The Bishop of Harrisburg was right to publish the names of clergy accused of abuse

Bishop Ronald Gainer of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania (CNS photo/Robert Duncan)

After the scandal of Cardinal Groer, Archbishop of Vienna, emerged, what happened? Groer was allowed to retire quietly, and never admitted any guilt or faced charges.

After the scandal of Cardinal Keith O’Brien emerged, what happened? The Cardinal was censured and exiled from Scotland, and denied burial with his predecessors.

As the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick continue to come out, what is going to change? Perhaps the Church will end up taking harsher steps that it did with O’Brien, but will there be any institutional changes?

Let it be noted that in the cases of Groer, O’Brien and now with the allegations against McCarrick, each was exposed by the newspapers, not by the Church itself, which only acted publicly when it had to. Will this change?

One indication of possible change to come is what has taken place in the diocese of Harrisburg just recently, as this magazine has reported. The Bishop, Mgr Gainer, has gone for the nuclear option. He has published the names of 71 priests, deacons and seminarians of the diocese who have been accused of misbehaviour with children over the last seventy years.

This was not an easy step to take, given that some of the 71 on the list are not only still alive (though none are in ministry) but also dispute their guilt and took legal steps to stop having their names published. But, as a spokesman for the diocese explained, “the list was intended to be “overinclusive” and contains “every individual against whom an allegation was made and that allegation subsequently has not been disproven by law enforcement.””

In addition, the diocese has decided to remove the names of all those on the list from rooms or buildings named in their honour. This will include the names of past bishops: the bishops themselves were not accused, but as Bishop Gainer explains, Church leaders “must hold themselves to higher standards.”

The Diocese of Harrisburg has taken a step no one else, to my knowledge, has taken before. It has been quite open about the number of accusations made, and has not taken refuge in the usual defence that Fr X was never convicted in a court, or Fr Y’s case is not proven, or still sub judice. In doing so, the diocese is trying to show it has nothing to hide.

Transparency is surely the best, indeed the only, way forward. Trying to avoid investigations gives exactly the wrong impression of the Church’s attitude to the child abuse crisis.

Perhaps where Harrisburg has led, others now need to follow. What is at stake here is very simple: the Church needs to abandon its addiction to secrecy. In the cases of Groer and O’Brien, and now in the claims against McCarrick, we were told that “everyone knew”. In the case of McCarrick, we now know that accusations were made a decade ago, and that financial settlements were agreed, but this was kept secret, even from his successor in Washington.

This culture of secrecy has to end. Bishop Gainer, in opting for full disclosure, is setting a good example to the rest of the Universal Church. All dioceses should follow suit.