In the midst of the sex abuse scandal, what do the People of God want from church hierarchy?
The allegations of abusive behavior made against Cardinal Theodore McCarrick and the stunning report by the Pennsylvania grand jury were a one-two punch that had the members of our Jesuit parish in Baltimore, like Catholics everywhere, reeling. To create a forum for discussion, our pastor organized two evenings during which parishioners could come together, share our feelings and develop recommendations for our church going forward. I was asked to facilitate the discussions.
Many of the participants in these meetings expressed the same conundrum:
“If I were considering joining an organization like this, would I? If I would not join it, why should I stay in it?”
“Why am I still a Catholic?”
As one young woman poignantly commented: “I was a child in 2002 when I first heard about priests abusing children. This is the only church that I have known. How can I continue to defend it?”
Since the early 2000s, there has been so much publicity about incidents of misconduct by individual clergymen that these facts had been accepted as simply unfortunate aberrations. By contrast, the recent reports, as well as assertions that Pope Francis and Pope Benedict XVI overlooked information about abusive priests and bishops, have generated a new focus: How could so many bishops have concealed these abuses for so long and exposed children to the irreparable damage done by priests who were retained in ministry after the bishops were aware of abuse? How have men who were themselves abusers or who tolerated abuse been able to advance through the hierarchy to greater positions of power and influence, even though their colleagues in the church knew of, or at least suspected, this despicable behavior?
While Catholics continue to be outraged by specific incidents of abuse by individual priests, the new crisis puts increased emphasis on the perceived ongoing failure of the institutional church itself. This loss of trust in the leadership of the church makes this the most significant crisis confronting the church since the Reformation.
Further rounds of “apologies” and requests for prayers are inadequate. We have heard all that before. The resounding theme at my parish event was that it is now time for the church to act and not simply issue public statements, no matter how sincere and abject.
Apart from situations like that of Cardinal McCarrick in which a bishop or cardinal personally may have engaged in acts of sexual abuse, the primary concern was that perverse values of careerism and collective protection of fellow bishops have displaced the clergy’s duty to protect their flock. If one of the marks of the true church is that it is holy, how could it be that such a significant and ubiquitous flaw infects so many of its leaders? At least as perceived, these failings are the product of the church’s institutional structure and episcopal culture.
If one of the marks of the true church is that it is holy, how could it be that such a significant and ubiquitous flaw infects so many of its leaders?
Will the leaders of the church recognize how severe the present crisis is? Too many bishops may try to wait out the firestorm and to see whether it will “blow over” as just another minor disruption in the 2000-year arc of the church. But it is in the best interest of the church to act promptly, to avoid, as one speaker put it, “the constant drip, drip, drip of scandal year-by-year and state-by-state,” or as another speaker described it, the “death by a thousand cuts.” Catholics searching for spiritual guidance and fulfillment deserve to have a church that is not continuously buffeted by episodic disclosures of scandalous abuse and cover-up.
The discussions generated a variety of suggestions for change and “reform.”
Transparency. Perhaps the most persistent theme is the need for greater transparency concerning the nature and scale of abuses in the local dioceses. This must involve complete disclosure of all of the priests who were the subject of allegations of abuse that were found credible or were the subject of settlements. This may require opening up the canonical “secret archives” as was done in Pennsylvania. If victims wish to remain anonymous, their names and other identifying information may be redacted.
Another element of necessary transparency involves disclosure of settlements that the diocese has paid in dealing with victims or alleged victims. To understand the scale of the problems that a diocese has addressed, the faithful are entitled to know what has been spent. All resources expended for this purpose have come from the laity, who have contributed cash and property to the church.
This transparency must involve complete disclosure of all of the priests who were the subject of allegations of abuse that were found credible or were the subject of settlements.
One approach to be considered is the “truth and reconciliation commission,” which has been used in other situations to restore harmony to a riven community. This mechanism requires full acknowledgement of the underlying abuses, including personal acceptance of responsibility when feasible, coupled with a willingness on the part of the aggrieved—here, abuse victims and representatives of the People of God—to complete the reconciliation and healing and to restore trust and confidence.
Accountability for Bishops. As the situations in Pennsylvania and elsewhere illustrate, bishops are largely unaccountable to anyone. The 2002 Dallas Charter and Norms detail how the church should deal with misbehavior by priests, but they say nothing about how a bishop who is complicit in the problem of sexual abuse can be held accountable. Canon Law also provides no explicit mechanism for dealing with bishops who cover up abuse. Except in one or two of the most notorious and egregious cases, even Pope Francis has taken no action regarding bishops who have abused their position of sacred trust on these matters. Before Francis’ tenure, it was virtually impossible to find any action by any pope in recent centuries dealing with a bishop who has failed in any of his responsibilities to his flock. Immunity from any episcopal accountability is no longer acceptable.
