Bishops, Abuse And The Next Steps

Over the last couple of weeks, there has been a plethora of responses to the Cardinal (now Archbishop) McCarrick scandal. What has surprised me most is the conclusion drawn by many of these articles. They usually express outrage at McCarrick’s rise to a red hat, even as his behavior was widely known. This part is understandable. But they often conclude that the Archbishop’s sterling career is an indication of deep moral rot within the Catholic Church in general and the episcopacy in particular.

I would like to challenge the claim that the Catholic Church has been deeply infected with moral corruption. Pace William McGurn’s suggestive piece in the Wall Street Journal a few days ago, this is not 1517 when, as students of history know, corruption both personal and theological was widespread in the Church. Today, seminary faculties are filled with learned and dedicated professors, both clergy and laity. Seminarians, generally, seek to be faithful and committed disciples of Jesus Christ. Moreover, during the past several decades, Catholic seminaries have been subjected to several papal visitations (i.e., investigations) to ensure doctrinal orthodoxy and moral rectitude. While there are surely significant sins committed in seminaries, as everywhere else—dimitte nobis debita nostra—it is dangerous to conclude that the Catholic Church is suffering through a period of pervasive moral corruption.

Of course, the news reports about Cardinal McCarrick are deeply disturbing, and steps must be taken to prevent this kind of behavior in the future. At the same time, I would strongly warn against a moral panic. A “panic”—and no other word accurately describes it—is what occurred in 2002 when newspapers revealed that child abuse had been widespread in certain American dioceses, particularly from the 1960s to the early 1980s. The bishops, bewildered and staggered by relentless media pressure, offered only inarticulate and bumbling responses. Fearful that events were spiraling out of control, and in the absence of theological leadership, the bishops turned to lawyers and PR flacks in order to compose their i">>Charter for the Protection of Young People. This is a deeply flawed document—as Cardinal Avery Dulles and Fr. Richard Neuhaus tirelessly pointed out—which distorts natural justice and undermines the sacrament of holy orders. But the bishops had one principal goal: to keep the wolves from their chancery doors.

I recall this sad but instructive history to emphasize that policies written in the midst of a Chicken-Little-like panic do not produce theologically and morally astute results. On the contrary, they are often disastrous. The Charter has created a culture of fear among priests and, as Cardinal Dulles accurately predicted, has created an “adversarial relationship” between priests and bishops since all priests know that bishops are not committed to protecting either their ministry or their good reputations.

Nonetheless, the solution to the present crisis is not to place the bishops under the Dallas Charter (from which they had exempted themselves). It would be foolhardy to extend the influence of a profoundly defective document—or to regard it as a magical panacea. Rather, the Church’s current difficulties offer a God-given opportunity for the Charter to be finally junked and for a thoughtful new policy—creative, just and theologically-informed—to emerge which covers all clergy.

I propose that a national board be established, comprised of all the estates of the Church—bishops, priests, deacons, religious and laity—which would serve as a reporting station for any clergyman suspected of sexual crimes. And I speak here of crimes, not consensual adult relationships which, while sinful infractions against the commandments and the promise of celibacy, can be—and for centuries have been—salutarily treated with confession, penance and spiritual direction.

Clergy would not be immediately suspended as is now the case (the judgment of “credibility” is risible in most dioceses). Rather, any accusatory complaint would be remanded (if a priest or deacon) to the diocesan bishop who would investigate the claim through his review board to determine if there might be evidentiary grounds for suspension. If such exist, the priest or deacon could be suspended until a further investigation (thorough, but expeditious, as is not currently the case) were completed.

If a bishop were accused, the case would be investigated by the national board itself, with the bishop being asked to step down temporarily if there existed actual evidence of abuse or harassment until a full investigation could be concluded.

In all cases, we should adhere to the principle that the accused are innocent until proven guilty. As the Charter presently exists, an accused priest (disregard the empty rhetoric of presumed innocence now accompanying a priest’s removal) is assumed to be, and treated as, guilty. He is disallowed from exercising his public ministry, forbidden to present himself as a priest, ordered off all diocesan property, deprived of (most) compensation and, because of the suspension, robbed of his only means of support. In truth, he is no longer a brother priest, but a contaminated pariah. With these kinds of dire consequences, the Church must make every attempt to ensure that she is acting justly—and not acting simply to prevent a bishop or diocese from receiving bad publicity.

A further step that should be considered for the future is the much greater participation of priests and laity in the selection of bishops. There are many good men in the American hierarchy. But it is also clear that bishops in this country are not chosen because they exemplify the virtues of fortitude, wisdom and theological insight. They are chosen because they exhibit loyalty to Rome, possess some mild administrative ability, have a familiarity with canon law, and have generally kept their noses clean. These traits should not be disdained, but they are hardly what is needed today.

The Catholic Church in America needs bishops with strong backbones, men who are not worried about their next promotion, or about the next assault from critics, but who are ready and able to defend the Church’s faith, her people and her ministers with courage, élan and incisive intelligence.

The Cardinal McCarrick scandal is a tragedy for Catholicism—of that there is no question. But with firm, resolute and measured steps, the Church can learn from this tragedy and move forward with undaunted confidence in her divine mission.

(Opinions expressed in articles for Catholic World Report are the authors’ alone, and do not necessarily represent the positions of other contributors or of Ignatius Press.)

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