Policy vs penance amid US church crisis



A week ago, a Pennsylvania grand jury revealed in confronting detail over 1000 cases of abuse of children over a 70 year period at the hands of more than 300 priests, along with an astonishing amount of cover-up and concealment.

Cardinal McCarrick'Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all,' the report states. 'For decades monsignors, auxiliary bishops, bishops, archbishops, cardinals have mostly been protected. Many, including some named in this report, have been promoted.'

This shocking news follows quickly on the heels of accusations in July that former Washington, D.C. Archbishop Theodore E. McCarrick (pictured), in his day one of the most prominent figures in the US Catholic Church, harassed and assaulted young people and seminarians both as priest and bishop. Here too it has been suggested that others knew and did nothing.

These cases have left the Church in the US reeling. Sixteen years on from the initial revelations of abuse and cover-up in Boston, so many cases have been brought to light and policy changes enacted to protect children and other vulnerable groups, that many believed the hardest work had been done, the worst events revealed. The sheer scale and audacity of the stories out of Pennsylvania and Washington have shattered that confidence completely. The level of outrage is beyond anything the US Church has experienced in recent memory, if ever.

Some US bishops have offered timely, sensitive responses. In Chicago, Cardinal Blase J. Cupich wrote, 'Anger, shock, grief, shame. What other words can we summon to describe our experience of learning' of the Pennsylvania report. 'We [bishops] must resolve to face our failures and hold each other accountable ... We must resolve to live in the light of humility, of repentance, of honesty — the light of Christ.'

President of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo struck a similarly forceful note earlier in the week, apologising 'for what my brother bishops and I have done and failed to do' and indicating that the Executive Council of the USCCB had decided to open 'new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops' — a first — and that such channels will be granted 'proper independence, sufficient authority, and substantial leadership by laity.'

Other bishops and commentators seem to be struggling to comprehend the significance of what has happened; some are placing the emphasis on the need for the faithful to undergo penance, while others are using the moment to attack gay bishops and clergy, progressive bishops, even Pope Francis.


"These recent cases highlight the chasm between those individual changes of heart and policy and the transformation of ecclesial culture."


Cardinal DiNardo's proposal of a commission empowered to hear complaints about bishops represents a potentially enormous step forward for the US Church. Since the earliest days of the abuse crisis here, the key unresolved issue for not only Catholics but all Americans has been the lack of episcopal accountability. Abusers have finally been prosecuted, policies and procedures have changed, and some dioceses and religious orders have gone bankrupt.

But few church leaders have actually put their hand up to take any responsibility for what has occurred. (The legal and financial implications of such a move have undoubtedly played a part in their reticence.) If the Conference takes seriously 'proper independence, sufficient authority and substantial involvement of the laity', giving this new body the juridical authority to judge and act, rather than simply consult or issue reports, much could be accomplished.

Some Americans are calling for a stronger response. As of Monday 2500 Catholics ranging from prominent theologians to local heads of parish councils had signed a petition calling on the conference of bishops to follow the recent example of the Chilean bishops and offer the Pope their resignations. 'After years of suppressed truth, the unreserved decisiveness of the Chilean bishops' resignations communicated to the faithful a message that Catholics in the United States have yet to hear, with an urgency we have yet to witness,' the petition states. 'We have caused this devastation. We have allowed it to persist. We submit ourselves to judgment in recompense for what we have done and failed to do.'

Obviously, that's an extraordinary proposal, and one neither the 255 active bishops of the United States seem likely to agree to nor most Catholics are at this point demanding. But the idea of some sort of communal action like this does speak to the deepest desire of many if not most US Catholics: that leaders of the US Church might finally take responsibility for their actions, and demonstrate that the pastoral needs of their people and the Church are more important than their own status or position.

As in Australia, many individual US bishops and other church leaders have faced the catastrophic choices made and enabled in the past and changed the way they proceed. But for US Catholics these recent cases highlight the chasm between those individual changes of heart and policy and the transformation of ecclesial culture.

And the story continues to evolve. In the last day Boston Cardinal Séan O'Malley OFM, president of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Children and the nation's leader on dealing with matters of abuse, acknowledged that in 2015 his private secretary had received a letter addressed to him in his role as president detailing claims against McCarrick, and did not bring it to his attention, as 'individual cases ... fell outside the mandate of the Commission'.

