One of the best things that the bishops of the American Catholic Church did during the great wave of sex abuse revelations 16 years ago — and yes, there’s a low bar for “best” — was to establish a National Review Board, staffed by prominent layman, with the authority to commission an independent report on what exactly had happened in the church.
The result was a careful analysis by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that detailed the patterns of priestly sex abuse in American Catholicism between 1950 and 2002: How many, how often, what kind of abuse, what strategy of predation, how many victims, which sex, what age, how the priest’s superiors responded (or didn’t), how often the courts were involved, what scale of settlements were paid, and so on through a wealth of grim statistical detail.
Then attached to that data was a larger discussion from the Review Board’s members, which managed to be reasonably evenhanded about subjects (priestly celibacy and homosexuality, above all) that lend themselves to culture-war hysteria both inside and outside the church. Thanks to the members’ labors, any journalist or historian interested in assessing the problem of priestly sex abuse dispassionately, and anyone seeking the truth about a lurid and polarizing story, can turn to a sober and detailed accounting — one that that the church itself commissioned.
Now, unfortunately, it needs to happen again. But what needs to be commissioned this time, by Pope Francis himself if the American bishops can’t or won’t, isn’t a synthetic overview of a systemic problem. Rather, the church needs an inquest, a special prosecutor — you can even call it an inquisition if you want — into the very specific question of who knew what and when about the crimes of Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, and why exactly they were silent.
All of this seems sound to me. Here’s hoping the Holy Father calls the American episcopacy to account as he (belatedly) did the Chilean episcopacy (obtaining from them a mass resignation unprecedented in the history of the Church). My prayer is that he will approach the American Church with the same aggressiveness. We’ll see.
Increasingly, it seems to me that the Catholic habit of navigating, not on the basis of objective reality, but on the basis of “who you know” and tribal affiliation, accounts for 99% of the problem. It’s why we continuously turn a blind eye to those in our own tribe who are just as guilty as those in the opposite culture war tribe and why the issue freely crosses partisan lines. This is “conservative” and “liberal” clerics: Bernard Law and Rembert Weakland, hyper-Traditionalists and liberals.
Years ago, Amy Welborn talked about the weird phenomenon of pervy priests whose parishes loved them and were ready to overlook all because “he married us” or “he baptized my baby”. It’s like the woman who stays with the abusive husband because she loves him and there is a personal bond that is hard to break.
Personal bonds are a two-edged sword. They keep us there in difficult relationships and often can be powerful forces for the redemption of the sinner. The call to forgiveness 7 X 70 is nothing if not a call for mercy to the weak and the congenitally sinful. How many of us can honestly say that the dogged love of somebody close to us has not played a huge role in helping to change us from utter jerks into something resembling a human being? I certainly can’t. So I am highly reluctant to proceed with haste in calling for the punishment of the sinner.
But that’s the problem: personal bonds can also easily be perverted into “But we know McCarrick! Think of all the good he has done! Cut him slack!” And the predator knows that: especially the clerical predator who has a particular and peculiar power to shut down nice people–and to crush those of sufficient conscience to resist him. That seems to be exactly what is going on here as McCarrick preyed upon (and actively persecuted) victims and those who spoke against him. His brother bishops “overlooked” his “foibles” at the expense of his victims. Why? Because they knew him: there was a personal bond. They did not know–and did not care to know–his victims. And so they became complicit–out of niceness.
This is why scripture demands of the King a ruthless commitment to impartial justice. The bishops, after 2002, did do something, which is why you have not heard about abusive priests for nearly ten years. As atheist counsel for the prosecution Joseph Klest (who successfully prosecuted the Church some 500 times for sexual abuse) makes clear, the US episcopacy, under the lash of the rage they so richly deserved, eventually created a system that has successfully removed from (and prevented from entering) the priesthood a host of unworthy men. He, in fact, argues that they created a system that is a model which runs rings around the sexual-assault-plagued American school system.
What they failed at was having the courage and integrity to police their brother bishops with whom they have a personal bond. The bad news about McCarrick is that he got away with this because he was high enough in the hierarchy to evade the responsibility imposed on those lower than him. The good news is that this story is only about him (and his accomplices), not about a whole bunch of pervy priests. The question will be whether they–and most especially the Holy Father–have the courage to look past those personal bonds and see the victims they and their friends have created.
As Douthat makes clear, the reforms undertaken after 2002 have had a real impact. But the bishops failed to take the final step, after disciplining their priests: they refused to discipline themselves and the guilty in their own circle. I pray they will finally put the institutional checks in place to see that they too will face the music rather than go on betraying their flock “for fellowship”.
And I hope the global episcopacy and most especially the Holy Father will treat this as the chance to repent and change that it is. At some point, these guys have to learn from suffering since they chose for so long not to learn from virtue.
