It’s not news that for many years Catholic bishops and Vatican officials knew more about the sex crimes of priests than the rest of us did. Neither is it news that Church officials hid the evidence — from the public, from law enforcement, from government social services. So, while the recent upsurge of interest in the corruption is good for the Church’s moral hygiene and should be welcome, unpleasant as it is in the moment, the breathless tone in which the rush of new stories is being reported should be curbed, because it’s misleading.
The truth is that the outline of the crisis has been conspicuous for a long time. The basic picture hasn’t changed much. It just continues to come into sharper focus. The spadework (if you’ll pardon the switch of metaphors) begun by Jason Berry, Richard Sipe, and a few other pioneers in the 1980s and ’90s was built on by subsequent journalists and scholars. The scale of the criminality that the Boston Globe exposed in 2002 raised public awareness of the problem by orders of magnitude. Commissions were formed, and Church policies to prevent further sexual misconduct by adults in its employ were drafted and enforced. Meanwhile, across the West, notably Ireland, the story repeated itself.
Here we are 16 years after “the Long Lent,” still excavating the same site: the Church in America in the second half of the 20th century. Will we ever scrape bottom? It seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Some witnesses especially from the earlier end of that era have already departed. Nonetheless, journalists, law-enforcement investigators, and citizen researchers will persist. They should unearth what they can.
That the dig has taken a generation or more, with still no end in sight, creates the impression that all this time priests have been abusing minors at a constant rate, but by most accounts the rate in the U.S. began to plummet in the early years of this century, in the aftermath of the Globe series. On the Today show earlier this week, the attorney general of Pennsylvania was asked whether the flood of sex crimes committed by priests had subsided. “Child rape in 1970 is the same as child rape in 2018,” he said, dodging the question, because he wants you to think he spends his time slaying dragons in your backyard right this minute, not hunched over historical records dating back to the Nixon administration. The Pennsylvania grand-jury report was good work, but the AG sounds like he’s trying to ride it to the Senate or governor’s mansion.
The incidence of sexual abuse by priests in the past decade appears, as I say, to be relatively slight, the prevarication of the Pennsylvania AG notwithstanding, and despite the recent spike in the rate at which news about crimes committed by priests in the past is being generated. Inextricable from news about past crimes, however, are reports that cover-ups of them are ongoing. So Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò in his letter that he released to media last weekend decries what he calls the Church’s culture of cover-up, or omertà, the Mafia code of silence about criminal activity. A great deal has already been shouted back and forth about the plausibility of some of Viganò’s allegations, so I’ll try not to add to that particular din.
Let me just make the observation that most cardinals and senior Vatican officials are old enough to have been bishops or in positions of responsibility during the period that by all indications was the height of the horror, the 1970s through the 1990s. How likely is it that any escaped without ever getting their hands dirty?
There are several ways that a prelate in 2018 might share in the guilt of that era. He could be a sex offender himself, like the former cardinal Theodore McCarrick, although, to judge from the evidence so far, that would make him exceptional. More likely would be that he’s innocent of direct sex crimes but guilty of having enabled abusive priests by shuffling them from parish to parish, or even of intimidating victims into keeping silence. More likely yet would be that he avoided the grosser forms of malfeasance but did mumble and wring his hands a lot, trying to finesse his way out of some tough spots when, as he should recognize in hindsight, he should have blown the whistle, taking the information he had straight to the police and possibly to the media, and to Rome (for what that would have been worth). We could multiply the shades of possible guilt and complicity.
Then there’s this: If you’re a prelate who in your long career has seen and heard too much for your peace of mind, it’s hard for you to name exactly what offenses you suspect that certain of your clerical peers must have committed or known about. And it’s hard for you to know whether you should share your suspicions. You’ve seen signs and heard rumors, but you have no smoking gun. In that case, would reporting your concerns to a superior only add to the fog of hearsay and gossip that seems to prevent so many men in the upper reaches of the hierarchy from seeing a clear answer to the simple question “What is the right thing to do?”
Look, the hierarchy is a mess. I recognize that the status quo at this point is unsustainable. It’s just that some Catholics are reacting to this or that latest bulletin with a drama that strikes me as naïve. We’ve been watching the Church attack itself all our lives.
We may blame its autoimmune disorder on the infiltration of liberals or progressives or secularists or the Left, but not all the priests who have contributed to the sex scandals that are consuming the Church answer to those labels. The traditionalist Society of St. John, for example, now suppressed, also has a section in the Pennsylvania report.
In terms of Mass attendance, school enrollments, and vocations to religious life, the Church in America has been declining since the 1960s. It was sliding down a slope, and now we’re watching it hurtle itself to the bottom. We’re witnessing not a sudden change in the Church’s trajectory but only an acceleration of a longstanding trend.
For all the talk, early in his pontificate, about his being the bold, plain-speaking outsider who would drain the swamp that was Rome, Francis came to the office with an ambiguous record on handling abuse cases when he was in the episcopate in Buenos Aires: He declined to meet with victims there and failed to meet a Vatican deadline for creating guidelines to prevent further abuse. Sources I trust tell me that he’s alienated half the Roman Curia and that many of his early supporters in the College of Cardinals have buyer’s remorse.
Now this, the sex-abuse crisis flaring up and coming at him from all directions. He won’t be pope forever. Benedict established a modern precedent by stepping down, and in the beginning Francis said that he might do likewise at some point, perhaps when he turned 80. He’ll be 82 in December. If I had a vote in the next conclave, I’d cast it for Cardinal Robert Sarah, of Guinea, but he’s probably too conservative to win the necessary two-thirds majority. Already about 40 percent of the cardinal-electors have been appointed by Francis. In any case, don’t expect the next pope, whoever he is, to save Rome. Better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes, including those of the Church.
It’s been a long Lent. Get ready for more: Following on the heels of the grand-jury report out of Pennsylvania, the state attorney general of Missouri has launched an investigation into sexual abuse by priests in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. Officials in Florida, Illinois, and New York say they’re considering similar efforts. Prepare for Good Friday.