'Allegations regarding Archbishop McCarrick's sexual crimes were unknown to me until the recent media reports,' O'Malley wrote. 'I understand not everyone will accept this answer given the way the Church has eroded the trust of our people. My hope is that we can repair the trust of and faith of all Catholics and the wider community by our actions and accountability in how we respond to this crisis.'

Meanwhile Pope Francis spoke out on Monday, saying 'We showed no care for the little ones; we abandoned them,' and calling the Church to 'solidarity' with victims, and a 'personal and communal conversion that makes us see things as the Lord does'.

Catholics believe that we are sinners loved by God, and that the path of both discipleship and ultimately redemption begins with an honest confrontation with our sins. In their role as pastors, bishops guide their flocks through that journey. Today the US Church finds those roles reversed, its leaders called by Catholics to sit as a body and fully confront their own darkest truths.



Jim McDermottJim McDermott is an American Jesuit and screenwriter.

Topic tags: Jim McDermott, Cardinal McCarrick, Pennsylvania, royal commission, clergy sexual abuse



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Existing comments

To survive the clerical child sexual abuse scandals, there must be radical change to Church governance. We would have had nothing like the extent of this huge crisis of abuse if we had female clergy and married clergy, so this is one major consideration. Another consideration would be to abolish ordination. Ordained ministry is at the heart of our problem. Some /mostof our clergy see themselves as ontologically changed by ordination, which I suggest puts them in a superior position. According to some estimates, about 6% of the Catholic clergy are paedophiles, so ordination didn't make them superior Christians. Perhaps we need to close the seminaries, which are reputed to be hotbeds of clericalism, let parishioners choose their own leaders, lay or clerical, monitor them closely and give them a set term as leaders, e.g. 3 years. The current system of ordaining men for life, putting them up on a pedestal, and giving them virtually unrestricted power, is at the heart of our current problem. As for celibacy, how many of our clergy are celibate at any one time. I have heard about 50%, but we'll never know. Open and accountable governance is not a characteristic of the Catholic Church.
Grant Allen | 21 August 2018

1 of 2 ‘Meanwhile Pope Francis spoke out on Monday’.....“To say “No” to abuse is to say an emphatic “No” to all forms of clericalism”... Sadly Pope Francis does not confront the source of CLERICALISM: a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy: That is held in place by the leadership within the Vatican, rather he points to the said virtues of the two previous Popes, confirming his own hierarchy position. This is not just about the bishops but all those who operate within clericalism who have been compromised. The kingdom of God grows in the heart and is very often unseen, that is why we cannot truly judge our brother, and Jesus warns us not to do so, as we all have to be very careful, especially in our own assumed relationship with God and our fellow man, because “the measure you use, it will be measured to you” Understandably many are calling with varying degrees of intensity, for a cleansing of the church, which is creating an atmosphere of fear/anger/hatred, if this continues unabated it will grow, creating a culture of fear, manifest as intolerance/bigotry towards all with homosexuals tendencies (practicing or not) resulting in, throwing the baby out with the bathwater… Continue
Kevin Walters | 21 August 2018

2 of 2…. The essence of Love is ‘Truth’ and the gates of Hell cannot prevail/ overcome/ stop it, as it enters (blows where it pleases) and “sets the captive free”. Those who in humility “(Openly)” will bend their knee, God’s mercy is greater than any sin; humility/Truth is the ‘Key’ as from the spider’s web, one can break free. So should we not want for others, that which we have been given ourselves that is the faith to live in His Divine Mercy, in humility, because isn’t that what being a Christian is all about. And that is what I am proposing a way forward in ‘gentle’ humility, so that those who have been ENSNARED have the OPERTUNITY to come out into the OPEN but this will only happen if we can reflect the gentle merciful heart of Jesus Christ, also before them. The alternative as in remove the wicked from our presence will only encourage those who are entangled or given over to this sin, to go into hiding and eventually emerge again at some time in the future. A humble church is a holy church and that is what my post within the link is all about. https://www.associationofcatholicpriests.ie/2018/07/fifty-years-on-and-still-a-disputed-question/#comment-94797 kevin your brother In Christ
Kevin Walters | 21 August 2018

