Another One Bites the Dust — Only It Is More Complicated Than That

The news broke yesterday afternoon:  Archbishop John Nienstedt, archbishop of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Auxiliary Bishop Lee Anthony Piche have both resigned from their positions.   The archbishop has been under considerable pressure to resign, including from some of his own priests, because of the way the Archdiocese mishandled sexual abuse allegations.  The Archbishop has put a brave face on the matter, writing in his short statement that

I leave with a clear conscience knowing that my team and I have put in place solid protocols to ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults.

Although we will never know, and perhaps it is immaterial, the timing suggests that either Archbishop Nienstedt  read the writing on the wall, or that someone further up the hierarchy (the Nuncio?  Cardinal Parolin? Pope Francis himself?) suggested that it was time for him to step down.  Two weeks ago, prosecutors in Minnesota indicted the archdiocese  for failure to protect children.   Though the archbishop himself was not indicted, in some ways this is a distinction without a difference:  he bears considerable moral (if not legal) responsibility.  Moreover,  last week, the Vatican announced the creation of a new tribunal to investigate bishops for “abuse of office” in connection with the sexual abuse of children.   Already, there is speculation that (unlike, say, Cardinal Law of Boston) resignation is not the end of the story, and Archbishop Nienstedt may face further sanctions from this tribunal.

On reading the news over breakfast this morning, my first reaction was to begin singing Queen:

And another one gone, and another one gone
Another one bites the dust

Thus the title of my post.   My first reaction includes more than a bit of righteous anger and even schadenfreude:  Archbishop Nienstedt, according to his own (former) chancellor, failed miserably in his duties, and based on the press reports I firmly believe he needed to go.   I have written in the past (see here and here) about the changes that Pope Francis has been making in the Church, in particular, the removal of Bishop  Tebartz-van Elst of Germany, Bishop  Livieres Plano of Paraguay, and the investigation of Bishop Finn of Kansas City.  (Though not discussed at Vox Nova, Bishop Finn resigned in April, probably as a result of this investigation.)  My thesis was that there was “a new sheriff in town” and that bishops were going to be held accountable for their actions.   So part of me is standing on the sidelines, cheering Pope Francis on, and wondering which bishops are uncomfortably reading this news and hearing in their own minds the next line from the chorus quoted above:

Hey, I’m gonna get you too
Another one bites the dust…

I am not alone in this feeling:   one need only read the comments to the articles from Crux linked to above, or in the coverage and comments at NCR (see here and here).   There is a sense in some circles that this is too little and further heads need to roll.  SNAP (the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests) in their press release said

But this should be just the beginning of a long process of exposing and punishing clerics who put kids in harm’s way.

Indeed, some of the more vocal critics of the Church, particularly from the left/liberal end of the spectrum, would seem to be satisfied only when they are wading to their boot tops—figuratively or literally—in the blood of bishops and priests.  (Okay, I am exaggerating, but I do not think by much.)

But as I reflected on what has happened I realized that the situation is more complicated than that and my response—our response, as a Church—needs to be better grounded in the Gospel.     The pain and anger felt by abuse victims is real and the Church must acknowledge it and with full humility accept it and take its lumps.  Part of that will require some bishops to take full responsibility for their dereliction and/or the failures of those under their command.    I read somewhere that Pope Benedict did not press bishops to resign because he believed that it was their responsibility to address and correct problems and mistakes in their dioceses.  However, I think  that, under current circumstances, bishops can only fully take responsibility by stepping down:  anything less than this will perpetuate the image (which is firmly grounded in our sad history) that the Church is more interested in protecting priests and bishops than it is in tending to the victims and providing them with justice.    Resignation is an important symbol of change.  To his credit, Archbishop Nienstedt recognized this, writing in his statement

In order to give the Archdiocese a new beginning amidst the many challenges we face, I have submitted my resignation as Archbishop….The Catholic Church is not our Church, but Christ’s Church, and we are merely stewards for a time. My leadership has unfortunately drawn attention away from the good works of His Church and those who perform them. Thus, my decision to step down.

