Where Do Things Stand on the Sex Abuse Crisis?

The news from the recent US bishops’ meeting came as a shock and disappointment to many Catholics – the Holy See blocked a vote on any plan to address the latest developments in the sex abuse crisis until after a world-wide meeting of the heads of national bishops’ conferences in February. And many are deeply frustrated because there is a lack of information about why this was done and what’s going to happen.

I’ve been hearing lots of angry questions about the situation from friends and correspondents. There is a plethora of opinion and speculation online, much of it colored by various ideological positions. There is a lot of mis-information, and lack of information, being spread through the media and the blogosphere.

I’d like to offer some of my thoughts and explanations to try to clarify where I see things being. Note that these are my personal opinions. They’re not official positions of the Archdiocese and I have no special inside information. But I am involved in child protection, so I’m going to use that experience to try to make some sense of things.

Why did Rome stop the bishops from acting? 

Just to review, the US bishops were holding their semi-annual meeting in Baltimore. The main issue on the agenda was how to address the sex abuse crisis, particularly the question of how to hold bishops accountable. There were two inter-related proposals on the table – to establish a lay-led commission to review complaints against bishops and to define a code of conduct for bishops. At the last minute, a letter was sent from the Holy See asking (in reality, a nice way of ordering) the bishops to postpone any vote on any kind of proposal until after the meeting that the Holy Father called in February to discuss the matter with the presidents of all the regional bishops’ conferences around the world.

It’s impossible to say why the Holy See stopped the bishops from adopting an American policy, because nobody in Rome explained the reasoning behind the decision. All we were told was that decisions should be deferred until after the February meeting. For Americans, this is, perhaps, the most frustrating part of what happened, since we are used to much more open debate about policy options. Many feel deeply offended and angry, and see this as another example of condescending clericalism and a culture of secrecy. Some have also found it bewildering to stop our bishops from voting on a plan that was going to have to be approved in Rome anyway, and wonder whether there is some kind of hostility to America going on.

It’s clear to me that the Holy See needs to be much more open about what they’re doing and why — especially because one of the most damaging parts of the sex abuse crisis was the loss of trust because of all the secrecy.

Why can’t the US Bishops just adopt their own policies for the US?

American Catholics naturally want our American bishops to offer solutions to our American problem. We respect the principle of subsidiarity, according to which there’s a strong preference that local bodies resolve local problems if possible, and that larger bodies only get involved if local solutions don’t work. Our experience since 2002 with the Bishops’ Charter shows that our bishops are perfect capable of developing successful ways to deal with sex abuse on a national scale.

So for many people, Rome’s decision to postpone any action on the US bishops’ plan, before there was a chance to see if it would work, seems to violate subsidiarity. On the other hand, the Holy Father may be convinced that the sex abuse crisis (including the problem of misconduct and poor governance by bishops) can’t be answered on a nation-by-nation basis and requires a world-wide discussion, if not a world-wide response. It’s hard to tell because Rome’s reasoning hasn’t been made public.

Regardless of the reasons, once Rome made the request (i.e., order) to our bishops, they had no choice but to comply. Unity with the Holy Father is an essential part of the collegiality among bishops and the catholicity of our Church, and great deference has to be given to his wishes.

One pragmatic matter is crucial to understand: the Church is present in virtually every country in the world. We in America are used to dealing with a good government with fair courts and laws, a free press and wide-open discussions. But in most other countries, dioceses operate in a completely different environment, with open hostility and persecution from their governments, limited free press and fear of retaliation for speaking one’s mind. So what may make perfect sense in one country or diocese could be a disaster in another. The Holy See has the difficult job of trying to make world-wide policy that will work in all nations.

So does Rome have a plan?

Again, we don’t know, because nobody at the Holy See has publicly proposed anything yet. The Vatican has just announced the names of some of the people who will be involved in the planning of the February meeting (none of whom are laypeople), they haven’t had any formal meetings yet, and there haven’t been any real hints about the actual agenda. Public statements by some of the organizers have been very general and have suggested that the meeting will only be the beginning of a longer process of developing policies.

That kind of statement is just astounding to me – we are very far from the beginning of the crisis, and we need to move quickly towards ending it. The crisis is now, not in the future. We need to see a sense of urgency and a concrete plan that has much more involvement of the laity, especially experts in the field, and much more openness and accountability.

