Why are the bishops praying about the abuse crisis instead of doing something about it?

Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., front right, prays during Mass in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary on Jan. 3 at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. The U.S. bishops are on retreat Jan. 2-8 at the seminary. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)Bishop Jaime Soto of Sacramento, Calif., front right, prays during Mass in the Chapel of the Immaculate Conception at Mundelein Seminary on Jan. 3 at the University of St. Mary of the Lake in Illinois, near Chicago. The U.S. bishops are on retreat Jan. 2-8 at the seminary. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Catholics are angry. They have every right to be: They have been failed by their priests, their bishops, even their popes. The clergy sexual abuse crisis that many wishfully thought was behind us has come roaring back. While reforms instituted in 2002 seem to have been effective in preventing new cases of abuse, the ongoing revelations about sexual abuse cases going back decades and cover-ups by church leaders underscore that the church has never properly atoned, to say the least. And the wound cuts deeper with every new story of a government investigation, every previously hidden list of accused priests that is released, every survivor’s story of trauma.

Anger quickly becomes toxic when it is compounded by the feeling that no leader is doing anything to rectify the situation. In the case of the sexual abuse crisis, it is a recipe for ecclesial nihilism.

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The U.S. bishops are gathered this week for a retreat near Chicago to pray and reflect on the sexual abuse crisis. The retreat comes ahead of a February summit on the sexual abuse crisis in the Vatican, with leading bishops from around the world. Despite the cries for change, organizers of the retreat have insisted it will be about prayer, and not policy change.

Anger quickly becomes toxic when it is compounded by the feeling that no leader is doing anything to rectify the situation.

But Americans in particular are primed for a distrust of announcements of prayer in the face of tragedy. For example, “thoughts and prayers” are routinely trotted out by politicians and pundits in the face of mass shootings and then followed up with little or no action to reduce gun violence.

With the crisis still unfolding, and now nearly 20 years since it entered the public consciousness, it is reasonable to ask: If the bishops are going to spend a week together, shouldn’t they be doing something instead of spending the entire time on prayer?

Not exactly.

There is a long tradition in the Catholic Church regarding the necessary relationship between prayer and action, and the importance of prayer preceding action. In the “see, judge, act” formulation in Catholic social teaching, judging is positioned after observing an injustice and before acting upon it. In Ignatian spirituality, there is a great emphasis on discernment and prayer before making decisions. It goes back to Jesus himself, who is regularly depicted in the Gospels as taking time away from the crowds and away from direct ministry for silence and prayer.

In Ignatian spirituality, there is a great emphasis on discernment and prayer before making decisions. It goes back to Jesus himself.

Even when prayer is not the focus, the need for taking a pause before enacting reforms and responses is well-recognized. The best managers in the corporate world set aside time and space from day-to-day business for strategic thinking. This becomes even more important when companies are facing a crisis. Tim Johnson, the author of “Crisis Leadership,” writes, “Resist the urge to do anything immediately.” Leading through a crisis requires, as Daniel McGinn summarizes Johnson’s work in the Harvard Business Review, “avoiding these impulses [to overreach or eschew responsibility] and instead figuring out what’s really happening, thinking hard about stakeholders’ needs, and creating a purposeful mission to guide the response.”

David Allen, the consultant who created the time-management method “Getting Things Done” has said “You don’t need time to have a good idea, you need space…. It takes zero time to have an innovative idea or to make a decision, but if you don’t have psychic space, those things are not necessarily impossible, but they’re suboptimal.”

A lasting conversion for the church, what Francis in his letter calls “a new ecclesial season,” will not come without prayer.

The church is not a Fortune 500 company. Pope Francis acknowledged as much in his letter to the U.S. bishops on retreat, writing, “Loss of credibility calls for a specific approach, since it cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources.” The Gospel demands more of that. It requires of our bishops (as it requires of us all) a change of heart, a metanoia. As much as they need the “psychic space” to undertake necessary reforms, they even more need the grace, courage and freedom to reform themselves and the church. That only comes from God, and that is why time for silence, prayer and penance is so necessary.

