This weekend, the Catholic bishops of the United States gather in Baltimore ahead of their three-day annual general assembly, which opens Monday. By coincidence, it will be 16 years exactly since their session in 2002, when they met to amend and adopt two measures, now known as the Dallas Charter and the Essential Norms, in response to the last great eruption of the Church’s sex-abuse crisis in the United States.
On November 13, 2002, Cardinal Bernard Law of Boston, Cardinal Theodore McCarrick of Washington, and other luminaries took to the microphone to praise the “significant progress” that had been made. “Thank God we are where we are today,” Law told the bishops as they nodded along. “We’ve got to get past this,” McCarrick said. “We can’t have Dallas 2 and Dallas 3 and Dallas 4.”
Thanks in large measure to “Uncle Ted,” Dallas 2 is very much what the bishops are now facing: a comprehensive and codified response to a national moral crisis of credibility. Many Catholics report that, while they continue to trust their local priest, they consider the episcopate suspect.
Many of the country’s senior prelates are looking forward to Baltimore as the moment when they can begin to move past the scandals of the past few months. Many concede that sacrifices will have to be offered, and publicly. A binding code of conduct for bishops has been circulated, as has a detailed proposal for a new independent commission to investigate accusations against bishops.
The bishops will be desperate to leave Baltimore with a tangible result; votes will be cast and measures adopted. A document of some kind will be taken back to the dioceses and flapped before the faithful by bishops insisting that “we heard you and we acted.”
But have they? Will they? Can they?
That Cardinal Law, the man responsible for so much of the last crisis, was given a respectful hearing in 2002, instead of being hooted back to his chair, is an indication of how strong is the instinct not to look a problem in the eye.
The U.S. bishops have always offered more “solutions” than answers, looking ahead instead of looking around. For example, one of the first to call for a lay-led investigation into McCarrick was Cardinal Donald Wuerl, his successor as archbishop of Washington. Yet Wuerl has pointedly refused to answer simple questions about what he knew about his predecessor and when he knew it.
As they gather this weekend, it’s not at all clear that the bishops understand the causes of the problem facing them, let alone agree on how to solve it. The Pennsylvania grand-jury report, released in July, detailed the horrific sexual abuse of minors in several dioceses over a period of decades, and similar investigations are now under way in a growing number of states. At the same time, particularly in the wake of the McCarrick scandal, accounts have emerged of the almost habitual sexual harassment of seminarians in some dioceses, and of young priests too. Independent investigations are underway by local bishops to examine allegations of serious sexual misconduct in seminaries in Boston, Philadelphia, and Newark.
In condemning sexual abuse and demanding “zero tolerance,” some bishops are deliberately adding “of minors” as a qualifier, while others are taking as a whole the two problems, the sexual abuse of minors and the sexual harassment of seminarians and young priests. The bishops appear divided also between those who think that the current crisis is not primarily about sex and those who think that the heart of the scandal is that some clergy are illicitly engaged in sexual activity, particularly homosexual activity. Cardinal Blase Cupich of Chicago, for example, belongs to the former camp. He has called the issue of active homosexuality among the clergy a “distraction” from “the clericalism that’s much deeper as a part of this problem.”
Cupich is joined by a few others in calling clericalism the root of the sexual-abuse crisis facing the Church. Decrying a culture of entitlement and elitism among the clergy, they maintain that it is wrong and scapegoating to blame the problem on “gay priests.”
Cupich himself, however, removed two priests from ministry in Chicago in September after their arrest by Miami Beach police, who found them engaging in vigorous acts of “clericalism” in a parked car near a playground, in full public view, in the middle of the afternoon. One of the priests was ordained for the Chicago archdiocese through a vocational program that was known for homosexual activity among its students and that for a time was led by a priest who was arrested for child pornography in 2016.
Others attempting to explain the crisis point to a network of clergy bound by common sexual experiences, even as victims, in their seminary days. They argue that the bond of a common secret, or common disdain for Church teaching on sexuality, creates a culture of winking tolerance for sexual activity, even when it involves teenagers and other minors. They point out that about 80 percent of allegations of sexual abuse by clergy are against young men or boys.
Others who see the abuse crisis as a crisis of faith among bishops and priests posit that a small but deeply entrenched minority among the clergy are still angry at the Church’s rejection of the sexual revolution. On this view, the dissident clergy presume that eventually the Church can be brought to change its teaching to reflect the values of a more sexually permissive culture, one rooted in radical thought from the 1970s, when organizations such as NAMBLA (the North American Man/Boy Love Association) and the U.K.’s Paedophile Information Exchange held respectable places in the gay-rights movement.
For all the show of unity that will be on offer in Baltimore, it’s little secret that several of the participants cordially detest one another — and their differing assessments of the scandals. Yet few bishops, however diligent, are 100 percent satisfied that they know every dark secret that might have been buried in a file by their predecessors, leaving a roomful of men deathly afraid of casting the first stone.
The result is an especially bloodless and impersonal kind of compromise: a statement expressing corporate remorse for group failings but blaming no one in particular. The “solutions” we can expect out of Baltimore will, of course, include promises of tough new measures for the future. But they will answer none the questions Catholics have about how we got here.
If the measures proposed so far are an indication, the bishops hope that by cutting off their noses, they can keep their heads. It may have worked last time, but the faithful have had enough of group apologies, corporate remorse, and atonement by policy.
The one thing Catholics have learned since Dallas is that the sins of a few members can sicken the whole body. They want personal accountability. They want to know who knew what when, and why they didn’t do anything about it. They are sick of their leaders’ respectful silences and grey-faced unity, which has been shown to serve offending bishops, not the faithful.
What the faithful want is to see lines drawn. They want to see good bishops get angry and complicit bishops get scared. They want names named. Above all, they want to know that, in years to come, watching footage of Baltimore 2018 won’t make their gorge rise at the sight of another McCarrick telling us “we have to move on.”