Bishops in Disgrace and Whither the Church is Tending


The so-called Bishop of Bling, Bishop Frantz-Peter Tebartz-van Elst, has been suspended for what may prove to be misappropriation of funds.

The charges against him are basically that he has been living large off monies that should have gone to Church ministries.

Other bishops find themselves in situations like that of Archbishop John Nienstedt of the Archdiocese of St Paul Minneapolis. This bishop is in trouble for failure to remove priests with pedophile problems from active ministry.

While the charges against both these bishops are serious, I don’t feel nearly as strongly about the things Bishop Tebartz-van Elst is accused of doing as those that Archbishop Nienstedt may have done. I am, as I said yesterday, out of patience with the refusal by some bishops to do their jobs vis a vis the clergy child sex abuse scandal.

Both these situations highlight a simple fact: The Church’s way of dealing with the public failings of its bishops is going to have to change.

The era of ignoring things is over. The reason it is over is that the world has changed. We live in an age where I can sit in Oklahoma and learn about the missteps of a German bishop right along with the people in his diocese. I know about what is happening in Minnesota as soon as the Minnesotans know.

More than that, I learn about these things in an immediate way that makes me feel as if I am one of the parishioners in Minnesota or Germany, that this is my problem, as well as theirs.

Unfortunately, vendetta-inspired lies and smears transmit with the same speed as facts. Different pressure groups, particularly gay marriage advocates, have used this ability to communicate at internet speed to punish, coerce and just plain injure those who disagree with them.

Not only do we live in a world of instant communication, we also live in a world of self-entitled people who think that whatever they want is a moral imperative that justifies whatever they do to get it.

What this means for bishops of the Church is that they are often the targets of vendetta-motivated smear campaigns. The bishops who speak out strongly for Church teaching against the forces that want to oppose that teaching are the most viciously targeted.

Since bishops are human beings with human failings, there will always be things about them to criticize. Not one person on this planet can survive this kind of malicious scrutiny intact. We’ve all done something or other. Most of us have done lots of somethings or other, that would look gross when they are put in the worst possible light and flung out on the internet by those who hate us and are motivated to destroy our reputations.

The question for the Church is when to stand by a bishop in disgrace, and when to remove him.

This is not a small question. If the Church allows public witch hunts to provoke it into removing bishops, then it will destroy its own strength of witness in the world. On the other hand, if it leaves truly disgraceful bishops in place, it will — once again — destroy its witness in the world.

I don’t have to make these decisions, and I’m glad I don’t. However, I do have one opinion.

The sexual abuse of children by clergy has got to stop.


No arguments.

No discussions.

It has to stop.

I understand that charges like this are sometimes flung against priests falsely. I also understand that each priest functions more or less independently most of the time, which means that bishops don’t know all that they are doing.

But when a bishop is given credible information that makes it seem likely that a priest is engaging in kiddie porn or other improper behavior with and about children, that bishop needs to act immediately. It is not necessary to ascertain if the evidence will stand up in a court of law. The safety of children demands that if the evidence is credible — as opposed to baseless vicious gossip — the bishop has to remove that priest from active ministry.

I’ve read several reports now of people within a diocese sending a bishop clear evidence of priests having salacious photos of children on their computers and the bishop brushing it off. This has happened with different bishops in different states. We’ve had to deal with a bishop in New Jersey who allowed a priest who had been convicted of child sex abuse to go back into ministry with children.

If the bishops will not remove priests who have these problems from active ministry, then the bishops themselves need to be removed.

The safety of our children and the integrity of the Church depend on it.

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  • Michael Skiendzielewski

    Ms. Hamilton, in reference to the current controversy in Minneapolis and your statement that the sexual abuse of children within the Catholic Church must stop, I offer you the following post:

    Rev. Reginald Whitt, professor of canon law at University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis – Director of Task Force, Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis

    “Canon law is very eloquent on what a bishop is supposed to do, but there
    is no list of Thou Shalt Nots,” says Father Reginald Whitt (2002).
    “These (sex abusers) are criminals, but they are our criminals and we
    can’t lose them. Indeed, the bishops have a duty to try to save them,”
    says the Rev. Reginald Whitt, professor of canon law at University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis. (2002)

    abuser priests)…..” Well, Fr. Whitt, where is it written (no, not in
    text or canon law…….it is written in one’s heart and soul) that the bishops
    have a duty to try to save the CHILDREN ABUSED and INNOCENT CHILDREN from the risk of abuse?

    Father Whitt has a degree in canon law and civil law. Which perspective will take prominence and priority when he reviews the findings of the task force committee he established to review the debacle in the archdiocese? It is humanly, ethically and morally IMPOSSIBLE to avoid/resolve the conflicts of interest from both perspectives (civil and canon law) when attempting to review and support the rights of priests vs the rights of child victims.

    Michael Skiendzielewski
    Captain (Retired)
    Philadelphia Police Dept

    • hamiltonr

      This is well said — “Well, Fr. Whitt, where is it written (no, not intext or canon law…….it is written in one’s heart and soul) that the bishops
      have a duty to try to save the CHILDREN ABUSED and INNOCENT CHILDREN from the risk of abuse?”

      So far as I know, Canon Law does not trump the Gospels. There are no conflicts to resolve. Protect the children.

      • Fabio Paolo Barbieri

        Once upon a time, the Church had a certain number of monasteries, many of them close to but not within Rome, which were for all intents and purposes jails for errant priests and monks. The trouble with that today is that you would have to get the guilty party’s consent to being locked up for lifelong penance, and evidence shows that they prefer to abandon the Church and perhaps start gaining brownie points with the media as inside critics.

