Sources of the Scandal

Father Martin, below, usefully recommends that everyone look back at the incredible resource which is the report of the National Review Board, set up by the USCCB, to monitor their own compliance with the provisions adopted at Dallas in 2002 to address the clergy sex abuse crisis. Last week, the Review Board issued its annual update, which is also useful reading.

There are two "causes" of the crisis that the Review Board did not mention, however, that merit mentioning. One applies to the actual issue of clerical sexual abuse and the other to the pattern of episcopal cover-ups of the abuse. A priest told me that he believes most dioceses and most seminaries still throw out anyone who admits to having had sexual relations with a woman within the past five years or anyone who admits to being homosexual. The priest predicted, and I have every reason to think he is right, that for most applicants this is simply an invitation to lie. I recall an article in a newspaper in which a seminary rector said there were no homosexuals in his seminary. Having visited many seminaries over the years, I am quite certain that this statement is false. I am also certain that such naivete about sexual matters is an instance of clerical malpractice. Note to the Board of Trustees at all seminaries: Fire any rector or seminary staffer who says something that dumb. I would also call attention to the much more nuanced approach taken by Archbishop Timothy Dolan during a recent interview when asked about his tenure as rector of the North American College. Dolan gets it.


It should be obvious by now – it is certainly clear in Dolan’s interview - that secrecy and dishonesty are necessary precursors to sexual abuse. It should also be obvious that there are many fine priests – and bishops – who keep their vows, who embrace the charism of chastity and who also have a homosexual orientation. Being gay has no more to do with being an abuser than being born in January. Some people argue that introducing married clergy will fix all the problems the Church faces, but that seems to me to invite different problems – what happens when a married priest abandons his wife and children to run off with the parish secretary? Will the church support his children? Ending celibacy is not a cure-all and I think the argument to relax clerical celibacy points in the wrong direction. I would say that celibacy removed from poverty is little more than an invitation to sexual immaturity, but this leads me to think that the diocesan clergy should think about embracing poverty not about abandoning celibacy.

The other "cause" the National Review Board did not detail has to do with the cover-up and it has been on my mind ever since reading the New York Times story about the Vatican’s handling of a case involving a priest in Milwaukee. The Vatican has a long institutional memory and throughout most of the history of the Church in the United States, the Vatican has received countless appeals from priests who felt their bishops had treated them in an unjust fashion. The United States had a strange canonical situation for most of its history. There were no canonical parishes or cathedral chapters, and so the clergy lacked the rights that pastors and canons enjoyed in Europe. One of the first apostolic visitations of the United States, by Bishop George Conroy of Ardagh, Ireland in 1878 noted this canonical anomaly in his report to Rome which subsequently urged the U.S. bishops to address the matter at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore. The U.S. bishops succeeded in watering down all such requests from Rome and priests continued to turn to Rome for the vindication of their rights against their own bishops. The universal Code of Canon Law of 1917 alleviated some of these difficulties, and the new Code is even clearer about the rights of priests. But, for most of the history of the Church in the U.S., priests had to appeal to the Vatican for justice and the Vatican as often as not sided with the clergy against the bishop.

Traditional habits of thought are in no way exculpatory of any attempt to whitewash or cover-up the sexual abuse of minors. But, I think it is worth noting that Rome has long been reluctant to believe whatever a bishop says just because a bishop said it. This fact argues against the image portrayed in the last few days of a hierarchy, top-to-bottom, engaged in a conspiracy and cover-up in which all the bishops on both sides of the Atlantic were involved. It is more complicated than that.