But retribution alone will not heal our (self-inflicted) wounds.  As I learned from my death penalty work, executions almost never bring the peace and “closure” that victims’ family members want.  Similarly, I do not think that the resignation, or even public humiliation of bishops will provide more than passing satisfaction to abuse victims and their families.   The Church must do more.   The Pope and Bishops have apologized for their failings, and they need to continue to do so.  And we need to resolve to do better:  the protection of children must be a paramount concern.  In resolving to do so, we must act without any trace of defensiveness or self-justification—we have to admit that what we are doing is in response to our past failings.  (Contrast this with the first quote from Archbishop Neinstadt above.)   As part of this response I think that we will need to humble ourselves, and, for the foreseeable future, we as a Church will need to accept intrusive oversight by secular authorities into Church affairs.  Bishop Finn accepted this some years ago when first settling the lawsuits against his diocese, and I predict that the outcome of the current criminal case against the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul will also include strict oversight by either the district attorney or a court appointed monitor.   In the future this may create problems for religious liberty and the independence of the Church: someday we may need to refight battles fought in the Middle Ages or the 19th century.   But for the present I think we have no other choice than to accept this cross.

I also think that the way in which leadership is exercised will have to change.  Some people have insisted that only radical changes in the institution of the Church will fix the problem.  I am not convinced of this:  one need only look at the abuse and corruption in the American government to realize that democracy is not a panacea.  But certainly clericalism will need to be extirpated and the next generation of priests and bishops taught to be on guard against it.

Will abuse victims ever forgive the Church?  Some have, and I hope that others will come to do so.  But while we can ask for forgiveness, we can never expect or demand it.   Rather, we have to accept that in some cases, forgiveness will not be seen in this world, but only in the world to come, when God himself will make all things new and wipe away every tear.

There is a another important question I want to close with:  can we forgive the Church ourselves?    I will admit that as I have watched the sexual abuse scandal unfold over the past decades, and as I have (often too slowly) come to realize and accept the magnitude of the crisis, I have become well and truly pissed off at the hierarchy and their defenders:  first they screwed up and then they spent far too long trying to cover it up or to shift responsibility to anyone other than themselves.   From this anger flows my glee that Pope Francis is (finally!) changing the way that things are done. And, as I noted above, a lot of other people share this anger.    Can we—can I—move past this anger and offer forgiveness?   I hope so.  I want to.  But forgiveness and reconciliation are often a journey, with missteps on both sides.

The real difficulty will be to forgive but not forget what happened.   To quote Merlin from the movie Excalibur,

Remember it always….Remember it well…for it is the doom of men that they forget.

Far too often we, as a Church, have passed over, minimized or denied the mistakes we have made in the past.  We want to see the Church in this world as she can only fully be in an eschatological sense:  the spotless bride of Christ.  This she is, but here on Earth she is more than a bit soiled and worn, and we must love her  as she is as well as for what she is to be.  Or, as Dorothy Day is supposed to have put it:  “the Church is a whore, but she is out Mother.”  (I have heard this quote attributed to both her and to St. Augustine, but have never found a definitive source.  But it does sound like something she would say.)

On the other hand, we cannot use remembering as an excuse to never forgive.    We berate the Church for what she did or failed to do, and in so doing overlook or minimize all that she has done.  We position ourselves as morally superior, far too sure that we would have done better had we been in their circumstances.   A honest examination of conscience should show us that we have no grounds for such sanctimony:  we can call the Church a whore only if we admit that we are no better:  all have sinned and fallen short of the perfection of God.

We must hold both memory and forgiveness together.   We need to accept that we are all one Body, and that the faults of one part are the faults of all, that the injury done to one is done to all, and the failure to forgive one another affects us all.  Please remember Archbishop Nienstadt, the people of the Archdiocese of Minneapolis-St. Paul, and most especially all of the victims of sexual abuse in your prayers.