A lasting conversion for the church, what Francis in his letter calls “a new ecclesial season,” will not come without prayer. Francis inviting the bishops to make this retreat ahead of the Vatican summit, and also offering the services of the official preacher to the papal household for the retreat, shows that he wants space and time for bishops to “judge” before they “act.” “Judging,” in this case, means not only reaching a decision but “judging rightly,” in accordance with God’s will.

Trying to institute reforms without taking sufficient time to understand and discern a path forward has already failed once. A letter from the Vatican that the Associated Press reported on earlier this week showed that the U.S. bishops sent Rome their proposed reforms to address the sexual abuse crisis only four days before they were scheduled to vote on them at their November annual meeting. The Vatican objected to the hurried vote, and it was cancelled.

This week’s retreat cannot be the end. Anyone who has spent transformative time on a retreat knows how difficult it is to translate the graces received during one into daily life. Catholics should pray that their bishops have the grace to understand where God is leading the church, but also that they will have the courage to enact change when they leave the retreat center and return to their dioceses.

St. John XXIII wrote in “Mater et Magistra” that knowledge acquired by the “see, judge, act,” method of Catholic social teaching “does not remain merely abstract, but is seen as something that must be translated into action” (No. 237, emphasis mine).

Put another way, as Jesus said, every tree is known by its fruit. And people will be demanding good fruit. Soon.

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John Chuchman
8 months 2 weeks ago

Because Francis cannot depend on them to DO anything meaningful and thus has told them to Pray.

Mister Mckee
8 months 2 weeks ago

Perhaps HE will have better luck with these hierarchs than Jesus did with his disciples in the Garden?

JOHN GRONDELSKI
8 months 2 weeks ago

I'm not really sure how much we can depend on Francis.

Mister Mckee
8 months 2 weeks ago

For those bishops who actually still do pray, they might take a cue from Cardinal Merry del Val:
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Litany_of_humility#Litany_to_Obtain_Holy_…]

And for those covering this NON-EVENT, inquiring minds would love to know just how many of the hierarchical retreatants (and their retreat master!) flew there in COACH, BUSINESS or FIRST CLASS seats?
Now THAT, Mr. Davis, would be some very telling investigative reporting.

Matt Wilson
8 months 2 weeks ago

I'm grateful for the article, primarily because of the comments it has evoked. I'm glad that the critics are here, and hope that their vocal anger will be fully considered as solutions are considered. To those critics; if you expect a God-fearing Church (leaders, laypeople, everybody) to set aside their faith in the God that joins us in the fist place, then you will lose credibility as a voice for justice. We see some of that in the comments above, and you just look like all of the other members of the faithless army that shows up whenever someone suggests that faith is part of a better world. I am a faithful member of the Church, and I am as outraged and embarrassed as anyone can be. I demand that the bishops fix this and bring in secular forces,..any forces for change that will erase the problem. If they do that without calling on God's intervention, then it's worthless to me. God first. If that doesn't make sense to some of you, so be it.

Mister Mckee
8 months 2 weeks ago

SIXTY (lawyer and settlement free!) years ago, the hierarchs didn't even bother to PRAY about it:
http://www.bishop-accountability.org/news2008/05_06/2008_06_16_Ebeling_ProofBishops.htm

A song comes to mind:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oeBy1Ee8LCg

David Rosanova
8 months 2 weeks ago

Sad to say BUT looks like our leaders are avoiding rather leading.

David Rosanova
8 months 2 weeks ago

Sad to say BUT looks like our leaders are avoiding rather leading.