I have no doubt that there may be more instances like the infamous Cipolla case of the early 1990s in which a Vatican tribunal ordered then-Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh to reinstate a priest who was a rapist. Wuerl, who is now the Archbishop of Washington, fought the decision and won a reversal. I doubt that we will see any documents with Josef Ratzinger’s signature for the simple reason, a reason the New York Times seemed to neglect, that most cases involving defrocking a priest went to the Congregation for Clergy, not the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, until 2001. The Cipolla case, for example, went to the Congregation for Clergy. In short, even when the U.S. bishops sent the Dallas Charter of "zero tolerance" to Rome, some in the Holy See thought the policy was unfair to the clergy, that it denied them their rights. As John Allen has ably reported, Cardinal Ratzinger, who was charged with handling all sex abuse cases after 2001, had to read the dossiers detailing the depravity of the child-molesters and the cold, bloodless, legalistic responses from the bishops and their lawyers. More than any other Cardinal, it was Ratzinger who came to understand the gravity of the situation and the need for the kind of drastic measures the Dallas Charter called for. The Vatican’s institutional memory of suspicion against too-authoritarian bishops running roughshod over the rights of their priests had to be set aside.

Of course, it is not enough to have bishops with authority. They must also be held accountable. And, the authority to hold them accountable requires that the culture of clericalism be broken. I am not the least bit sympathetic to the cries for lay control coming from the Voice of the Faithful crowd: I like my ecclesiology Catholic, not Protestant, thank you very much. And you can see how the Holy Father’s continual holding up of new ecclesial movements like Focolare and Communione e Liberazione, in both of which clergy and laity collaborate in new and healthy ways, points to a more hopeful future. But, the Pope must also insist on some kind of zero tolerance policy for bishops who look the other way.

Michael Sean Winters

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9 years 6 months ago
I agree with everything you have said above as well. Much of what priests have said to me confidentially, be they rank and file, seminary teachers, canon lawyers or retired priests, supports your statements. It's the culture of Clericalism that must be broken.

BTW VOTF along with those supporting the movement for an American Catholic Council want dialogue, cooperation. They, we, want a working together on reform. We've experienced what havoc a male only, nominally celibate, priesthood has wrought.
Grant Gallicho
9 years 6 months ago
Actually, MSW, your swipe at VOTF's ecclesiology is factually incorrect in addition to being gratuitous. 
Jim McCrea
9 years 6 months ago
Obviously MSW has never served on a Parish Council or Finance Council with a pastor who isn't very interested in " - clergy and laity collaborat(ing) in new and healthy ways."
The parish is the venue in which most of us live out our Catholicism, not in a few new rarified "movements."  The power in a parish ALWAYS finally resides with the pastor.  In my archdiocese, a pastor needs the Finance Council's concurrence in order to spend more than $10,000 on a project.  Of course, if he doesn't get it, then he goes to the Archbishop and, in more cases than not, the FC is overridden.  Oh, yes - collaboration.
One of these days Catholics will realize that the true source of "collaboration" between laity and clergy is via the checkbook.  The Catholic Church listens to nothing so closely as the sound (or lack thereof) of the ringing of the cash register.
Brendan McGrath
9 years 6 months ago
There's so much that could be said about everything here, but I just wanted to point out that while more lay involvement in administrative matters would certainly be good, I'm not sure if it would really lead to less corruption in the Church.  After all, it was lay people who brought us Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Jim Crow laws, slavery, every oppressive government or political scandal in history, etc., etc., etc. - not to mention the movie "Gigli."
Vince Killoran
9 years 6 months ago
I agree with many of your observations but the analysis gets quite narrow and loses the "big picture"-and it fails to consider the tragedy as it has unfolded world wide (e.g., the Pope's role as archibishop in Germany; the coveted post given to Card. Law). Detailed consideration of individual cases as they worked their way through the hierarchy chain-of-command is fine but the cumulative impression is of a diseased governance system.  As the nun that taught me in fourth grade said to me in an exhausted tone one day, "Mister, you have an excuse for everything."
BTW, you have mischaracterized VOTF's goals.  This is from their website: "We believe that the laity have the graced dignity, intelligence, responsibility and obligation to cooperate in Church governance in a meaningful way, according to the norm of canon law (cf. canon 129)." Sounds pretty good right about now!


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