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.”
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.)