Another day, another scandal in the Catholic Church, and ever more promises to do better next time. However the Pennsylvania Grand Jury reported, “The worst periods of abuse stretched from the 1960s to the 1980s…the vast majority of victims were males.” In other words, this is an historical account and not the current reality—not something conveyed by most media reports. The problem is that the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s quickly overran the culture, and, with encouragement from some priests and theologians, Catholic practice too. Cardinals, bishops and priests remained silent, in effect affirming these new practices, and books like “Goodbye Good Men” outlined how “progressive” clergy became gatekeepers at some seminaries and discriminated against applicants with traditional beliefs, while admitting those whose values were more in tune with the Sexual Revolution. In the case of Cardinal McCarrick, there was a culture of cover-up and protection of a morally corrupt bishop by fellow bishops seemingly unconcerned by his sexual depredations involving two adults. His behaviour was not career ending until it was known he had done the same thing with a minor.
Ross Howard | 22 August 2018

‘Cardinal DiNardo's proposal of a commission empowered to hear complaints about bishops represents a potentially enormous step forward for the US Church. Since the earliest days of the abuse crisis here, the key unresolved issue for not only Catholics but all Americans has been the lack of episcopal accountability.’ It all comes down to accountability. It’s about accountability for all in the Church: Popes, bishops, clergy, religious and laity. Until we have a genuine synodical model made up of laity, clergy and hierarchy, whereby there is a diocesan synod set up in every diocese occurring say, every three years with no restrictions on topics and concerns, there will be no change. Add to this a General synod with all dioceses having input also on a three-yearly cycle for example. Otherwise, we will continue to stagnate. Vatican II gave us this in its document Lumen Gentium over 50 years ago! As far as I am aware, no diocese has done this in Australia. Add to that, our parish system must change such that a parish council consisting of the appropriately skilled persons is elected by regular parishioners periodically to ensure that the parish is run successfully, including on-going intelligent adult faith education. The parish council will have a say in the appointment of the appropriate priest as parish priest. This would apply to parishes with diocesan priests, as well as those parishes of a diocese staffed by religious orders. No exceptions. Some continue to argue that the Church is not a democracy, and that in the end we have to maintain the top-down model. It is clear that this has had its day and must cease. Matters of dogma and doctrine will remain the domain of theologians, scripture scholars and the like, but with consultation and conversation with the laity, in an attempt to be Church in the contemporary world.
Thomas Amory | 22 August 2018

Thanks for article and comments to date. And thank you to Eureka Street for providing this facility for having a say. It is just so hard for me, as a woman, to feel wholly appreciated for who I am when in the company of many clergy - not all but many. I refuse to leave because it is as much my Church as theirs.
margaret | 22 August 2018

Ross Howard. It is interesting that you point out that the Pennsylvania Grand Jury reported "The worst periods of abuse stretched from the 1960's to the 1980's …" This was the precise finding of the Irish enquiry which found that the incidence of child sexual abuse rose from 2 percent in the 1940's to 9 per cent by the end of the 1950's. The rate steadily increased during the 60s, 70s and 80's to reach 38%. From 1990 to 2010 when reporting was more likely than in earlier times, the rate fell to 2 percent, which is the current situation. I suspect the Australian experience is similar since the vast number of cases are "historical", dating back to the 60s, 70s and 80s. Clearly the Church has done something to lessen the incidence since then. In May 2014, at a hearing at the UN re child sex abuse, Vatican officials reported that 848 priests had been defrocked and 2572 punished (? how) and represented the total number of reported cases in the world over the previous 10 years. We must accept that the Church has acted with effect since the depth of the problem was finally revealed in the 90s. Continuing damage based on the historical fact without recognising the reforms put in place continues to destroy the Church just as seriously as did the earlier historical abuse. Interestingly, NY Times reported last week that 4 years after the conclusion of Vatican II, Joseph Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict, described demands for reform following the Council which failed to change any basic teaching and denied many expectations (celibate priesthood and ordination of women, for example) as potentially "catastrophic". How right he was! Perhaps Pope John XXIII also foresaw potential disasters from Vatican II when he reportedly exhorted those at his death bed to "stop the Council".
john frawley | 22 August 2018

It goes without saying in the light of these new revelations that the hitherto closed topic on the ordination of women should be reopened and discussed in an honest and democratic fashion. Power has gone to the heads of these "leaders" in the church and there is little evidence of contrition either in the perpetrators or those in power who turned a blind eye to these crimes.
Frank Armstrong | 22 August 2018