  • FW Ken

    Here’s the problem: sexual abuse by priests is not going to stop, any more than abuse by teachers, scout leaders, or fathers is going to stop. I suspect it’s actually less of a problem now than it was a hundred years ago; numbers go up on about any issue when you start watching and measuring it. I do know that the i>Didiche spoke against the corrupting of boys in the first or second century, so it goes back that far.

    So what’s there to do? First, not despair. Besides the immediacy of the internet, we also have the effects of television, with it single eye focused tightly on individual events. So a couple of bishops acting badly look like a trend. We have to remember anecdotes is not the single of data.

    Next, we have to stick with the facts. Abp. Myers in New Jersey didn’t allow the pedophile priest go back into ministry. He had him working in the chancery at a desk job and the guy snuck around having contact with kids. You might as well blame the judge who didn’t put the priest in jail. Both Bp. Finn of Kansas City and Abp. Nienstedt took what they had to the police and were told it wasn’t porn.

    Finally, we have to remember that saving the priests is not at odds with protecting kids. In the old days, priests acting out sexually went to a monastery to do penance. That strikes me as a good thing to which we should return (assuming the acts were not criminal).

    Here’s the real “finally”: when the bishops start to hold one another accountable, I’ll know we are on the right path. I’ve always thought the Dallas Charter was window dressing which should have been accompanied by genuine and public penance. A few more bishops should have resigned in disgrace. Cardinal Law should have retired to the monastery where he went to seminary, and so on.

    • hamiltonr

      Ken, Meyer has had another problem since. I can’t remember the details, but this one instance is not his only recent incident.

      As for them taking it to the police, so what? That covers them legally and nothing else. Whether or not the police said it was legally porn, those priests had no business around kids. I read that in the Mo case, what happened was that someone from the diocese described a photo to a police officer who said it “didn’t sound like porn.” If that’s true, it doesn’t exactly sound like going to the police to me.

      The question with Archbishop Nienstedt was whether or not the priest should be assigned to a parish.

      I cannot understand why these bishops keep focusing on legal issues as if they have no moral responsibility for their flocks. Are they priests or not? Do they believe in Jesus Christ, or don’t they?

      However it came down, I reiterate that this is not just a legal question. It is also a moral question and a question of whether or not these bishops are fit of their positions. If they knowingly endanger the children God has entrusted to them, they are not fit for their positions.

      I frankly do not know why this is a controversial idea or why the fact that the sexual abuse of children has historic roots is pertinent. Murder also has historic roots — all the way back to Genesis.

      A bishop who knowingly leaves a priest with this kind of problem in parish work should be removed. The police said it was ok, or Canon law says it’s ok, and I’m a moral ingrate with a bishop’s ring doesn’t cut it as an explanation for me.

      • FW Ken

        Rebecca, what you are saying isn’t “controversial”, at least not so much as my saying the bishops didn’t really repent. But you know that my interest is always what promotes child welfare, and my experience suggests that to be effective, it’s best to clear away the smoke and focus on the fire. Which is to say, don’t waste time on spurious allegations our media storms. Pin down the facts.

        As to the business of calling the police, that’s not a legalistic out for the bishops, but a legitimate response to the real anti-catholic voices that want to scapegoat a broad social problem onto the church. Lord knows there are enough real problems in the Church without making more up.

        Each instance in which out appears that a bishop failed in his duty may or may not be an actual failure. I’ve done enough management in my life to know that sometimes line staff don’t have all the facts. Before going off on a bishop, we should consider whether we know as much as we think we know. For example, I can’t find any recent allegations against Abp. Myers. There is a recent claim that 20 years ago he protected a priest who was a friend. The credibility of that story is dubious for several reasons.

        Again, I understand the frustrations – I’m ready to lock people up on a regular basis. However, that may or may not make the community safer.

        • hamiltonr

          I know Ken. I apologize for the way I answered. This particular issue — not you — just makes me angry.

          • FW Ken

            Not a problem, Rebecca. I respect your passion. Sometimes I get gigged for being dispassionate, but that’s not true. I’ve worked with sex offenders since 2000 and followed the Catholic side of it since the Rudy Kos scandal in the mid-90s. Emotion fades after awhile; anyway, I can’t do my job in a haze of emotion,however justified it is.

            • hamiltonr

              I understand. It’s the same on my job.

    • Michael Skiendzielewski

      “….Finally, we have to remember that saving the priests is not at odds with protecting kids….”

      FW Ken………is this a joke, or do you really believe this statement of yours?

      Here’s another post that I have distributed re the Minneapolis archdiocese controversy….welcome any feedback or input re the professional and moral decision-making of those involved…

      “….He (McDonough) told the archbishop and
      Eisenzimmer that he had spoken with a nun who had expressed concerns about Keating over the years.

      The “bottom line” to that conversation, McDonough wrote, was that she
      was certain Keating had never committed a sexual act with any underage girl before or after his ordination.

      “On the other hand, she expressed a great deal of concern about a
      longstanding pattern of behavior that she knows to have influenced several women, including herself,” McDonough wrote.

      “I proposed to her the phrase ‘inattentive seductiveness’ and she said
      that she thought that was very accurate,” he wrote….”

      Okay, you make the call…….which of the two is more professional and
      ethical?………Archdiocesan “investigative skills” or their
      “child protection skills”? Forget both items, where the hell is the

      In Philadelphia, our leadership uses the phrase “boundary violations” in place of your “inattentive seductiveness”. The rest of the US Catholic faithful understand such conduct as “sexual abuse”.

      • FW Ken

        Apparently you didn’t read my entire post, which relieves me of the obligation to reply.

  • FW Ken

    Rebecca, maybe this will give you a lift vis-a-vis bishops and the Church. It did me.