But Christ’s own willingness to die for us on the basis of false charges means all of us, including bishops, are called to lay down our lives for the benefit of others.
In no other institution worthy of respect are the leaders, once installed, immune from real and practical accountability for their performance in office, including maladministration and abuse. There is no principled reason why the church’s leaders should not be held responsible for serious misconduct or incompetence and made subject to concrete and meaningful consequences for those breaches.
A new system under which members of the hierarchy are actually held accountable for the kinds of misdeeds that have been exposed over the past 20 years—namely, massive, worldwide cover-ups of the sexual abuse of thousands of children—is necessary to restore the laity’s trust.
Moreover, the consequences of serious episcopal abuse or maladministration must be real, not just mere formalities. Merely depriving a church leader of some of the external trappings of office is a grossly inadequate response. Current church policy calls for the dismissal from the clerical state for even a single act of sexual abuse by a priest. A similar canonical penalty must be available to deal with serious abuses by bishops and actually imposed in appropriate cases.
Even without extraordinary papal intervention, national conferences of bishops, including the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, could adopt a policy statement urging brother bishops to resign voluntarily if they have been identified as improperly protecting abusive priests. For the greater good of the church, voluntary resignation may be appropriate, even if the individual bishop denies culpability and claims bona fides. This course may involve personal sacrifice. But Christ’s own willingness to die for us on the basis of false charges means all of us, including bishops, are called to lay down our lives for the benefit of others. Cleansing the church of the stain of scandal falls within this scriptural principle.
Appointing bishops while remaining willfully ignorant of information from persons whom they purportedly have been serving is inexcusable.
Lay Involvement in Selecting and Monitoring Bishops. No one at my parish called for lay election of bishops, by acclamation or otherwise, as was done in the early church. Nor did anyone contend that the laity should have authority over the tenure of bishops. Nevertheless, there were frequent references to the Protestant Reformation, which addressed many serious deficiencies in church practices that had become embedded over the centuries. In the counter-reformation, the church responded by making fundamental reforms that strengthened the church and gave it durability to survive another 500 years. In a culture that is increasingly nonreligious or irreligious, especially among young people, it is not much of an exaggeration to say that the health of the church going forward, if not its very survival, may require comparable soul-searching and an equally dramatic response.
The process of recommending candidates to the Congregation for Bishops is an entirely clerical process with little or no input from the laity. But priests being considered for elevation to the episcopacy have the laity as their constituents, and members of the laity may have valuable, and sometimes vital, information about the candidates. Although some sexually abusive priests were able to fool their congregations into thinking of them as “good priests,” many others were regarded with suspicion based on personal observations or credible reports of misconduct. In any prudently run organization, authorities who are considering a person for promotion should have access to such information, at least to consider it “for what it is worth.” Appointing bishops while remaining willfully ignorant of information from persons whom they purportedly have been serving is inexcusable.
Can there be any doubt that responsible women would have understood and advised bishops that no other interests could have justified exposing children to sexual abuse?
Similarly, members of the laity may well be well positioned to identify serious problems with the conduct of a bishop once in office. The laity can have valuable information about a bishop’s abusive behavior (not solely sex abuse) or about financial mismanagement or corruption. There is no evident doctrinal reason why laypersons should not be in a position to call upon this information as part of a process of reviewing the bishop’s performance. This role can be formalized through the institution of a diocesan review board, composed substantially of lay members, with access to diocesan records, that could initiate procedures for further action by appropriate church authorities.
Greater Involvement by Women in Church Administration. More than half of the Catholics in the pews are women. Even in an era of increased professional opportunities for women, it is women who continue to exercise primary responsibilities for rearing children, which includes inculcating in them a love for the faith. Putting aside the issue of possible ordination of women to the priesthood or diaconate, the presence of women in greater positions of authority within the administration of a diocese would be highly beneficial to the church.
Can there be any doubt that responsible women would have understood and advised bishops that no other interests could have justified exposing children to sexual abuse? Women participating in the governance of a parish or diocese almost certainly would have given far more weight to protecting vulnerable children from predatory priests than many bishops did.
Improvements in Formation of Priests and Priestly Life. It is now well recognized that acceptance of candidates into a seminary at age 13 or 14 was a fraught practice. Apart from taking care in establishing the minimum age at which seminarians may be accepted, it is important to assure early and continuing psychological monitoring of candidates for the priesthood and in the early years of their priesthood. The quality, sophistication and reliability of psychological evaluations now are far better than they were when most of the abusive priests were trained and ordained. The church should take advantage of these modern tools for screening men for suitability for ministry as well as their continued service in ministry, offering them psychological support when necessary.
This menu of crucial reforms requires the episcopacy to act swiftly, with compassion and not out of the fear that led bishops down a path of denial and cover-up. In turning to the laity for consultation and assistance, the church will become more fully an inclusive institution that acts out of love and care for our most vulnerable, our children. Only then shall we have the true church of the People of God.