Clericalism and Priestly Abuse: What do the Laity do Now?

Clericalism and Priestly Abuse: What do the Laity do Now? August 6, 2018


I have some very difficult things to say in response to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’s statement on the disgraced Cardinal McCarrick.

On August first, Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, the president of the USCCB, issued a statement which I quote here in full:

The accusations against Archbishop Theodore McCarrick reveal a grievous moral failure within the Church. They cause bishops anger, sadness, and shame; I know they do in me. They compel bishops to ask, as I do, what more could have been done to protect the People of God. Both the abuses themselves, and the fact that they have remained undisclosed for decades, have caused great harm to people’s lives and represent grave moral failures of judgement on the part of Church leaders.

These failures raise serious questions. Why weren’t these allegations of sins against chastity and human dignity disclosed when they were first brought to Church officials? Why wasn’t this egregious situation addressed decades sooner and with justice? What must our seminaries do to protect the freedom to discern a priestly vocation without being subject to misuse of power?

Archbishop McCarrick will rightly face the judgement of a canonical process at the Holy See regarding the allegations against him, but there are also steps we should be taking as the Church here in the United States. Having prayed about this, I have convened the USCCB Executive Committee.  This meeting was the first of many among bishops that will extend into our Administrative Committee meeting in September and our General Assembly in November. All of these discussions will be oriented toward discerning the right course of action for the USCCB. This work will take some time but allow me to stress these four points immediately.

First, I encourage my brother bishops as they stand ready in our local dioceses to respond with compassion and justice to anyone who has been sexually abused or harassed by anyone in the Church. We should do whatever we can to accompany them.

Second, I would urge anyone who has experienced sexual assault or harassment by anyone in the Church to come forward. Where the incident may rise to the level of a crime, please also contact local law enforcement.

Third, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops will pursue the many questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick’s conduct to the full extent of its authority; and where that authority finds its limits, the Conference will advocate with those who do have the authority. One way or the other, we are determined to find the truth in this matter.

Finally, we bishops recognize that a spiritual conversion is needed as we seek to restore the right relationship among us and with the Lord. Our Church is suffering from a crisis of sexual morality. The way forward must involve learning from past sins.

Let us pray for God’s wisdom and strength for renewal as we follow St. Paul’s instruction: ‘Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect’ (Romans 12:2).”

The best response I have seen to this came from the actress Patricia Heaton, a Catholic, on her Twitter page:

Dear Cardinal Daniel N. DiNardo, The laity does not care how much shame you feel; we want all those who perpetrated and covered up sexual abuse OUT. Also, victims of abuse should not “come forward “ but go directly to the police. You had your chance to help; you failed.

I believe she’s absolutely right. I couldn’t say it any better myself.

DiNardo is wrong when he says this is a crisis of sexual morality. It’s a crisis of the abuse of the vulnerable, and of the bishops’ failure to stop the abuse, and it’s a crisis for which they have no excuse. Furthermore, it’s hardly a crisis. A crisis is a dramatic moment of change. This is a corrupt status quo which has gone on for a very long time. We have, at this point, no reason to believe that they will do better going forward. They had plenty of time to do better, and they didn’t. The answer to this crisis doesn’t lie in trusting our bishops to make it go away. We have to report abusive priests to somebody else, or they will go on abusing.

This is a hard topic to discuss. We as Catholics are raised to respect and honor priests, and that’s good. We ought to. Priest represent Christ when they administer the sacraments; they represent the Church when they appear in public in their clericals. They make a beautiful, generous choice when they choose to dedicate their lives to serving the Church instead of their own interests, and that ought to be commended. You ought to have great respect for the priesthood.

But too many of us have also been raised in a form of idolatry known as clericalism– the idea that priests can do no wrong, or that priests have to be defended even when they’re very wrong indeed. Many of us might have been told that it’s wrong to tell anyone if a priest hurts you– that it’s gossip, that it’s damaging to the Church, that we ought to suffer in silence and offer it up. And this couldn’t be further from the truth.

We ought to respect the clergy, but a huge part of respect is having standards. Part of respecting the sacred office of the priesthood is expecting them to live up to the honor and trust we have for them.

And when priests betray this trust in such a sickening, inexcusable way, they betray the priesthood. They betray the Church. They betray Christ. They commit a sacrilege that is unimaginable.

It is as much in the interest of the Church and the office of the priesthood as it is in the interest of anyone else, that priests who commit heinous crimes against the laity or other priests be exposed and punished. And, as of today, the bishops have tragically failed to punish them, or to keep the laity safe.

"OK. Just trying to inform you as to what the issue was about."

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