercise of power needs to be made less monarchical, and there is a simple way to do this. Not by establishing consultative bodies (which already exist) but by making sure that all complainants are listened to, and that their complaints are properly recorded and dealt with using an established complaints procedure.

I can think of two cases where younger priests raised concerns with those in charge about matters which had nothing to do with sexual misconduct. The first concerned the alcoholism of a priest others worked with; the second the way examinations were conducted at a leading university. Both men were told that they had to learn to be humble, and it was not their place to raise complaints about the way their superiors saw fit to do things. Until we start treating people who have concerns in the proper manner, then we will never have accountability and transparency. And, unless we learn from our mistakes, scandals like this one will keep on recurring.