Pope Francis has said that shepherds should smell like the sheep. I think that, among other things, that has to mean that men like McCarrick should have to smell like any layman would smell were he guilty of McCarrick’s crimes: like the resident of a prison cell clothed in liturgical orange. If we say that he is “too old” to suffer such a punishment we can only mean one of two things: that we should free all prisoners over a certain age or that cardinals are specially exempt from the justice that applies to their sheep.
As a Catholic, I am aware that the gospel does, in fact, call us to radical mercy and so could see my way clear to an argument for releasing from prison all those over a certain age. But I cannot see my way clear to any argument in which this man’s crimes simply go unpunished–and still less that his enablers and accomplices’ crimes go unpunished. It only sends the message to their victims that they do not matter and that the Church is not with the least of these, but with the powerful. That must not stand or God’s name will be blasphemed among the Gentiles. McCarrick must be punished in some way and his victims must be given restitution, impossible though it be restore what the locust have eaten with mere money. Something must be done to make amends and something more must be done to create a mechanism that forces, not just the American bishops, but all the bishops of the world to face real consequences if they fail.
My fellow Patheosi Rebecca Hamilton knew the man–Frank Keating–who first headed the National Review Board and who resigned with the complaint that the bishops behaved “like Cosa Nostra“. That’s telling, since the phrase means “our thing” or “our affair”. In other words, the Mob runs on a profoundly perverted sense of personal bonds.
Interestingly, Rebecca writes in a way that illustrates both the good and the bad side of Moral Navigation by Personal Bond, showing that her trust in the integrity of Keating was why she knew she could not trust the omerta that drove the bishops to their folly:
Here is what he said in his resignation letter:
My remarks which some bishops found offensive, were deadly accurate. I make no apology. To resist grand jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization, not my church.
Church officials, and several of the people who served on the committee with Governor Keating denied his charges. Evidently, Cardinal Mahoney, who later came into his own problems, was outraged by Keating’s statements.
As for me, I believed Governor Keating from the get-go.
First, I know the man. I knew that Frank Keating was genuine in his support for victims of sexual assault and rape. I also knew that he loved the Catholic Church with his whole heart.
Second, I had been reading the testimony out of Boston, as well as following the reactions of the bishops. It seemed obvious to me that some of the bishops were very bad men whose indifference to sexual predation was only exceeded by their arrogance. They weren’t just criminals; they were cruel.
As I said, this was early days in the clergy sex abuse crisis. I think a lot of people believed that it would be a self-limiting crisis; that we’d get to the bottom of the barrel of bad fish, expel them from the clerical ranks, change a few procedures, twist a couple of legal knobs, and the whole thing would fade into history.
But those suppositions didn’t deal with the realities of sexual abuse, rape and a true understanding of power. We haven’t gotten to the point that we’ve faced the truth of what we’re dealing with, even now, after all these years.
The sex abuse crisis in the Catholic Church has become a sore that won’t heal, a bowl of soup that won’t empty, an unending series of revelations and betrayals that slash across the claims that the priesthood makes about itself like a knife. The latest installment is, of course, the revelation that none other than Cardinal Theodore McCarrick himself is a sexual predator, and that lots of people inside the Church knew it for a very long time.
It would have been a lot easier on all of us if we’d just believed Frank Keating, back in the day. I can say that because I did believe him. I knew he was telling the truth.
Personal bonds certainly have their place in human affairs. We could not function without them. But personal bonds that elevate the love of man over the love of God–especially over God present in the least of these when they are the victim of radical injustice–are simply and solely forms of idolatry and must be crucified as we must crucify any sin that keeps us from obedience to God.
Understandably, the witness given by the Church in such an hour is nauseating and is precisely what Jesus warned of when he said:
Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him if a great millstone were hung round his neck and he were thrown into the sea. (Mk 9:42).
Nonetheless, don’t let it shake your faith in the Church. We were given Peter as pope precisely to remind us that our faith is in the power of the Holy Spirit at work in the Church, not in the holiness of us dorks who are its members. Treasure in jars of clay is how it has always been. The Church is not holy because of us. It’s holy simply and solely because the Spirit is the soul of the Church. The bad news is that jerks like this become bishops. The good news is that jerks like me and you are still able to find mercy through the sacraments forever, no matter how many times we fail.
And, by the way, remember that sinfulness is reality all the way to the top of the hierarchy. When people tell me “Don’t abandon Peter because of Judas” I reply “Don’t abandon Jesus because of Peter.” We have a good and holy pope and I thank God for him. But he is not Jesus and is not without sin, as the original Peter amply showed, and as Pope John Paul’s repeated, massive failures in this department reinforce. Again and again, it is without question the greatest blot on his record that he refused to investigate monsters like Maciel and that he elevated men like McCarrick and others to cardinal, even though he had been warned about them.
Nonetheless, it is the Holy Spirit who is the soul of the Church, not Peter. Stick with Peter by all means, but remember that you do so because Jesus made him the Rock, not because of his perfection.