For all those reasons and more, I think it’s reasonable to be skeptical that the February meeting will result in any concrete proposals. In the past, high-level meetings run by the Holy See have usually been better at discussing general principles than for adopting practical policies. Just think of the most recent Synods of Bishops for examples.

There was also some discussion at the US bishops’ meeting of strengthening the role of archbishops in supervising the bishops in their province and in evaluating allegations of misconduct by them. There were even hints that this proposal might be favored in Rome. There is some merit to this idea, since it relies on existing structures, but it makes many Catholics nervous. Having bishops overseeing other bishops, unless they also have robust transparency and involvement by laity or independent investigators, will likely be perceived by many as perpetuating the kind of clericalism that has been a major part of the problem in the past. The Archbishop McCarrick case has been seen as a prime example of the failure of bishops to self-police.

In any event, it seems clear to me that to regain the trust of American Catholics, Rome will have to come up with more than just additional statements about how serious the problem is, how concerned they are, how committed they are to preventing abuse, and how serious they are about developing policies. There’s already been a lot of talk, and people are impatient for action.

What can our bishops do in the meantime? 

Seeing our bishops’ hands tied by the Vatican is very upsetting, because that means there are very few things they can do on the national scale while waiting for the February world-wide meeting. Cardinal Dolan and two other prelates have been appointed to a special task force to study the issue, and we can hope that there will be some positive results from that and an avenue for input from the laity in that process. And we can also hope that after the February world-wide meeting, the US Bishops will have the ability to adopt particular policies that would apply in the unique situation of the US.

Individual bishops, however, can use this time to increase their communication with the laity, particularly by being completely transparent about the cases that have arisen and how they have been handled, including apologizing for mistakes. The bishops can also be transparent by explaining the procedures they already have in their dioceses and how they can hold their brother bishops accountable. Greater attention can also be paid to the problem of unchastity among the clergy. More bishops are following Cardinal Dolan’s example and setting up compensation plans for victims of abuse, and more should also follow his example by calling on an independent monitor to evaluate what the diocese has been doing.

These steps help, but they don’t eliminate people’s impatience over the need for a strong national solution.

Is the Vatican dragging its feet on the Archbishop McCarrick case?

Not at all. The first allegation against the Archbishop was evaluated last Spring by our review board and found to be substantiated. That case was then sent to Rome, the Holy Father removed the Archbishop’s faculties to function as a priest and bishop, he resigned from the College of Cardinals, and he has been assigned to live in prayer and penance. A second allegation was made public this summer in the newspapers. It was referred to Rome, and they then sent it back to us for investigation. According to our protocols, we referred the case to the local District Attorney to determine whether there is any possibility of a criminal prosecution. Once they have concluded their handling of the case, we will conduct our own investigation and all the evidence will be submitted to our review board. If any other allegations are made, they will be handled the same way.

Investigating these kinds of cases takes time, and we all wish things would move faster. But the Holy See has been following its law and procedure, the DA’s offices have followed theirs, and so have we. These things can’t be rushed. We also have to make sure that the Archbishop, like anyone else, receives due process. People often forget that even the American justice system moves very slowly. The Bill Cosby sexual assault case took three years from the filing of charges through two trials, and the Larry Nasser/US gymnastics sex abuse case took over a year and a half for the criminal cases to end in guilty pleas (but the civil cases are still going on). Unfortunately, real life is not like an episode of “Law and Order” where everything is neatly wrapped up in sixty minutes.

Evaluating the allegations against Archbishop McCarrick is only part of the issue, though. The larger question is about how he was able to advance in office despite widespread rumors and even legal settlements about his misconduct. That’s a serious question that Rome will have to eventually answer.

Aren’t the bishops and the pope worried about losing Catholics? 

Many Catholics are baffled by what they see as the tepid and confusing response by Church leaders and think that the bishops “just don’t get” the level of anger and alienation they feel. What happened at the bishops’ meeting was more fuel for that feeling, and there’s a grave concern that ordinary Catholics are going to leave the Church in frustration.