JOHN GRONDELSKI
8 months 2 weeks ago

We do not need more "discerning" and more making excuses for the homosexual proclivities of some clergy. We do not need Francis flying at 30,000 feet in rhetoric in his letter to the retreating bishops; we need Rome acting. We do not need "time for proposals to mature," as Cardinal Ouellet put it, because the Congregation for Bishops never thought before November how the system could fail that the CB could give us Teddy Bear McCarrick. We do not need more bishops praying in seminaries, as if they lacked warning about a sordid crisis that let out round one of this stench 17 years ago. We need bishops who are MEN and act like MEN and not managers, who role up their ermine sleeves and start shoveling the Augean stables that they have in no small measure allowed to fester by their adherence to the cardinal episcopal virtue of "peace and quiet," masquerading as "collegiality" and "consensus."

MJ Painter
8 months 2 weeks ago

The only prayer the bishops should be saying at this point is one asking for forgiveness for the fact that after so many years of knowing about the problem, they STILL haven't come to grips with it.

Phillip Stone
8 months 2 weeks ago

My suggestions tend towards the radical end - there is no place for tinkering at the edges.

1. Close ALL seminaries.
The people of God have the sevenfold gifts of the Holy Spirit and consist of older, married with children people refined by the fire of life for quite a time. A congregation has the capacity to follow boys and men from infancy towards maturity. Suitable candidates for ministries must be discerned at this level and initially only those who are well enough known to them are to be considered.
Any special education, any spiritual formation must be done while they are living in their community, preferably in their family home during the daytime.

2. Academic excellence must NOT be an essential part of the minimal qualifications for suitability.

3. The office of presbyter, indeed any other office as well, must never be called that of father. There is clear, unambiguous, definite embargo on doing so in the New Testament.
Ministers are BRETHREN, NOT FATHERS, to fellow Christians. There are a number of perfectly good and respectful titles used by others - Minister, Reverend, Pastor, Cleric and the like.
Note that Jesus Christ Himself confined the use of Father to God Almighty, His Father. Peter was the chief Apostle, never the Holy Father. This is psychologically and socially of the highest importance.

4. All monarchical and aristocratic ideas must be expunged from the institution. Bishops are NOT princes, Popes are NOT monarchs and heaven only knows why there is a special bunch of bishops who alone are eligible to choose a new leader when the successor to Peter dies or resigns.

5. As a first choice, all spiritual direction and sacramental ministry must be chaperoned if at all possible and if not, the minister and the fellow Christian must be visible, not hidden in a private room.
The confessional box may be retained but must be built so that there is NO POSSIBILITY of physical contact.

6. Given cars, mobile phones and good roads, urban and suburban pastors of adjacent local churches will still be rapidly available should they live together domestically and cater for themselves as much as possible - if too busy paid workers may be permitted and these men must not get used to having servants by free labour from local women parishioners.

Ellen Franklin
8 months 2 weeks ago

If the bishops had prayed at any point prior to this retreat, we might not be in this mess. They should pray, of course, but I have no trust/faith in or respect for these people who carved out an exemption for themselves in 2002 in Dallas.

Ellen Franklin
8 months 2 weeks ago

If the bishops had prayed at any point prior to this retreat, we might not be in this mess. They should pray, of course, but I have no trust/faith in or respect for these people who carved out an exemption for themselves in 2002 in Dallas.

Ellen Franklin
8 months 2 weeks ago

If the bishops had prayed at any point prior to this retreat, we might not be in this mess. They should pray, of course, but I have no trust/faith in or respect for these people who carved out an exemption for themselves in 2002 in Dallas.

Ellen Franklin
8 months 2 weeks ago

If the bishops had prayed at any point prior to this retreat, we might not be in this mess. They should pray, of course, but I have no trust/faith in or respect for these people who carved out an exemption for themselves in 2002 in Dallas.

John Barbieri
8 months 2 weeks ago

Human beings act on the basis of what is true at best or duplicitous at worst. If someone's words are not aligned with his actions, his actions demonstrate what he believes. Look at the actions of the hierarchy. Are they congruent with their words? Draw your own conclusions about the hierarchy.

Catherine Murphy
8 months 2 weeks ago

For those of you who think the problems have been solved by the Church, please take note: https://abc7ny.com/ny-priest-accused-of-touching-10-year-old-child-at-school/4925114/

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