The Catholic Church in America is going through another season of scandal. Earlier this summer, the powerful retired archbishop of Washington, D.C., Theodore McCarrick, was removed from the College of Cardinals after credible reports that he had sexually molested the first boy he ever baptized. Accompanying stories also revealed a culture in the Church in which many knew of McCarrick’s reputation for sexually preying on seminarians. Yet his rise in the Church and his influence were never impeded, not even after the Church made court settlements with his victims.
Now comes the Pennsylvania grand-jury report, which has unearthed decades of sexual abuse and cover-up in six Catholic dioceses in that state. The details of crimes by priests are stomach-churning. And the feeble response of their bishops, shuffling abusers from one assignment to the next, or trying to delay investigations until the statute of limitations passed, is utterly demoralizing.
The grand-jury report does seem to show what the Church in America has claimed, that the incidence of child sex abuse began dropping in the 1990s and further after the Dallas Charter reforms of 2002. Many of the named priests are deceased or out of the priesthood. But the current scandals also reveal the inadequacy of those reforms. The bishops deliberately exempted themselves from accountability measures instituted in Dallas. And the grand-jury report shows that bishops who responded in a way that looks criminally negligent not only escaped the scrutiny of the law but continued to advance in their careers in the Church.
The worst result from this scandal would be the institution of a few symbolic reforms by the bishops themselves, coupled with the scapegoating of those who happened to have been embarrassed by revelations already in the press. The bishops should collectively consent to fund an ongoing formal independent inquiry of the American episcopacy, touching not only their chancery offices but also investigating America’s seminaries. Matters should include not only the conduct of bishops in matters of abuse but also what they knew about about their fellow bishops and when.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, has already announced an intention to fund a full investigation surrounding Archbishop McCarrick. That’s a start.
Such an investigation must have genuine independence. In the past, bishops have been able to wear down would-be lay reformers. Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating was pushed off the National Review Board (established by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in 2002) for his hard line after the last round of scandals. Last year Marie Collins, the only sex-abuse victim on Pope Francis’s commission on child abuse, also resigned her position in disgust. She alleged that the bishops of the Church have responded “with fine words in public and contrary actions behind closed doors.” In her eyes, the Vatican had failed to follow recommendations to establish a tribunal to hold bishops to account.
It is precisely for this reason that we are skeptical of any attempt to solve the crisis in the American Church via a “visitation” from Church authorities in Rome. Pope Francis’s own response to sexual malfeasance in Chile and Italy, and even within the walls of the Vatican has been remarkably inept. Given the habitual secrecy of the Church in defending itself against the possibility of scandal, it is not unreasonable to fear that a papal visitation would spirit away documents from American dioceses to Rome, out of the sight of transparent inquiries.
Finally, after a credible, transparent investigation, the Catholic Church in America needs more than a sorrowful report. The future existence of such an investigation cannot be used as an excuse by individual bishops or priests to avoid personally confronting evil when they are in a position to do so. An initiative to investigate is meant to supplement and assist the common work of reforming the Church. This reform effort will require individuals with moral courage and fortitude, which cannot be outsourced.
Bishops, including cardinals, who are shown to have been derelict in confronting the evil they knew about in the Church must be made to resign and encouraged to live a life marked by visible signs of penance. Policy changes are not enough for a Church that believes in the supernatural. The bishops are in the same position as the apostles who asked Christ why they were unable to drive out an evil spirit. The Lord explained to them: “This kind can go out by nothing but by prayer and fasting.”