News Analysis

Fasting and Ember Days: Bishops revive traditional practices in wake of abuse crisis

The revelation of sexual misconduct by the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick (pictured) and other clerics has prompted some diocesan bishops to call for further investigations; the adoption of new policies applying to bishops; and personal acts of reparation. I asked four diocesan bishops who have made public statements about the scandal to share their thoughts.

Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth, Texas, was among the first to suggest the laicisation of Theodore McCarrick, and said that sexual misconduct in his diocese by any cleric would be met with “zero tolerance”.

He said: “The pastoral issue we’re dealing with in the McCarrick case is one of scandal. Our people have already suffered trauma because of past clerical sexual abuse, and now they’ve been re-traumatised and scandalised. Any time something like this occurs involving allegations of sexual abuse and a high official in the Church, it suggests that the life of the Gospel is impossible to live.”

He said that he supported diocesan policies which held bishops as well as priests accountable for misconduct.

“But I would say that policies are not enough,” he said. “We need sound policies that lead to better practices. We can’t merely say we’re sorry and angry. It is not about us, but the victims.

“[Those guilty of offences need to have] a conversion that is not just interior, but a firm purpose of amendment that includes changes of behaviour … When it comes to scandal, we have to be preventive and proactive, addressing each case as it appears. We don’t merely want to say ‘I’m sorry’ afterwards.”

Bishop Jeffrey Monforton is head of the Diocese of Steubenville in south-eastern Ohio. He said: “Our purpose in the Church is to share the light of Christ. We cannot allow scandals to impede our sharing of the Good News.”

The 2002 Dallas Charter was adopted for the protection of children, he said, “with the exception of the bishops. Now the behaviour of some bishops is being called into question. It is our obligation as bishops to show the people of God that we are here to serve, and that we are accountable as well.”

The McCarrick case, as well as other incidents of misconduct by bishops, has cast a “dark shadow” on the clergy, and “people need to know their bishops are responding in a positive way”.

In the past year, Bishop Monforton has asked that Masses of Reparation be celebrated for sins committed by Church officials and for the healing of abuse victims. He has also embraced penitential practices in his own life as a means of reparation.

He invited the laity of his diocese to engage in acts of reparation too, but noted: “I wanted to be careful not to place too much on the shoulders of the people of God, as it was not their doing that caused these recent scandals. But, as members of the Mystical Body of Christ, we all have a role to play in reparation.”

Bishop Liam Cary has led the Diocese of Baker, Oregon, since 2012. He said: “We need to have a better view of what went on specifically among some bishops, so that we can take effective measures to prevent it from happening again.”

Regarding McCarrick, he said: “I am reminded of apostolic betrayal in Scripture. Both words are crucial. The Apostles were the witnesses at the first Eucharist. Betrayal is linked to the Eucharist, for as we say at Mass, ‘the night before He was betrayed …’ ”

He continued: “Our Lord knew who his betrayer was. He knew they were coming for Him in the Garden of Gethsemane and could have easily avoided capture, but He didn’t. When His name was called, He stepped forward out of the darkness. Why? Had He not allowed Himself to be betrayed, it would have suggested that betrayal was one sin God can’t forgive, and Satan would have won. When we reflect on our own experiences of being betrayed, we can begin to appreciate all the Lord has done for us.”

He concluded: “I’d also add that Satan wants to destroy the Eucharist, and he can do that by trying to destroy the priesthood, and the bishops as well. If he can do this, he can ruin the faith of the people.”

Bishop Joseph Strickland has served as Bishop of Tyler, Texas, since 2012. He believes the testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò to be credible.

He said: “People were heartbroken about what they were seeing and hearing … I think it’s important in these cases to keep the victims in the forefront. Lives have been damaged, even destroyed by abuse. It is so contrary to what we in the Church are called to do.”

The scandals prompted him to bring back Ember Days to his diocese, and “personally, I also did a novena of repentance for myself. As bishop of the diocese, I thought it was something I needed to do. Fasting, abstinence and mortification are all part of our heritage that we need to rekindle.”