The Catholic Church’s Rotherham

Bishop Donald Wuerl attends a news conference at the North American College in Rome, March 4, 2013. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)
If the Church cannot govern itself from within, it will be governed from without.

We are deeply saddened.” So begin the many perfunctory statements of many Catholic bishops today in response to the Pennsylvania grand-jury report detailing how priests in that state abused children and how bishops shuffled these priests around. What deeply saddens these men? The rape of children, the systematic cover-up, or the little schemes to run out the clock on the statute of limitations? Are they saddened by the people who were so psychologically wounded by their abuse at the hands of priests that they killed themselves? What exactly are they sorry about? Soon the bishops are telling us about a chance for “renewal” after the promised implementation of new policies. They tell us about “overcoming challenges” in the Church. Or they use the phrase “a few bad apples.”

I find it impossible not to notice that these expressions of sorrow never arrive before the courts, the state attorneys general, or the local press arrive on the scene. That fact gives you another idea about what causes the bishops’ sorrow.

Fifteen years ago Frank Keating, the former governor of Oklahoma, resigned from a panel called the National Review Board, set up by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to monitor compliance with the Church’s new anti-abuse politics. He was under intense pressure to resign because he had offended bishops when he said some of them were acting like “La Cosa Nostra,” a reference to the Sicilian Mafia.

Cardinal Roger Mahoney of Los Angeles and other prelates made a great show of detesting Keating’s remarks. Keating refused to apologize. “My remarks, which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate. I make no apology,” he said. “To resist grand-jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church,” Keating said in his resignation statement.

Keating was dismissed as a crank. Hadn’t every consultant and auditor given the the Church’s anti-abuse policies hearty endorsements? Wasn’t it routinely described as a model of safety?

Of course, Keating was right. Mahoney was later exposed as having engaged in an energetic attempt to cover up the truth about his own diocese. He shielded predators from law enforcement and even argued that the personnel files of the archdiocese were protected by the seal of the confessional.

RELATED: ‘Grand Jury: 300 “Predator Priests” Have Been Credibly Accused’

This season is a new round of exposure for Catholic bishops, particularly those who have sold themselves as part of the solution to the Church’s abuse crisis. Cardinal Seán O’Malley, who is supposed to have cleaned up in Boston and heads the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, is now trying to explain how it was that he fobbed off a credible report substantiating the well-known reputation of D.C. cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Cardinal Donald Wuerl, McCarrick’s successor and a former bishop of Pittsburgh, has always bragged about his record of being a no-nonsense administrator, someone who even fought with the Vatican to have abusive priests removed from ministry. The latest news paints a slightly different picture.

The Pennsylvania grand-jury report names hundreds of predator priests across seven decades of life in six Catholic diocese in the state. Some of the details in the report are so vile and lurid they would have been rejected from the writer’s room of Law and Order: Special Victims Unit. They include priests “marking” their preferred boy-victims with special crosses, priests trading and compiling their own homemade child pornography. At one point in the report, a large redaction is made over what appears to be, in context, a ritualized and satanic gang-rape of a young boy by four priests.

The report implicates bishops of every persuasion. A fastidious conservative such as Bishop James Timlin of Scranton would not allow himself to be seated near the pro-choice Catholic MSNBC commentator Chris Matthews at a commencement ceremony, but in this report he is found writing a consoling letter to one of his priests, a priest who had just raped an underaged girl and arranged for the abortion of his own child. The tone of the letter would be no different if he were writing a priest grieving a deceased grandparent. There there, son, I know it hurts.

We don’t need your sadness, we don’t need new policies. We need better men.

The liberal bishop Donald Wuerl, then of Pittsburgh, does seem to take a hard line in some cases of clerical abuse. But in ones that preceded him, he takes a different approach. When an abusive priest who had been shuffled out of his diocese reports back to Wuerl’s office that he has information on other abusive priests operating in the Pittsburgh diocese and will inform on them if his stipend is increased, Wuerl advises the priest to write a letter in which he disavows any knowledge of the aforementioned illegal sexual activity. In exchange his stipend is increased. Wuerl did not implement a zero-tolerance policy against clerical sexual misbehavior; what he instituted was a zero-liability policy for the diocese and a zero-responsibility policy for himself. Wuerl outlined exactly what he did not want to know, and rewarded the man who kept him in ignorance. Wuerl, who in a recent interview suggested that there was no real crisis in the Church, greeted the release of the grand-jury report with the launch of a website designed by a crisis-public-relations firm, touting his good reputation.

If the events outlined in the Pennsylvania grand-jury report had happened among Pakistani immigrants, rather than the Catholic clergy, the perpetrators would called a grooming gang. If we treated the Catholic Church the same way as the British public treated the grooming gangs of Rotherham in South Yorkshire, we would be asking tough questions about the culture that produces abuse on this scale. We would ask questions about what twisted form of political correctness dissuaded law enforcement from identifying and confronting the criminal network until now. We might be debating our immigration policy, and possibly shutting down our embassies in the countries from which this gang receives support and reinforcements.

In fact, much of that would be the correct response. The Vatican has previously tried investigating and reporting on America’s Catholic seminaries, offering recommendations on how to fix them. The recommendations were not only weak, but mostly ignored. Not a single American bishop has emerged from reviewing the records in his chancery offices and apologized before the cops, the courts, and the news media arrived to ask about the revelations. Not a single bishop has publicly demanded that one of his brother bishops resign after being exposed for playing games with the statute of limitations. They knew about the powerful cardinal who preyed upon seminarians, they know about the decadent culture of the seminaries where priests are trained. And they tell themselves there is nothing they could really have done about it.

The problem of sexual abuse and blackmail in the Church isn’t reducible to “policy,” and the promises made by bishops to make policy changes should be greeted with extreme cynicism. The problem is personnel. For a number of reasons, the Catholic priesthood has selected for sexual deviancy. Bishops have been selected for their ability to manage legal and social risk, rather than their ability to govern and lead a religious organization. As one smart canon lawyer put it, men don’t rise through the ranks of the Catholic Church, they are pulled upward by those above them. High-ranking churchmen select for men who make peace with this sexualized culture in the priesthood. They prize collegiality rather than exacting holiness, or even competence. Cardinal Wuerl was selected by the pope to sit on the powerful Congregation of Bishops, which helps recommend to the pope new candidates for the office of bishop. It’s time we ask why he was deemed suitable for this task.

Other state attorneys general should do investigations like Pennsylvania’s. As a Catholic, I’m tired of waiting for the next red slipper to drop. If the Church cannot govern itself from within, then it will be governed from without. That’s not a policy, but the iron law of history.

“We are deeply saddened,” they say. Spare us this fake public-relations drivel. We don’t need your sadness, we don’t need new policies. We need better men.


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