This has been a painful Holy Week, especially for the Roman Catholic church. Every year at this time, the secular media goes to Rome to report on the grand services that run from Palm Sunday through Easter. This year, though, the stories are not filler on a slow news week, but front page stuff.
What is emerging this year is not so much about Roman Catholic priests who are abusing children, but the larger and more systemic issue of the accountability of the hierarchy for their actions in dealing (or not) with these priests in the past. Far too many bishops saw covering up these stories as the best way to protect the reputation of the church, and the seeds that the bishops sowed by such actions are now bursting forth with poisonous fruit.
Of all the bishops who shuttled abusive priests from one parish to another, who failed to exercise proper oversight, and who stonewalled attempts to hold the abusers accountable in court, only two (that I am aware of) have suffered any kind of sanction. In 2002, Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law resigned under pressure for his handling of matters in Boston, and in Ireland, Archbishop John Magee resigned last Wednesday. As the New York Times notes, however, “Beyond Bishop Magee, four other Irish bishops implicated in the government reports for failing to protect children have offered to resign, but Benedict has accepted only one of their requests.”
One of those whose resignation Pope Benedict has not accepted is the head of the Catholic Church in Ireland, Cardinal Sean Brady, who admitted “that he had attended two meetings in 1975 concerning Father Brendan Smyth, a notorious paedophile, where two of Smyth’s victims signed an affidavit promising to discuss their claims only with a specified priest.”
Benedict, in his recent letter to the Irish church, spoke eloquently to various groups of people touched by this scandal, including victims, parents, abusive priests, faithful priests, the laypeople of Ireland, and to the bishops. Sadly, his comments to the bishops opened like this (emphasis added):
It cannot be denied that some of you and your predecessors failed, at times grievously, to apply the long-established norms of canon law to the crime of child abuse. Serious mistakes were made in responding to allegations. I recognize how difficult it was to grasp the extent and complexity of the problem, to obtain reliable information and to make the right decisions in the light of conflicting expert advice. Nevertheless, it must be admitted that grave errors of judgement were made and failures of leadership occurred.
Behold the passive voice — and thus accountability is avoided.
Despite the claim by New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan that “No one has been more vigorous in cleansing the Church of the effects of this sickening sin than the man we now call Pope Benedict XVI,” that title belongs to Father Thomas P. Doyle, who has been fighting to get the hierarchy to clean up its act since the 1980s. Writes Doyle this past week:
Since the first public revelation in the U.S. in 1984 Catholic officialdom has responded to questions and criticism with a variety of explanations. These have ranged from accusations of media Catholic bashing and a rejection of the Church’s traditional sexual morality to claims that the bishops just didn’t know much about sexual abuse or were led astray by their medical advisors. Those who have criticized the hierarchy have been accused of dissent, disloyalty or worse. Victims and their attorneys have been demonized or told to forgive and move on. None of this rhetoric has stemmed the continued revelation of more victims and more cover-ups. The Pope and the bishops have not been able to move from defense to offense or even to guarded neutrality. The public apologies and expressions of regret and shame that have come from bishops have been rejected by the victims as insincere and self-serving. In his letter to the Irish people, released on March 19, Pope Benedict expressed what certainly sounded like sincere sorrow and regret. Throughout his letter however, he injected references to the institutional Church and even put harm done to the victims on equal footing with the loss of respect and confidence in the Church. This adds to the conviction that at the end of the day this is not primarily about healing the victims or purging the Church of the source of the pain, but about power, papal and episcopal power, and the assurance that more of it won’t be relinquished. . . .
Though other institutions, public and private, religious and secular, have all experienced sexual abuse and other forms of internal corruption, the Catholic Church is unique. It has used its immense spiritual power and its absolute authority to control victims to the extent of persuading them to be part of their own cover-up.
Look back, for a moment, to the case of Cardinal Law and why he stood alone until this week in resigning over his actions. In 2002, John Allen of the National Catholic Reporter analyzed Law’s resignation:
Most Vatican officials, off the record, seem to agree that three factors were paramount:
- A grand jury subpoena served to Law on Friday, Dec. 6;
- The threat of bankruptcy;
- A letter from 58 of Law’s priests calling for his resignation.
This final element was, according to Vatican sources, probably the most critical. On Monday and Tuesday, Dec. 9 and 10, the consensus was that Law would be told to stay on, as he had been last spring when he first offered to step aside. That shifted decisively on Wednesday, however, and most officials pointed to the impact of the priests’ letter. Seen from Rome, protests from American lay groups such as Voice of the Faithful can seem like just another expression of the noisy, confrontational political culture in the United States. When the rebellion comes from within the clerical fraternity, however, it’s much more difficult to ignore.
Clerical rebellion is starting to mount against the bishops and pope, from Archbishop Diarmuid Martin of Dublin and Archbishop Robert Zollitsch of Freiburg, as well as American theologians like Jesuit Thomas Reece, whose column entitled “Taking Responsibility,” ended by saying:
Bishops have to be willing to sacrifice for the sake of the whole church. It is a scandal that Cardinal Law was the only U.S. bishop to resign because of this crisis. It is encouraging that four Irish bishops have submitted their resignations. Unless the church wants this crisis to go on for years in Europe as it did in the United States, some bishops will have to resign for the good of the church.
Will the European bishops learn from the U.S. experience? I hope so.
It looks like the bishops are starting to learn that message, but it is Benedict who has not, as he is unwilling to accept resignations that are offered to him. Perhaps if more bishops followed the lead of Martin and Zollitsch, or the Irish bishops who offered their resignations, it might have the same effect as the priests letter about Cardinal Law.
As Father Doyle noted, the symptom the church is confronting is the abuse, but the underlying disease is a love of power. So long as Benedict addresses only the symptom and not the disease, real healing cannot occur.
Benedict wrote this in his letter to Ireland: “Only decisive action carried out with complete honesty and transparency will restore the respect and good will of the Irish people towards the Church to which we have consecrated our lives.” I agree. A good start would be to see public confession on the part of bishops, penance in the form of resignations, and decisive action on Benedict’s part to accept these resignations and to raise up a new generation of bishops to take their place.
He might start by naming Thomas Doyle as one of those new bishops.