Hillaire Belloc, an English Catholic writer from the first half of the last century, once remarked apropos of Catholic leadership that any organization whose leadership was guilty of such knavish imbecility must have the special protection of God. As we ride the turbulent waves of the latest reprise of the sexual abuse scandal, we must wonder why. Why did some of our leaders fall victim to the current wave of knavish imbecility?

Some “experts” appeal to celibate clerical culture as an explanation, with no evidence to support such an argument and no explanation why police, physicians and sometimes even academics similarly protect their own. So do many church leaders of other denominations, though not with so much dedicated imbecility.


Some gay-bashers blame the church for ordaining gay men in recent years. But most of the cases that have surfaced are of men who were ordained long before the alleged increase in gay ordinations.

The answer, I think, has nothing to do with celibacy or homosexuality and much to do with the propensity of men to stand behind their own kind, especially when they perceive them to be under attack. Under such circumstances, loyalty inclines men to circle the wagons, deny the truth of the charges (however patent they may be to others) and demonize the attackers. A form of group-think takes over. They rally round to support those under assault.

Clerical culture is different from similar cultures in that the bishop is under pressure to exercise paternal care of the priest in trouble. The bishop finds himself inclined to the same denials and demonization as other priests: maybe the charges are not true, maybe the so-called victims brought it on themselves, maybe they’re just interested in money, maybe the priest deserves another chance. The police have not brought charges; the doctors offer ambiguous advice; the lawyers think they can fend off a suit. The media thus far have left these events alone. The priest vigorously denies that he ever touched the alleged victim. Just one more chance. Many bishops, perhaps most bishops, even the most churlish, feel a compulsion to be kind to the priest in trouble. (There but for the grace of God.) So they beat up on the victims and their families and send the man off to an institution and then, hoping he’s cured, send him back to a parish.

Should a trial materialize, the bishops—trapped between adversarial lawyers (“The victims and their families are the enemy”) and their own doubts about the guilt of the priest (“he still denies it”)—are willing (as was then Bishop Edward Egan in Bridgeport) to argue through lawyers that priests do not work for the church but are independent contractors. Or they argue, as Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua did through his lawyers in Philadelphia, that the victims’ parents are legally responsible for not warning their child of the dangers.

This is the slippery slope that begins with loyalty to a fellow priest, doubt about guilt and paternalist duty to be kind and ends either with reassignment or hardball litigation. Moreover, at every step of the way, the bishop’s advisers encourage him to give the priest another chance or to fight back. The kind of men who are made bishops today find it difficult simply to dump a fellow priest and, similarly, their advisers find it difficult to suggest doing so (though in Boston, Bishop John Michael D’Arcy did indeed give such advice).

This narrative might suggest some sympathy for the decisions many bishops made. But I am attempting to understand and explain, not to defend. The decisions made across the country are manifestations of knavish imbecility. Yet I can understand how men could have come to make them.

Mistakes were perhaps understandable before 1986, when at their meeting at St. John’s Abbey the bishops heard for the first time a systematic presentation about child abuse. They became less understandable after 1993, when the hierarchy put together a perfectly reasonable set of guidelines (which were systematically ignored) and when Cardinal Joseph Bernardin distributed copies of his policies in Chicago to every bishop in the country.

I remember when I was harassing the cardinal about the abuses in Chicago. “What should I do?” he asked.

“Get rid of them all,” I said.

“That’s exactly what we’re doing,” he said.

“And set up a review board on which the majority are not priests.”

He did that too, though I claim no credit for it.

Yet I reflect on how hard it must have been for Joseph Bernardin, the kindest and gentlest of men, to remove more than 20 priests from active ministry. The Chicago system does not work perfectly; no system could. But it works better than anything that seems to have functioned for the last 10 years in the Northeast. As far as I am concerned, the statute of limitations on knavish imbecility ended in 1992. That bishops could reassign abusive priests after the early 90’s was, I’m sorry to have to say it, sinful.

There were three sins. First, they besmirched the office of bishop and seriously weakened its credibility. Second, they scandalized the Catholic laity, perhaps the worst scandal in the history of our republic. But their gravest sin was to not consider the victims, not even to talk to the victims and their families, to blind themselves to the terrible wreckage that sexual abuse causes for human lives. Bishops worried about their priests; they did not worry about the victims. They did not seem to understand that at the same time they were trying to inhibit sexual satisfaction in the marital bed, they were facilitating sexual satisfaction for abusive priests.

When I argue that many of our leaders have sinned, I am not judging the state of their conscience. I do not have the gift of scrutatio cordium. I will leave it to God to judge their moral responsibility. I am merely saying that by cooperating with the sexual abuse of children and young boys they were objectively sinning—and it is hard to see how they can claim invincible ignorance. They were, in fact, according to the strict canons of the old moral theology, necessary cooperators in evil and objectively as responsible for the evil as those who actually did it.

Yet they still blame the media and the tort lawyers for their problems, as though The Boston Globe and money-hungry lawyers sent priests with twisted psyches back into the parishes where they could rape kids.

Cardinal Law argues bad records. In The Wall Street Journal, Philip K. Lawler, his one-time editor, blames the cardinal but links the cardinal’s mistakes to parish priests’ not enforcing the prohibition on birth control.

Gimme a break!

Denial continues, now no longer about the guilt of their priests but about their own sinfulness. Moreover, the denial persists not only among bishops but also among priests, who complain about how they are suffering because of the scandal. If the pathetic letters emerging from the office of the National Federation of Priests Councils are any indication of the sentiment of the ordinary priest, self-pity is more important than the consideration of their own personal responsibility for not reporting abuse about which they knew.

Reparation has not even begun. Until that happens, the re-establishment of even a semblance of hierarchal credibility cannot begin.

As the late Bishop William E. McManus argued back in the last turn of the abuse news cycle, the bishops must do public penance. They didn’t then. If they do it now, it would have to be much more impressive than just a collective service in some cathedral. Those bishops who have become notorious and public sinners must admit their guilt and undertake personal penance.

Resign? I doubt that the Vatican, which does not seem to have a clue about the current crisis in the United States, would accept resignations. (Besides, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t know.) It would be much better if the offending bishops would go off to a monastery for a long period of prayer, reflection and fasting. This kind of gesture might just possibly calm some of the stormy waves. They wouldn’t necessarily have to don sackcloth and ashes, though there is something to be said for that ancient custom.

Will something like that happen? Again I say, gimme a break! Cardinals don’t have to admit that they have sinned. Much less do they have to engage in public contrition.

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