This week, before his departure for Rome for the last day of the pontificate of Pope Benedict XVI and the subsequent conclave, New York’s Timothy Cardinal Dolan spoke under oath about his previous assignment in Milwaukee.
While the media has been a blessing in the shameful story of abuse in the Church in the United States in the 20th century, the coverage of the deposition this week has been disappointing.
Cardinal Dolan, who began met with victims of abuse immediately after his appointment to Milwaukee, doesn’t deserve to be lumped in with anyone who has made excuses for sins and crimes of the past. And yet the narrative this week insinuates that the current president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is “dogged” by questions about his concern for children, suggesting implication in hundreds of cases, which is simply not so.
In fact, though the testimony is under seal, lawyer Jeffrey Anderson preemptively announced to the New York Times that “the deposition of Cardinal Dolan is necessary to show that there’s been a longstanding pattern and practice to keep secrets and keep the survivors from knowing that there had been a fraud committed.”
That’s just not right.
Asked by reporter John Allen in a book-length interview “How in God’s name” the Church and her bishops could let abuse happen as it did, Dolan responded:
I wonder the same thing. As I look back, when I was vicar for clergy in the Archdiocese of St. Louis in the middle of all this, and then in Milwaukee . . . as I was reading those files, I wondered too. I asked myself, how could this have gone on? How could anybody have reassigned this guy?” He added: “when you’ve got these serial offenders, when you’ve got this happening time after time after time, one just has to wonder what in the hell went on.”
It is “tough,” he said, “to bring any type of sense or consolation out of the way these things were handled decades ago.” And, he acknowledges the obvious: “the effects of this crisis have been monumental” on lives, on the life of the Church, on the world.
“Looking back now, part of what went wrong was the assumption that the old-boy network could take care of this,” he reflected. This “failure—this scandal, sin, and crime—represents a terribly gross degradation of everything that this priesthood of Jesus stands for.”
Asked what he tells people trying to understand, trying to go forward in the Church, he told Allen: “Ultimately, this crisis is about the power of sin. We are sinful people, sin is alive, the effects of sin are with us, and that’s what we’re seeing. It’s about sin in priests, sin in bishops, sinfulness perhaps in structures.”
“Come on board,” he pleads, “because the job description of the Church is to be the extension in time and space of the One who came to conquer sin . . . we need you in that sacred endeavor we call the Church. Your faith is in Jesus, not in a priest or a bishop.”
He also recalls leading a holy hour with priests rather than delivering another lecture. It’s a particularly timely story given what the pope is renouncing the papacy to do. “I think that accomplished far more than another bull session. That taught me something,” he said. “Do we or do we not believe, with all our heart and soul, that the most efficacious thing we can do is to pray? I need to show to my priests and people that I believe that with all my heart and soul, and if we do that convincingly, there is always hope.”
The abysmal evil that we all know crept into the Church is despicable and intolerable, dark and reprehensible — and Dolan has been clear about this, as have many of a new generation of bishops who lead dioceses whose institutions could very well be among the safest places for children at this point in history, given all the protections and the endless scrutiny priests are under today; teachers and volunteers and even chancery officials who may never set foot in a classroom or go near a child go through the kind of training today that puts everyone on guard, if they weren’t already.
As Austen Ivereigh has observed from England:
The appalling crime of clerical sex abuse of minors is a profound betrayal of priests’ calling and the Gospel. For many years, the Church, like other institutions, failed to grasp the extent of sexual abuse and its compulsive nature; decades ago, it mishandled accusations and failed to punish the perpetrators. But in the past 10 years, it has gone further than any other institution in putting in place vital reforms to ensure it can never happen again. Those reforms have made the Church transparent, accountable, and one of the safest places for young people. From 2001, when John Paul II gave him responsibility for dealing with sex abuse cases, Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict has led the reforms from the Vatican to ensure that across the world the Church never again covers up and fails to hear the voice of the victims. The apologies from Church leaders – the Pope, cardinals, bishops – have been forthright and thorough, and most importantly, they have taken action. In the United States the system of safeguarding is exceptional, and recommended as a model for other institutions to follow. Increasingly, that can also be said of the Church in other countries too.
Cardinal Dolan has been among the forthright, and while ensuring justice and transparency, we ought to strive to be fair, too. And not allow cultural preferences and politics to keep us from doing so.
Would that we would work together to ensure the best for children and that justice be served instead of playing media games.