Bishop McElroy: ‘Compromised’ bishops contributed to U.S. church’s sex abuse crisis

San Diego Bishop Robert W. McElroy speaks to reporters before a public gathering Oct. 1 at Our Mother of Confidence Parish Hall in San Diego. (CNS photo/David Maung)

U.S. bishops are meeting this week in Baltimore for their annual fall conference, and at the top of the agenda is the continuing suffering and confusion engendered by the past clerical abuse of children and newly apparent flaws in the conference’s contemporary effort to protect children from abuse. Some of those institutional lapses were made plain by the release of a deeply shocking narrative of abuse, cover-up and pastoral malpractice contained in church documents forced into daylight in August by a Pennsylvania grand jury report. It was the culmination of an awful summer for U.S. Catholics already reeling from revelations of the abuse of children, seminarians and of church power by former cardinal Theodore McCarrick and associated questions of curial complicity in the archbishop’s offenses as he rose through the ranks of the U.S. episcopacy.

Reviewing the events of these weeks, “personally, I have a great sense of sadness,” the Most Rev. Robert McElroy, the bishop of the Diocese of San Diego, said in an interview with America conducted in September. “I see the impact the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the McCarrick scandals are having on the hearts and souls of Catholics, causing anguish among our parish lay leaders and our priests, not to mention on the survivors of sexual abuse—those who have come forward and those who still hold their abuse silently to themselves.”

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The McCarrick scandal was quickly converted into a broad challenge to the leadership of Pope Francis with the release of the self-described testimony of Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, the former papal nuncio to the United States. Among the many accusations and speculations of church intrigue and malfeasance contained in the archbishop’s commentary was a broadside directed at the U.S. bishops appointed by Pope Francis, including Bishop McElroy. In his own rapid response to the archbishop’s comments, Bishop McElroy issued a scathing refutation of the archbishop's allegations. He has no regrets.

“I see the impact the Pennsylvania grand jury report and the McCarrick scandals are having on the hearts and souls of Catholics.”

“I think at a moment when we all needed to be, among the bishops, united in facing these deep questions of abuse and all the other profound questions it has [raised] for us as a church and for the accountability of bishops, at a moment when we needed to put aside the ideological differences we have, the Viganò testimony was launched to exploit those ideological differences and undermine the Holy Father,” he said.

Bishop McElroy played a small role in this summer’s drama. In 2016 he received a letter from the late Richard Sipe, a former priest, psychologist and advocate for abuse survivors whose work on priest abusers has proved prescient even as it was often ignored by the U.S. hierarchy. Mr. Sipe, a parishioner in the Diocese of San Diego, reached out to Bishop McElroy because he had information to share about allegations of abuse directed at a priest in San Diego.

His letter also detailed a number of allegations of abuse and cover-up that named prominent U.S. bishops as abusers themselves or accommodators of abusers. His letter detailed the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick (first cataloged by Mr. Sipe on his website in 2010) that exploded across national headlines last June.

Bishop McElroy remembers having two productive meetings with Mr. Sipe before a falling out led him to end the dialogue. He said that the material he received from Mr. Sipe was passed on to the proper governing bodies in Rome. He does not know if any of the other allegations made by Mr. Sipe against U.S. bishops are being actively investigated at this time.

Bishop McElroy spent much of October hosting sometimes raucous listening sessions with priests and parishioners.

But he believes Mr. Sipe’s analysis of causes of the church’s paralysis in the past and lack of direction now on the abuse crisis was on target: “His belief, sustained in many instances, is that bishops did not provide the adequate discipline over abusive priests because they were compromised by their own conduct.

“This hypothesis—that the reality of personal sexual misconduct by bishops...was a factor which inclined some bishops not to vigorously pursue allegations of abuse among their clergy—I believe that this is a valid hypothesis,” Bishop McElroy said.

He acknowledges that the papacy of Francis has been sidetracked by the Viganò testimony, but he adds, “I don’t think it has been irredeemably damaged.”

