A Petition to the American Bishops

A Petition to the American Bishops January 13, 2019

There is a petition addressed to the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops that has recently been circulating online and gathering signatures.  It was started by Holly Taylor Coolman, an assistant professor of Theology at Providence College.   My fellow blogger Mark Gordon shared it on his Facebook page, and I liked it enough that I signed it and shared it on my page.  I suggested that we post it to the blog, and he agreed.   Here is the body of the petition, which is to be delivered to Cardinal DiNardo, president of the USCCB, on February 19, just before the Vatican summit on the child abuse scandal.  Here is the body of the petition:

Dear fathers and brothers in Christ,

We write with profoundly heavy hearts. The latest wave of revelations regarding sexual abuse in the Church, and the way in which that abuse was covered up and made possible, has pushed us to a breaking point.

Abuse and the enabling of abuse are not simply individual sins to be forgiven. They are a radical and ongoing affront to the Church’s witness to the Gospel. They communicate contempt for the people of God, and particularly the most vulnerable members.

As bishops, successors to the Apostles, you have the roles of teaching, governing and sanctifying God’s people. The response to many cases of reported abuse represents failure to accomplish these on the most fundamental level. We are asking you now to take responsibility as a pastoral body for this failure.

We are not your enemies. We are your people. We grew up in your schools and parishes. We brought our children for baptism. We are parents, teachers, workers, scholars. For some of us, work in and for the Church is our livelihood. We are simply heartsick.

For the sake of the Gospel and the sake of the Church, we the undersigned plead with you to recognize the extreme gravity of this uniquely consequential crisis and t0 respond in a courageous and serious manner.

We implore you—as a Conference and as individual bishops—to consider bolder actions, including public penance; the voluntary release of all relevant diocesan records to civil authorities; the establishment of lay-led oversight committees; prayer for the victims, both private and public; the creation of remembrances for the victims and their suffering; the resignation of those in authority; and even dismissal from the clerical state and exposure to criminal prosecution; as well as any other measure that addresses this calamity.

We urge you to act with all the courage and intelligence that can be brought to bear, coupled with an urgency that recognizes the current and future consequences of this catastrophe.

Put aside strategies of minimization or mitigation.

For the sake of Christ and his Church, do not delay.

As of writing this blog, the petition has 128 signatures.  In the world of online petitions, this is a vanishingly small number–the petition asking the US government to build a Death Star had more than 25,000 signatures, and the petition to have the Sponge Bob song Sweet Victory played at the Super Bowl has more than 1 million.

I really like this petition.  This petition is short, heart felt, and sincere.  It is calling on our bishops to be pastors.  But more importantly, it is calling on them to own up to their mistakes, accept responsibility, and take concrete steps to repair the damage and make it less likely to occur again.

Also, it avoids the Scylla and Charybdis of false explanations and tangential solutions.   It avoids the conservative shibboleths of blaming the crisis on gays in the priesthood and on the “Lavender Mafia”.   Are there gay priests, possibly a lot?  Probably.  Are they the problem?  No.  The real problem has always been a failure of leadership.  Contra-factually, if the abuse of children teens had occurred, but the bishops had responded openly and forcefully–removing priests from ministry, turning them over to law enforcement for prosecution–things would have unfolded very, very differently.

It also avoids the liberal hobby horse solutions of election of bishops, a married clergy and ordaining women.  I think our system of selecting bishops needs to change, and I am open to a married clergy and would be open to discussing again the ordination of women–certainly to the diaconate–but these are not magic fixes to our problems.

The list of suggestions mixes the pastoral with the practical.  But buried in it is a powerful one:  “the resignation of those in authority.”  The example of the bishops of Chile should be in the forefront of the American bishops’ minds.   Indeed, in some of my darker (and perhaps more vindictive) reflections on the abuse crisis this fall, I suggested that every bishop who had been a bishop prior to 2002 (or who served as a diocesan chancellor or vicar before then) should submit is resignation to the Pope.    This would allow the Pope to remove truly obdurate bishops; more importantly, it would be a collective admission by the bishops that they had screwed up by the numbers.    The problem with this suggestion is that it would have people (both in and outside the Church) howling for blood, and the wholesale (figurative) decapitation of the episcopacy in the US would be devastating to the local churches.

In the end, I do not know what the solution is.  I pray the Spirit, who blows where He wills (and not where I will it)  enlightens our Holy Father and our Bishops.  But I endorse this petition and hope that you will consider signing it.

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