America Comment

The bishops will have to sacrifice power and privilege to resolve the abuse crisis

Pope Francis speaks speaks with the Archbishop of Washington Cardinal Donald Wuerl (Getty Images)

The US bishops are panicking over the burgeoning crisis in the United States following the release of a Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report that portrays in gruesome detail how bishops built and maintained for seven decades a system designed to cover up abuse and protect predator priests. The Vatican has noticed and has caught the panic as well.

That is the short version of the story as of Friday morning.

The longer version begins with two statements that appeared late in the day on Thursday, one from the President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, the other from the Press Office of the Holy See. Both statements regarded the report out of Pennsylvania, the release of which came on the back of revelations concerning the abominable behaviour of a very senior churchman, Theodore McCarrick. Neither statement was adequate, or even close to it.

Couched in the language of “sadness, anger, and shame” and promising bold, decisive action “to avoid repeating the sins and failures of the past,” Cardinal DiNardo’s statement nevertheless deserves to be judged as an exercise in blame-shifting and obfuscation.

The statement from Cardinal DiNardo – who grew up in Pennsylvania and went through priestly formation with the now-Bishop of Pittsburgh David Zubik – outlines three “goals” the US bishops have established for themselves:

(1) an investigation into the questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick; (2) an opening of new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and (3) advocacy for more effective resolution of future complaints. These goals will be pursued according to three criteria: proper independence, sufficient authority, and substantial leadership by laity.

There are questions regarding McCarrick, the 88-year-old former Archbishop of Washington, who last month resigned from the College of Cardinals in disgrace after news of a “credible and substantiated” accusation he sexually abused a minor unleashed a torrent of other misconduct allegations involving priests and seminarians as well as at least one other minor.

Most of those questions focus on who knew what and when they knew it; why they kept silent; who had reasonable suspicion and what they did with it; why the Vatican apparatus — including the last three popes — did nothing to stop him. Those questions deserve answers.

Even if we got answers to all of them, we would still be no closer to beginning to address the overriding question: why did the bishops not know, not see, not act against McCarrick? 

In short, the bishops of the United States want attention to focus on McCarrick, because they want to escape scrutiny – real scrutiny – of themselves.

As I argued at length in a piece that appeared Thursday in the Catholic World Report, “Even an Apostolic Visitation of the Church in the US, which DiNardo’s statement invites, is destined to fail if its scope is limited to McCarrick, even if it illuminates every dark corner in which McCarrick’s baleful influence is hiding.”

Working to establish “an opening of new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops” sounds good, but keeps the focus on the future, rather than on the bishops’ disastrous record of leadership. Cardinal DiNardo tells us the bishops “firmly resolve, with the help of God’s grace, never to repeat” the “moral catastrophe” that is “failure of episcopal leadership” as a result of which “scores of beloved children of God were abandoned to face an abuse of power alone.”

Calls for “new policy against evil”, as one biting headline in the National Review put it, are useless so long as the bishops who “came up” through this system and saw nothing wrong with it until their names started appearing in the wrong sort of articles are in charge. 

The US bishops know it, and they are scared — terrified — of losing their power, their privilege, their place. They are unable to countenance the fact that they have squandered and wantonly trifled away the trust of the faithful and cannot earn it again. They are grasping at straws.

It took the Vatican two days to respond to the 1,300-plus page dossier out of Pennsylvania, which contains evidence of a possible criminal conspiracy not confined to the six dioceses of the Commonwealth that were the subject of the two-year investigation that led to the report.

“While each church district had its idiosyncrasies,” the report’s introduction states, “the pattern was pretty much the same. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal’.”

Though the scandal is in full ferment, the Vatican statement offered bromide: “Regarding the report made public in Pennsylvania this week,” the statement began, “there are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow.” The statement goes on to assure us, “The Holy See treats with great seriousness the work of the Investigating Grand Jury of Pennsylvania and the lengthy Interim Report it has produced. The Holy See condemns unequivocally the sexual abuse of minors.” Of course, it does.

As the revelations regarding Cardinal McCarrick amply attest – though they are hardly the only witness to the corrupt moral culture of the clergy worldwide – the sexual abuse of minors is not the only form of wickedness that has been tolerated within the clerical ranks for generations.

“The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.” To hear the Vatican tell it — echoing one of the US bishops’ favourite talking points — the problems are largely in the past:

Most of the discussion in the report concerns abuses before the early 2000s. By finding almost no cases after 2002, the Grand Jury’s conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse. The Holy See encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm. The Holy See also wants to underscore the need to comply with the civil law, including mandatory child abuse reporting requirements.

Here is the rub: what is unfolding now is unfolding now, in the present. The same rotten culture that gave rise to the awful abuses detailed in the Pennsylvania report, and also served for decades as a perverted playground for McCarrick and his ilk, persists in the present day. Frankly, the myopia, deafness, and olfactory dullness of the Vatican in these regards is such that one is almost tempted to admire their restraint in waiting until the fourth paragraph to begin the self-congratulation.

The Archbishop of Boston and President of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Cardinal Sean O’Malley, OFM Cap. — who recently opened an investigation into allegations of moral turpitude at the flagship seminary of his archdiocese — issued his own statement Thursday. “The clock is ticking for all of us in Church leadership,” O’Malley said. “Catholics have lost patience with us and civil society has lost confidence in us. But I am not without hope and do not succumb to despondent acceptance that our failures cannot be corrected.”

The question is not whether the failures can be corrected. The question is whether the men who have heretofore perpetuated the crisis, may now be trusted with any part of fixing it. Of that, there is ample reason to doubt.