When will the church be able to move decisively toward healing? When will the scandals stop being merely revealed and start being resolved? Last November, the bishops of the United States were surprised when the Vatican told them not to vote on their proposed reforms for holding bishops accountable for failures in responding to the sexual abuse crisis. At the time, I described the way that announcement was handled by all as a pastoral failure in communication. As the bishops prepare to take up the sexual abuse crisis again in their national meeting on Tuesday, the failure has, I am afraid to say, grown worse.
Last week, a devastating Washington Post story revealed that the disgraced former bishop of West Virginia, Michael Bransfield, who resigned last year under allegations of sexual harassment, had a pattern of using diocesan funds to make four- and five-figure personal cash gifts to other powerful U.S. bishops. Even worse, one of the bishops to whom he had given money was Archbishop William Lori of Baltimore, who, as his metropolitan archbishop, later oversaw the investigation of Bishop Bransfield after his resignation. Either the investigation should have been handed off to a different bishop, or at least such a potential conflict should have been disclosed as soon as it became known that Bishop Bransfield had used diocesan funds for the gift.
As the bishops prepare to take up the sexual abuse crisis again in their national meeting on Tuesday, the pastoral failure in communication has, I am afraid to say, grown worse.
But the conflict of interest is not the lowest point of this latest episode in the church’s recent year of crisis. The true low—for now—is another stunning failure of public communication that has damaged trust in our pastors. Archbishop Lori redacted the names of 11 prelates, including his own name, from his March report to the Vatican about the investigation into Bishop Bransfield. The other redacted names included Cardinals Raymond Burke, Timothy Dolan, Kevin Farrell, Bernard Law, Donald Wuerl—and Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò (from his time as papal nuncio to the United States, prior to his attacks on Pope Francis).
Since learning of the Post’s reporting, Archbishop Lori has apologized for hiding the names, saying in a video posted to YouTube that “If I had to do it over again, especially at a time when we are trying to create greater transparency and accountability, the report would have included the names of those bishops who received gifts, including my own.” He has also returned the gifts from Bishop Bransfield to the diocese in West Virginia and asked that they be given to Catholic Charities instead. Such an apology and resolution to do better is certainly necessary, but it is not enough to heal the breach of trust that has been opened.
What the church needs—what the faithful are crying for—is to see that its bishops are courageous enough to face the anger of the people in the pews directly.
What the church needs—what the faithful are crying for—is to see that its bishops are courageous enough to face the anger of the people in the pews directly, and repentant enough to confess their sins to the church before an investigative reporter reveals them to the world. When they meet this week, the bishops need to ask each other what other kinds of ecclesial business-as-usual may, when the people of God learn of them, require such apologies in the future. And they need to find and express contrition for them now, without hiding behind lawyerly words and press statements parsed to minimize liability.
Better policies, while sorely needed, are insufficient to restore trust. For that, we need our bishops to be better pastors. The reason we ordain priests and consecrate bishops is that some missions—such as imploring God’s grace for God’s people through the sacraments—are so profound as to demand the gift of an entire life devoted to them. When we learn that such a gift has been partially withheld, indentured to the false gods of status, wealth, comfort and influence, to the worst forms of clericalism, the betrayal is profound. The only adequate response to such a wound is thorough conversion, for our bishops and priests to seek to understand how their actions and inactions have harmed their people and to respond by changing their lives and ministries profoundly and publicly.
This past Saturday in New York, Cardinal Joseph Tobin of Newark ordained five of my Jesuit brothers to the priesthood. At the conclusion of the Mass, before the final blessing, he spoke of how the image of first responders running into the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11 while others were running out has become an icon for people in the New York area, and suggested that these newly ordained priests were doing something similar in the face of the wounds inflicted on the church by the crimes and hypocrisy of other priests and bishops. We need our bishops to be filled with similar courage.
When they act with such courage, they will be following, not leading, the people of God. As a priest, I have learned during these months of crisis that preaching honestly about the ways the church has failed, about the ways we priests have failed, is a response to the faith of the people I serve, not a challenge to it. It celebrates their courage, not mine. Over and over again people tell me that they are keeping faith and remaining in the church because no priest or bishop, no matter how badly he fails, can stand between them and God.
May we be worthy of the courage of the faithful people we serve. And may God help our bishops be shepherds who respond to the courage of their flocks, who “smell like the sheep” and will face the wolves along with them.