“I think it is necessarily going to be reshaped by the events of the past year, considering what has been happening here and in Chile and other places,” Bishop McElroy said. “What it means is there will have to be ever-deeper attention to the issues of clerical abuse and clericalism when they lie embedded in the life of the church, as they have in so many of our structures.”

The pope, he said, has repeatedly returned to the problem of clericalism and its correlation with abuse, problems Bishop McElroy described as “conjoined on many levels.”

“Survivors have told me repeatedly that they have found it healing...to know that their abuser has been named publicly.”

“They have to receive a great deal more attention,” he said. At the same time, he insists the pope’s agenda of reform, evangelization and mercy can move forward. “The fundamental issues of pastoral outreach and accompaniment, missionary discipleship, the social justice teaching of the church, ‘Laudato Si’,’ immigration, the economy and life issues, the pastoral theology of Pope Francis, which I believe is his most important contribution, these have to continue to be attended to, and I think they will be continued under robust forms in the years to come.”

But “alongside all of those issues, the abuse crisis has to receive a tremendous amount of energy and attention.”

Bishop McElroy spent much of October hosting sometimes raucous listening sessions in his diocese with priests and parishioners, including a significant number of the survivors of abuse by clergy and the lay leadership of San Diego, seeking out their thoughts and counsel on the ongoing crisis. He hopes to “incorporate some of their suggestions to inform what we should be doing [in response to the crisis] here in the diocese.”

As part of its institutional response so far, the Diocese of San Diego released a list of the names of all the priests who have been credibly accused of sexual abuse of a minor in the past 50 years.

Bishop McElroy believes U.S. bishops are ready to more forcefully address the crisis.

The names on this latest release, in fact, had been made public before, but “we went through our files and made it a more comprehensive list.” Bishop McElroy believes that San Diego has already released as much information as it can on past instances of clerical abuse within the diocese as part of a court settlement of 144 claims a decade ago.

He thinks releasing such lists is a requirement of institutional transparency. “Unspeakable crimes have been committed in the name of the church,” he said. But the document releases also offer an opportunity for restoration among survivors of abuse and within the church. “Survivors have told me repeatedly that they have found it healing, even if they never come forward, to know that their abuser has been named publicly.” Releasing the names, he said, also acts “as an invitation to people to come forward for healing for anything the diocese can do to assist them in that process.”

“It’s an arduous thing to do,” Bishop McElroy said. “Most dioceses are going to need outside help to come in and help them review records; it’s a challenging thing to do effectively.”

In fact, despite the significant efforts at transparency so far in San Diego, Bishop McElroy says he is preparing to do more. He is continuing to consult with external auditors on locating church records, seeking omissions and counsel on how to more effectively organize records and to learn “are there ways to recreate records? What [within the records] are indicators of potential problems with abuse, even if not full-blown evidence of abuse?”

In terms of other areas of practical reform, he believes U.S. bishops are ready to more forcefully address the crisis. “I think the bishops of the United States will press in November to substantially change [the abuse review] process in order to provide a structure in which lay people have a dominant role in assessing the validity of claims of sexual abuse by bishops and their official handling of abuse allegations,” he said. (On Nov. 12, U.S. bishops agreed to delay voting on issues related to the abuse crisis at the request of the Vatican.)

​​​​​​[Explore America’s in-depth coverage of the sex abuse crisis.]

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Tim O'Leary
1 month ago

This is the key quote: “This hypothesis—that the reality of personal sexual misconduct by bishops...was a factor which inclined some bishops not to vigorously pursue allegations of abuse among their clergy—I believe that this is a valid hypothesis,” Bishop McElroy said.
Sexually active bishops (mostly homosexual, it seems) were unwilling to pursue predatory clergy because it might expose them. This is the crux of the issue. Many want to focus on the sexual abuse of minors as a way of fencing off their activity. But, as the McCarrick case has exposed, sexual attraction is a Continuum, at least to teenagers. The recent scientific analysis by Dr. Rev. Paul Sullen has shown, the rise of homosexuals in the US Catholic clergy exactly correlates with abuse of minors. Only 5% of the minor abuse was pedophilic (pre-pubescent). No matter our opinion on homosexuality, we all have to face this tragic problem in our Church. It will never go away if we try to fence it off, or pretend that it's mainly pedophilia, or even that it has nothing to do with sex (as the clericalism-clamoring crowd might try to spin it). https://spark.adobe.com/page/xIVdVcuq9whJL/

Keith Breedlove
1 month ago

I believe an additional part of the problem is that of conflating forgiveness with innocence and acquittal. St. John Paull II forgave his attacker, but he did not demand that he be released from prison.