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  • Tausign

    I would offer that the proper response is a penitential disposition by EVERY member of the Church. While it is true that many individuals are culpable of egregious behavior, the scope of this indicates that the ‘general moral atmosphere’ has been corrupt for quite some time. Not everyone is in a position to make institutional change, but everyone is needed to ‘do penance’.

  • Fariba

    I love how the sacrament of penance is now called the sacrament of reconciliation. What’s implied in the new name is that sin always hurts not just God but also our neighbor. Isn’t that ultimately what’s behind the belief in original sin? Part of being Church is sharing in the guilt of others. The Church is an organism. When the arm is sick the whole body is sick. We tend to blame the sins of the Church on others. Certainly we haven’t abused anyone, and yet, our sins (even those we think are private) affect others. We have to learn to think of the way sins hurt others. Repentance really does begin with me.

  • Julia Smucker

    Well done and well said, David: the most circumspect, introspective and all-around thoughtful reflection on this subject that I think we’re likely to see.

    Your comparison, regarding retribution, to the lack of the expected closure experienced with the death penalty is especially astute. And, not to open a whole other tangent, but your final point calls to mind the “healing of memories” that has been a major focus of international Catholic-Mennonite dialogue.

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thank you Julia. In writing the last couple of paragraphs I was thinking of your reaction to what I originally wrote. I did not achieve “balance” (a concept we have sparred over in the past) but I gave a lot more thought to all sides in this debacle.

      Also, please open a tangent: what is the “healing of memories” and what role does it play in this dialogue? My guess would be that the Mennonites and Catholics have been looking more closely at the Mennonite martyrs, but how has their mutual understanding evolved?

      • Julia Smucker

        I’m flattered to be anticipated. I often write posts with certain reactions in mind as well, which shapes them in places, and then when I think I’ve made it airtight, commenters will usually surprise me anyway. But I think you have truly demonstrated here how “balance” in the best sense does not mean being mealy-mouthed or papering over ugly stuff, but rather confronting the ugly stuff with the necessary honesty but without getting vindictive about it, in a way that instead invites us ALL to reflection and repentance. That’s no easy feat to pull off, so bravo.

        To continue the tangent, I refer you to the major international dialogue report, “Called Together to Be Peacemakers”, available here (along with some later resources):

        Sections 1 and 3 are especially pertinent to the question of the healing of memories. You are correct that it involves a closer look at Anabaptist martyrs, and additionally at periods of church history that have been contentious points in our portrayals of ourselves and each other, with acknowledgement of slants and stereotypes on both sides. I discovered this document when I was in RCIA and wrestling with the very different telling of church history from the kind I grew up with, and it was incredibly helpful to me.

        • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

          Thanks for the reference, Julia. I skimmed chunks of Sections 1 and 3, and I think this is exactly the attitude we, as Catholics, need to bring to reading our own history. We need to get past both the triumphalism and ahistorical narratives of one side and the relentlessly negative attacks on the other.

  • Agellius

    I don’t know a whole lot about this situation. The little I know is the result of a cursory google search and reading a few articles. But from what I’ve seen, the only advance warning signs were the priest’s soliciting sex from young adults. As soon as he was accused of molesting minors, he was immediately removed from his parish assignment. But people seem to be saying that this wasn’t good enough.

    How should the diocese have known that he was a danger to molest kids? Are they saying that the fact that he was violating his vow of celibacy in any way before this occurred, should have served as a warning that he might abuse children? If so, this would imply that any priest who is caught having an affair with an adult should be removed lest he molest children. Is that what they’re saying? Or am I missing something?

  • Brian Martin
    agellius, this is a good accounting of the whole bloody mess

    • David Cruz-Uribe, SFO

      Thanks for this link: Minnesota Public Radio has done a thorough job of reporting on these matters. I didn’t think of this when I approved Agellius’ comment.

    • Agellius


      I checked the link, which I had seen before, but I still have the same question. Thanks.