1 of 2 We have to face the fact that moral authority has been lost by the Bishops, as they have shown themselves to serve an ‘IMAGE’ of goodness, rather than the Truth. Only an act of TRUE humility can restore authority, without which the church will continue to dissipate... “Paint a picture according to the vision you see”... The Church has acknowledged that the Word (Will) of God had been given to her, its actions confirm this, we have a picture in God’s House, with the words “Jesus I trust In thee” But the picture is not the one commanded by God, it is a worldly image of goodness, it pertains to the senses and is made in man’s own image, it has nothing to do with Trust. The present Divine Mercy Image is a self-serving IMAGE of Clericalism, definition of CLERICALISM: a policy of maintaining or increasing the power of a religious hierarchy. Their actions show that they did not trust in His mercy and were only concerned with a worldly image of goodness, the very same problem which has led to the cover up of the child abuse scandal and on-going refusal to acknowledge its historical culture within the Church, emanating from Rome. The original picture by Sister Faustina in its brokenness relates to spiritual beauty (goodness) as it pertains to humility. The pure (humble) in heart shall see God. The True Divine Mercy image calls for the leadership of the Church to give account for themselves, before God and mankind, while at the same time… Continue
Kevin Walters | 22 August 2018

2 of 2…healing so many past and on-going injustices. To do this the elite within the Church need to act out these instructions given by Jesus Christ to His Church... “I desire that this picture be venerated first in your chapel and then throughout the world “... Commencing in Rome by recapturing (Staging) the original ceremony by displaying the present self-serving blasphemous Divine Mercy Image, an image of Clericalism, then remove (Destroy) it publicly and replace it with the true image, an Image of Broken Man and then in humility venerate it in a symbolic way that cannot be misunderstood by mankind, then re-enact this action with the help of the bishops throughout the whole Church (World). If this were to happen a Transfiguration would occur within the Church at this moment in time that would resurrect the true face of Jesus Christ, a face that reflects Truth and humility before all those she is called to serve in love and compassion. From this base one of humility before God, the Church can proceed to tackle many of her on-going problems/dilemmas bringing about a fundamental shift of cultural within the church, while creating new structures. kevin your brother In Christ
Kevin Walters | 22 August 2018

Frank Armstrong, one important reason for the Catholic Church's reservation of the priesthood to men only is the practice of Christ himself in inaugurating the Eucharist and in conferring on males leadership roles in the fledgling faith community. This selectivity cannot be explained in terms of Jesus being a Jew in a patriarchal culture, bound by the cultural conventions of his day: in significant ways the gospels depict his departing from socially conditioned precedent in attitude and action towards females, exercising a distinctively sovereign freedom in this matter. Following the example of its founder, the Church's position would appear to reflect the counsel of Jesus: "A servant is not greater than his master," (Jn: 15:20), which is echoed the pronouncement of Pope John Paul II: "The Church has no authority whatsoever to confer priestly ordination on women" (Ordinatio Sacerdotalis), the declaration recently reiterated emphatically by Pope Francis: "The last word was clear and was given by St John Paul II, and it stands."
John | 22 August 2018

John, no disrespect but that sort of supremacist male nonsense should be tossed out with Pius 12 inane pronouncement, because its rubbish. Tainting debate with the sneer of infallibility wont wash in a modern world.
Frank Armstrong | 24 August 2018

Frank, where is the "sneer" in papal exercise of authority, and why invest the "the modern world' and its secular criteria with the final say in ecclesial matters?
John | 24 August 2018

Bishop Robert C. Morlino's letter to the faithful regarding the ongoing sexual abuse crisis in the Church http://www.madisoncatholicherald.org/bishopsletters/7730-letter-scandal.html
AO | 24 August 2018

John, Pius 12 entreated Kennedy to enter the Vietnam war. Kennedy refused. That was to protect Vietnamese Catholicism. In a Buddhist country? Buddhists wanted religious equality and they were denied by Diem. He strongly opposed interracial marriage. He strongly opposed gay marriage. Who is to say he got anything right. Are you suggesting that the debate cant be opened for evermore because you surmise he got one thing right in a multitude of historical blunders?
Frank Armstrong | 25 August 2018