J. Calpezzo
1 month ago

What a profound observation.

Michael Barberi
4 weeks 1 day ago

Any priest or bishop, heterosexual or homosexual, that is guilty of sexual abuse of minors or adults or guilty of coverup should resign from the priesthood and their ecclesial positions or be defrocked. It should be noted that most heterosexual and homosexual priests and bishops abide by their vows of celibacy. These are well-adjusted and mature clergy who love God and neighbor and do good work for the Lord. For those who cannot control their sexual inclinations should resign.

Paul Mclaughlin
4 weeks ago

When the history of this mess is written, I am quite sure JP2 will be a central figure - not in a very good way. He protected abusers and did not hold anyone accountable for what. His view of people was shaped by their generosity - McCarrick and the guy who headed the Legionaires as two examples. He prided loyalty over all other factors. He turned his back on victims..

As this narrative plays out and comes before the Church, with it be compelled to reconsider his sainthood. The rush to sainthood was wrong. He should have been treated and vetted like all others. It was a PR gesture to conservatives.

Michael Barberi
4 weeks ago

Paul,

The Head and Founder of the Legion of Christ was Marcial Maciel. His sexual abuse of youths and young men and his other sexual immoral actions (e.g., he fathered a child from a woman, then supported her) was known by formal accusations to the Vatican in 1998. At that time, Cardinal Ratzinger did not move forward with prosecution and it was not determined if this was a decision by JP II or Ratzinger. Nevertheless, knowing how JP II ruled the Vatican, it is hard to believe he had nothing to do with this. Maciel was not disciplined until 2006 by Pope Benedict XVI.

Now we have the McCarrick scandal involving JP II who promoted him to Cardinal when his sexual abuse allegations were widely known.

I wonder if the anticipated USCCB lay-lead committee will thoroughly investigate the McCarrick scandal, et al, including priests, bishops, cardinals "and popes"? We need to get to the root of the sexual abuse scandal including crimes, coverup and gross negligence by minimizing or ignoring reliable sexual abuse evidence.

Tim O'Leary
4 weeks ago

Paul - I also want a full investigation of appointments over the last two decades at least, with a view to understanding the role of the popes and cardinals, nuncio and bishops in the selection. When Pope JP II elevated McCarrick, the same consistory (Feb-2001) had 44 Cardinals, and there must have been many other names who were rejected. Coincidentally, it included Walter Kasper, Maradiaga and Bergoglio. So, JPII obviously had limited information on their theology/politics. What other information was kept from him? According to Fr. Ramsey and Archbishop Vigano, not all allegations that reached the Vatican reached the Holy Father.

The same might be happening again with Pope Francis, who also bemoaned the gay lobby within the Vatican. Were all his choices really his or were some those of McCarrick or others? There must be some documents on each candidate put in front of the pope. My primary goal is a better selection process of bishops and cardinals in the future, based on fidelity in mind, body and soul.

The investigation of the Vatican procedures and processes should include the following: how is/was information handled: who got to see it, and when: what criteria for credibility was used to pass it along or just file it (e.g. are claims and charges coming in all the time, many not credible); were lawyers involved early or late: - so many questions that a fair-minded judicial panel of mostly lay people could discover and recommend reforms. No pope is free of bias, bad judgment, and even venality. Our popes are sinful men, like we all are, and not all are intellectual giants or saints. Sanctity is not dependent on these attributes, only on a repentant heart and a sincere surrender of one's will to the Lord, at the end of one's life. This is Pope Francis' moment. He can have a papacy that history compares to Liberius or Pope Gregory (I or VII). Let's pray for him.

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