We Catholics have great reverence for our Church, and our faith is inevitably shaken when Church leaders let us down. Throughout her history, the Church has struggled with scandals and failings in ourselves and our leaders. A quick read of St. Paul’s letters shows that in vivid detail (1 Corinthians is a good example). The offenses and failures of the clergy undermine our trust in their sincerity about the faith itself – people rightly think, “if they act that way, why should I believe anything they say?” Of course, we know that the validity of the sacraments and the integrity of the faith don’t depend on the worthiness of the ministers. And Church history is also a good lesson in patience and perspective – we’ve survived many, many crises before, thanks to the protection of the Holy Spirit.

But still, there is a critical element of trust that our bishops need to regain, before too many people are disillusioned and join the ranks of the “nones” – those who say they’re believers but who don’t belong to any church – or the legion of “ex-Catholics”.

What can lay people do about this?

Because complaints of clergy misconduct are handled according to internal Church processes (under the Bishops’ Charter and the Canon Law), it’s hard to see how regular lay people can get more involved. There is no clear avenue right now for raising complaints about bishops, and it’s hard to tell how Rome handles those complaints or even if anyone is listening to them.

One thing that is absolutely necessary is for people to respectfully let their bishop know how they feel about this situation and how much they want to see some positive action. The only way they’ll “get it” is if we give it to them – politely and reasonably. I know that some people are withholding donations to their bishops’ appeal to send a message, but I don’t think that gets the job done — that money goes primarily to the pastoral and charitable work of the dioceses, so the only people being deprived of money are the needy people who will lose services.

The most important thing that lay people can do is to pray for our bishops and priests, and especially for victims, and to lead blameless and holy lives ourselves. Good Christian lives are the best way to attract people to the Gospel, and to heal the wounds of sin.

How can the Church operate this way?

We Americans are very impatient and practical by nature. When there’s a crisis we want solutions right away. If there’s a natural disaster, we expect the President and the Governor to be on the next plane and for FEMA, the Red Cross and the military to be on the ground within hours — forget about red tape, just get the job done. We hold them all to a high standard and any slips are put under a microscope immediately.

Americans are also used to our government officials explaining in detail (both officially and through unofficial statements, leaks, etc.) why particular policies are being put forward, and we are comfortable with extensively debating about them. When our government isn’t open with us about what policies are being developed, we are immediately suspicious and often resort to conspiracy theories. Americans have an ingrained allergy to government secrecy, and we really believe in the expression that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”.

As a result, the deliberate pace and closed manner with which the Church operates can be bewildering and intensely frustrating to Americans. Most people, including many Catholics, don’t realize that the Church isn’t organized like a corporation with branch offices on every corner and policies that can be changed in a minute by the CEO. There are elements of both localism and universalism in the Church that work together and are sometimes in tension. Each diocese is governed by a bishop who has very broad authority, but the diocese is still part of the universal Church and the bishop is responsible for maintaining unity with the Holy Father. The Holy Father has ultimate governing authority over the Church, but he has to respect the autonomy of individual bishops. National bishops’ conferences like the USCCB are really coalitions like the Chamber of Commerce, and don’t have any actual governing power over individual dioceses.

The Church also operates under its own internal legal system. The Canon Law is a complex and ancient body of law that is very different in concept from our Anglo-American common law system. It reflects very rich and deep theological principles about the nature of the Church, and it has detailed standards and procedures that have developed over centuries. It is not designed for rapid-fire pragmatism like you would find on a TV court reality show or a legal thriller novel. The Holy Father has the authority to change Canon Law, but, as with any legal system, changes have to be done very carefully to avoid interfering with or undermining other important principles. For example, it would be easy to streamline a criminal trial to make it faster, but that can’t be done in a way that endangers due process rights or the presumption of innocence.

The Church operates in a way that is very strange to Americans. It’s hard to get used to, and sometimes even harder to explain.

What’s the take-away?

Ultimately, of course, our faith is not in man or in institutions but in Jesus Christ, and we believe that His saving power works even though imperfect people like our clergy and ourselves. As St. Paul said, “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor 4:7).

For the last 15 years, the Church has been implementing the Bishops Charter and has made tremendous strides in protecting children from sexual abuse and addressing past misconduct. The current state of things is very frustrating and there’s no easy answer, but we can’t lose hope. We will just have to continue working the best we can through the imperfect system that we have, with faith that the Holy Spirit is always active and guiding us.

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