Thanks for that link, AO. I recommend it to my fellow posters on this page. I was agreeably surprised at the frankness with which Bishop Morlino began and his readiness to call a sin a sin. I would have preferred him to use the noun crime rather than sin - because that's really what all the abuse and cover-up was - but I accept that he was speaking to a faith-based audience not the public in general. He does initially call all this out as an abuse of power but then, sadly, seeks to blame it all on the 'sin' of homosexuality which he then says he will root out, thereby neatly avoiding the need to address the faults implicit in the power structure and power culture in the Church. Abuse of power is a crime whether it be heterosexual, homosexual, asexual or nonsexual. It seems, sadly, that even the bishop can't escape the church's blinkered and limited understanding of human sexuality. Even so, Bishop Morlino's letter is well worth reading if for no other reason than it is unlikely that one will ever read anything quite so frank and hard hitting from any of the current crop of Australian bishops.
Ginger Meggs | 26 August 2018

Frank, the exercise of papal authority in my previous post refers to the declarations of Popes John Paul II and Francis on the ordination of women, not the alleged political activities of Pius XII.
John | 26 August 2018

Ginger Meggs. Thanks for you post and observations re Bishop Morlino's letter. I too think it is refreshing in its hard-hitting and frankness. Likewise, I'm aghast at the fact that he very quickly turns it all round to blame homosexuality for all this evil! Either he has no real experience of the reality of the world, or he is genuinely totally naïve. As we know, child sexual abuse is often perpetrated by heterosexual people, particularly males. These are often married with children of their own, against whom, or other children, the abuse occurs. Bishop Morlino deserves to be called- out on this and asked to explain, lest he deflects the blame to a convenient scapegoat in the LGBTQ+ community. Either way, it is, as to that to which you allude, a necessity that the Church revisit the reality that is human sexuality, in order to understand these issues. Old dogmas and doctrines based on Genesis and Adam and Eve (now accepted by the Church as mythology) simply do not work.
Thomas Amory | 26 August 2018

John, that's just an excuse to maintain the status quo. Women are equal to men, not inferior. Their sex should have nothing to do with it. What one Pope bound another can unbind. If the status quo is maintained these abuse offences will continue. I believe the papal decree of Pius 12 is further evidence of rampant clericalism. Also if Pius 12 was responsible for the USA entering the Vietnam war, then ultimately he caused the death of 4.2m people, 4.1m of whom were Vietnamese. Why distinguish between political mistakes and doctrinal mistakes?
Frank Armstrong | 29 August 2018

'If the Conference takes seriously 'proper independence, sufficient authority and substantial involvement of the laity', giving this new body the juridical authority to judge and act, rather than simply consult or issue reports, much could be accomplished.' That's a big 'if'. Give lay persons authority over clerics? That's the issue that confounds good Church governance, including proper channels of accountability, from the smallest parish to the largest and most powerful archdiocese, as well as all the other permanent or temporary church structures. I also believe it's the single issue that has caused the outright enmity of so many senior churchmen towards Pope Francis. He's against clericalism, which was, of course, ordained by God Himself. Clerical privilege was at the root of this horror, and I'm afraid it will prevent the essential changes of heart and practice the Church needs. My only hope is that the Holy Spirit is still with us, working through every member of the Church who allows it, including so many of the ordained themselves.
Joan Seymour | 29 August 2018

Frank, I agree that the "status quo" of clericalism has to change, but not at the expense of continuous papal teaching and Catholic Church practice on the priesthood - of which clericalism is a corruption rather than a component Further, I don't regard the priesthood simply as a secular institution accessibilty to which can be determined simply on the basis of rights, as your argument from equality appears to assume.
John | 29 August 2018

The Sacrament of Reconciliation is a huge blessing to all Bishops, deacons, priests and all during these stormy times. http://www.frtommylane.com/images/homilies/john_bosco_dream.jpg (Don Bosco)...It's not as if we haven't already been warned: “The work of the devil will infiltrate even into the Church in such a way that one will see cardinals opposing cardinals, bishops against bishops. (Fatima)... His tail swept a third of the stars from the sky, tossing them to the earth. (Revelation)... I like Pope Francis, he's doing a terrific job by letting all come to their own conclusions. Hang in there Pope Francis!
AO | 31 August 2018


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