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We are witnessing the collapse of the episcopal establishment in the United States.

 In one sense, the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report tells us nothing we didn’t already know. But it spells things out in inescapable detail, in a series of case studies complete with diocesan memos and letters from bishops. 

The lurid details of the actions of predatory priests are troubling. But still more troubling are the evasions of responsibility by those in charge—including, in some instances, secular authorities, who in the 1960s tended to cooperate with Church leaders in keeping things quiet. Well into the 1980s, bishops and their staffs were still employing the old techniques: shuttling malefactors to remote dioceses, stonewalling civil authorities, and working hard to “avoid scandal,” which means keeping secrets and minimizing accountability.

One case study involving a Pittsburgh priest makes a damning fact clear. Memos reproduced by the Grand Jury Report strongly suggest that, but for the public uproar after the priest scandal broke in Boston in 2002, the Archdiocese of Pittsburgh, then overseen by Donald Wuerl (now Cardinal Archbishop of Washington, D.C.), would have continued its policy of treating sexual crimes “internally.” This process may have protected the Church’s reputation in the short run. It may have shielded the fraternity of the priesthood and the men accused of sexual abuse. But again and again, this internal process failed to protect children. 

Recent revelations about Theodore McCarrick prepared me for reading the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report. We’re still learning sordid facts about McCarrick’s sexual career, as well as his financial dealings. As has been the case with priestly abuse, the donations of the faithful may have ended up securing confidential settlements that protected McCarrick’s career and allowed his brother bishops to continue looking the other way. 

However the mess is parsed, the larger truth is plain: The current culture of the American episcopacy makes even good men incapable of rooting out the corruption in their midst. One can’t help but cringe while reading the Grand Jury Report, the way one does in a car spinning slowly off the highway. 

In memo after memo, bishops and their assistants downplay and cover up misdeeds, and evade doing the hard but right thing. I am increasingly certain that any number of further secrets are yet to be exposed: religious orders dominated by homosexual networks, seminaries rife with sexual exploitation, payouts and expenditures meant to forestall the day of reckoning, and financial corruption in various other forms. 

A close friend told me that he can’t decide which is his dominant emotion: contempt or despair. Contempt strikes me as more reasonable. As a body, the American episcopacy is feckless. Of course it includes many good men. But they are paralyzed by “collegiality,” an ecclesial virtue that has been captured by mediocrity. In light of recent events, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops would very happily put itself in the hands of secular lawyers—the safe, unassailable “best practice.” 

But the episcopal establishment has been failing for a long time, and in many phases. It failed to secure the theological loyalty of Catholic colleges and universities. No diocese has systematically implemented the reforms of the liturgy encouraged by Pope Benedict. The American episcopacy oversees parochial school systems in decline, and sponsors social justice ministries run by people who reject the Church’s teaching on many moral matters. In recent decades, the bishops’ conference has made feeble efforts to recover the electoral influence it had when archbishops and cardinals were part of the Democratic party’s urban machines. 

Despair says, “Nothing will change.” But that is false. Many of us have long known that we cannot trust Catholic schools run by the established system to teach our kids to be Catholic. Our response has been to found lay-run schools. The Neo-Catechumenate Way, Opus Dei, Communion and Liberation—like the religious orders founded in earlier centuries, these movements seek to do what the chancery-dominated, establishment Church can’t. 

These movements are not anti-clerical. They don’t reject the bishops. But they don’t wait around for the episcopal establishment, which is so often unable to meet the challenges of our time. 

The McCarrick revelations and the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report are part of a larger trend: The episcopal establishment has been ineffective for decades. This does not mean that we have no good and holy bishops. But the system is clotted and mediocre, bringing out the worst in our leaders rather than their best.

There is no cause for despair. What we need is determination—and a bit of creative destruction, undertaken with cheerful boldness. FOCUS, Lumen Christi, and other initiatives have been launched in recent years, none out of diocesan offices.

Collectively, the American bishops lack moral and spiritual authority. That does not make them irrelevant. They will need to get their act together and address their obvious failures. But the sources of renewal will come from elsewhere, from determined, energetic, and faithful men and women who don’t wait around for bishops to act. That’s how the gospel has been well served so often in the past.

R.R. Reno is editor of First Things.

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Photo by Justin Brendel.

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