Becoming CEOs of the institution and ceding the Church to lawyers rather than to the Gospel was mistake number one.  Severing the sacramental connection between priest and bishop was mistake number two. However, the most egregious mistake the bishops have made throughout the entire clergy sexual abuse crisis is the third.  The bishops committed the capital sin of sloth.  We think of sloth as laziness, but it is not.  It is self-pity, a sorrow for oneself that embraces a guilt leading to apathy.  The bishops chose to become powerless to fight against the evil of sexual abuse and the abuse of episcopal authority.  Out of despair or indifference, they left the battlefield to lawyers, the press, and an outraged laity.

The McCarrick Affair Revealed The Powerlessness Of The Episcopacy

The McCarrick affair and the way the institutional Church handled it shows this clearly.  Outsiders still marvel at how such a person as the former cardinal could live such an evil lifestyle in plain sight of his fellow churchmen.  All bishops were at least aware of his predilection for seminarians.  As the Vicar for Clergy for a midwestern diocese, I knew of the rumors since 2005.  I remember a Bill O’Reilly show on Fox News where the erstwhile commentator threatened to go public with a horrendous accusation against a highly placed Catholic official the next night.  Surprisingly, he never revealed that name, but at the time, I knew that if I had to guess, it would be McCarrick.  Rumors are not facts, but there were priests, like Fr. Boniface Ramsey who tried many times to inform the Vatican what he knew as fact:  that the cardinal was a serial predator.  But the Vatican took no notice.  Nor did other bishops.   All bishops were aware of the rumors, but there were many who knew the facts and did nothing.  The explanation goes that the Church simply did not have the structures present for bishops to discipline each other.  Everything rested on the pope’s intervention and three popes appear to have been kept in the dark of the actual facts though they too had heard the rumors.

The Failure Of The Local Church

Many will blame the popes, but that is unfair.  The Church is not an empire.  Its power rests in subsidiarity–the idea that problems are to be handled by the local churches before anyone higher up the chain of command becomes involved.  Costco is putting up a warehouse complex near my town.  Its area, I believe, is bigger than Vatican City, and Costco is just a store. The Pope cannot micromanage the affairs of the Church–even if he wanted to.  He just doesn’t have the infrastructure.  However, many bishops in the United States were close to McCarrick.  They knew and did nothing.  It really was their responsibility to do something about this cancer in the Church.  So what if there were no structures for disciplining a fellow bishop?  Where the law and structures fail, courage and heroic virtue can easily carve out a path to truth for those brave enough to wield the sword of righteous anger.  But no bishop could swing that sword.  No bishop wanted to.  Many had the ability, but lacked the fortitude.  Thus the sin of sloth.  Out of despair or indifference, no one stopped the brazen cardinal.  And the result has become a sordid part of our ecclesiastical history.  People’s faith and spiritual well-being have been sorely tried.

An Incandescent, Icy Rage At A Befuddled Episcopacy

If the Church thought the people’s anger had reached it’s zenith with the handling of clergy sexual abuse revelations, those who wielded influence in the  institution were clearly wrong.  Hell hath no fury like a laity who see an all powerful episcopacy failing to act.  What made last year’s experience even more sorrowful is that blame could not be placed on simply one individual.  The episcopacy, itself, by slothful apathy, voted to punt on the issue.  The inaction of the bishops painted the entire Church in shame and ridicule.  The rage has not yet subsided.  People’s anger has iced over like the lowest circle of Dante’s Hell.  Bishop Bransfield’s sexual and monetary indiscretions, revealed early this summer, show everyone that the Church is still powerless to attack head-on the abuse of authority.

The Bishops’ Embrace of Sloth A Ticket To Ecclesiastical Disaster

The image at the beginning of this series explaining the mistakes of the bishops in regards to the clergy sexual abuse crisis began with a picture of the bishops at their annual meeting looking like powerless CEOs of failing companies.  That same image of befuddled leadership closes off this third mistake by the episcopacy.  People’s anger can and has easily turned to fear.  Why?  Because worse than realizing the culpability of the bishops and their sharing in the blame for this horrendous problem, is the realization that the leaders are like lost lemmings, careening towards an abyss of disaster.  The faithful love the Church and fear they might lose her.  Can the institution of the Church hear the voice of the Holy Spirit and act in time to avert a leap into darkness?  In the final article of this series, I’ll suggest some possible avenues to approach a resolution to the worst crisis to face the worldwide Church since the Protestant Reformation.

About Eric Barr
Monsignor Barr is a Roman Catholic priest of the Diocese of Rockford, Illinois. In his 35 years of priesthood, he has been pastor, principal, teacher, Vicar for Clergy and Vicar General. He is a former associate editor of a newspaper and a novelist. He speaks on Celtic Theology and Current Catholic Issues. You can read more about the author here.
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  • Molly Roach

    It would seem that the US bishops are without backbone.

  • douglas kraeger

    Sadly, the most charitable explanation is that they wanted to do what was the right thing, but lacked the courage, or graces. What may have been the case for some in authority, we do not know, nor can we know, but some may have deliberately done evil because they want to bring down the Church from within, as the communists/ masons have claimed as their aim for a long time and as Dr. Taylor Marshall has given evidence of such a design in his latest book. Whatever the reason in particular cases, we must place our trust in Christ, in His Church and Her official teachings, not in individual priests, Bishops, Cardinals, or even Popes

  • Milo C

    I have the impression that almost all bishops know they are part of a corrupt system, and they have had decades to become comfortable with that as long as they get a bit of control, a bit of safety, and a golden ticket to heaven.

  • swbarnes2

    Surely you must believe that all of the people involved sincerely believed that praying for divine guidance would show them the way. When multiple independent people all pray to the same God for divine discernment and guideline on the same matter, and they all respond the same way, don’t you have to conclude that they all did so because they all received the same divine instruction to be silent? Do you really believe that God was unwilling or unable to inspire a single person who sincerely believed that God is their strength and their shepherd to do something difficult? Not one?

    Can the institution of the Church hear the voice of the Holy Spirit

    Why are you so sure that thousand and thousands of sincere believers can’t? How often do Christians say “God knows more than we do, so anything God does, no matter how evil it looks to us, is a good thing”? How can you be so sure that a child-killing God didn’t will this?

  • brian martin

    one cannot help but wonder, if there was so much energy put into either avoiding the issue, hiding the issue, or fighting against those trying to shine the light on the issue, whether those same Bishops, priests and laity were open to the Holy Spirit and seem hard to block it off in one area and still be open to it in others