In the aftermath of the collapsed criminal case against Cardinal George Pell, the Australian Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sex Abuse released its redacted findings concerning the cardinal.
The findings unwittingly drew attention to a serious consequence of the sexual abuse crisis, namely the loss of credibility of bishops, even among priests. The commission rummaged around in Pell’s earlier years in his home diocese of Ballarat. Pell never served as a bishop in Ballarat, or as a senior diocesan official, such as the vicar general. But he was on the college of consultors, a group of priests that advises the bishop, in this case Bishop Ronald Mulkearns, who had a long record of shifting predator priests from parish to parish.
In the case of Australia’s most notorious priest-abuser, Gerald Ridsdale, Pell gave evidence to the commission that the reasons for Ridsdale’s transfers were not revealed to the consultors. No other consultors gave evidence that Ridsdale’s record was revealed. Yet the commission concluded that Pell must have known. Why?
“We are satisfied Bishop Mulkearns gave reasons for it being necessary to move Ridsdale,” the commission’s report found. “We are satisfied that he referred to homosexuality at the meeting, in the context of giving reasons for Ridsdale’s move. However, we are not satisfied that Bishop Mulkearns left the explanation there …
“We do not accept that Bishop Mulkearns lied to his consultors,” the commission concluded. On this logic, bishops would not withhold relevant information from their consultors, and would not lie to their priests.
Yet the commission’s years of hearings established that there was plenty of withholding and lying by bishops in such cases; Bishop Mulkearns not least of them. Indeed, the commission’s report accepted that he did lie about the Ridsdale case to another priest.
The findings made hardly a ripple in the Catholic media. That bishops might hide things that they should share or, even worse, tell lies, is now widely accepted. The real news is that it is no longer newsworthy.
The very day the commission’s findings were released, Pope Francis accepted the early resignation of Bishop Joseph R Binzer, 65, auxiliary of Cincinnati. Last summer it was revealed that he had failed to inform his own archbishop and the priest personnel board of allegations against a priest he proposed for reassignment. If Bishop Binzer could do it in 2019, why not Bishop Mulkearns 40 years before?
The abuse crisis has taught Catholic journalists not to presume that what they are told by dioceses is true. Yet the toxin of dishonesty has infected the relationship of bishops with their own priests. Each successive revelation, whether from last year or decades ago, further erodes the credibility of bishops. It’s not that priests default to the conclusion that the bishop is not telling the (whole) truth, but rather that they do not default to the conclusion that he is. The truth of a statement has to be backed up with other evidence.
Bishop Gustavo Zanchetta, currently under investigation for alleged sexual misconduct, was appointed to a senior role in the Curia in 2017. The vicar general of Oran said misconduct allegations were sent to Rome as early as 2015; the Holy See insists nothing was known even at the time of the 2017 appointment. Someone is not telling the truth. At one point the default would be that the Holy See was being truthful. No longer.
That visible impact can be seen in Rome. But the more important impact is in dioceses all over the world, when priests no longer trust what they are told, or suspect that they are not being told the whole truth.
That’s why Wilton Gregory, the new archbishop of Washington, began his tenure last year with a promise “that I will always tell you the truth”. His predecessor Cardinal Donald Wuerl had repeatedly told his priests that he knew nothing about allegations of misconduct against his predecessor, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. It turned out that Wuerl himself had forwarded allegations against McCarrick to the nuncio in 2004, but had somehow forgotten that he had.
Those high-profile cases are multiplied in thousands of ways across hundreds of lesser-known dioceses. But they are known to the priests in that place, and therefore make the recovery of episcopal credibility – among priests, to say nothing of the faithful or general public – a generational project.
Fr Raymond J de Souza is a priest of the Archdiocese of Kingston, Ontario, and founding editor of convivium.ca