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.
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.