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Thanks in part to the hyperventilating language of last year’s Pennsylvania grand jury report (which followed hard on the heels of Theodore McCarrick’s resignation from the College of Cardinals because of credible allegations that he was a serial sexual abuser), the false impression was created that the Catholic bishops of the Keystone State (and by extension, the bishops of the entire United States) had done nothing and were doing nothing to address an unabated scourge of clerical sexual abuse. Or as the Pennsylvania report put it, with more vehemence than accuracy, “Priests were raping little boys and girls, and the men of God who were responsible for them not only did nothing; they hid it all.” That was not true, or at the very least it was not the entire truth of the matter over time. For by conflating seventy years of data, the Pennsylvania grand jury report (and, more importantly, lazy journalism about it) suggested that there was an unaddressed rape culture in the Catholic Church. That was also not true, for it irresponsibly (but perhaps deliberately) ignored the many steps taken by the bishops of the United States to make U.S. Catholicism what it arguably is today: one of the safest environments for young people in the country—and a far safer environment than the Pennsylvania public schools, which remain unexamined by any grand jury despite hundreds of recent reports of abuse.

Veteran Catholic journalist Peter Steinfels, whose distinguished career as a leader of Catholicism’s liberal cohort shields him against any charge of excessive deference to the institutional Church and its hierarchy, took the Pennsylvania report apart in a January essay for Commonweal. That essay remains required reading for anyone serious about addressing the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and episcopal misgovernance that is rocking the Catholic Church today; Dr. Steinfels’s article certainly should be part of any packet of materials distributed to the presidents of bishops conferences and members of the Roman Curia attending Pope Francis’s “Meeting for the Protection of Minors,” which opens tomorrow. (It was noticeably absent from the thick packet of materials distributed to reporters at a Vatican press conference on Monday.) Whatever its manifold defects of analysis and presentation, however, the Pennsylvania grand jury report, coupled with the McCarrick case, not only re-opened the abuse crisis that many Catholics hoped had been settled a decade and a half ago. The Pennsylvania/McCarrick double-whammy ensured that Abuse Crisis 2.0—unlike Abuse Crisis 1.0, which focused primarily on priests—would focus sharp attention on the Church’s bishops, at least in the United States.

And that is no bad thing.

There is, to be sure, something unfair (and galling, to real reformers among the bishops) about the misimpression that Nothing-Was-Done after Abuse Crisis 1.0. For many things were done, and while much more remains to be done, what has been done to date seems to have been effective in helping drive down the incidence of clerical sexual abuse in the Church in America. But the measures adopted by the U.S. bishops in 2002 involved the disciplining of priests and the reform of seminaries; they did not include remedies for malfeasant bishops. And while reform of the priesthood and preparation for it continues (and will be discussed in these LETTERS in the days ahead), the latter is what now must be urgently addressed.              

At their annual meeting last November, the U.S. bishops were prepared to apply to themselves the rigorous code of conduct they had applied to priests and lay Church employees since 2002. They were also prepared to create some form of mechanism, involving responsible lay experts, that would receive and assess allegations of episcopal misconduct—and, if warranted, report that misconduct to the appropriate Church authorities. An unfortunate intervention from the Vatican prevented the U.S. bishops from voting on those proposals, which almost certainly would have been adopted. Some in the Vatican held that any sort of review board oversight of bishops involving laity violated canon law (which distinguished American canon lawyers denied). And in any event, it was said, the U.S. bishops should not jump the gun, but wait to see what happened at the February 2019 “Meeting for the Protection of Minors” called by Pope Francis.

Well, that meeting starts tomorrow, so where do things stand, from an American point of view?

Amidst their justifiable frustration and anger, and without for a moment backing off from their demands for a deeper reform of the priesthood and episcopate, U.S. Catholics  should understand the Church in the United States (as well as the Church in Australia and other parts of the Anglosphere) is far ahead of most of the rest of the world Church in addressing the sin, crime, and scandal of clerical sexual abuse. The U.S. Church is far ahead of the Vatican, too.  That is one reason why there is a significant perception-gap between the United States and the rest of the world Church about the Vatican abuse summit of 2019. Vatican officials, and Pope Francis himself, have said that the basic goal of the summit is to make the presidents of bishops’ conferences aware of the nature and extent of the clerical sexual abuse of minors. The Church in the United States turned that page more than fifteen years ago. In the U.S. context, the issues of the moment are episcopal responsibility and accountability, further reform of seminary recruitment and priestly formation, and the sexual misconduct of either heterosexual or homosexual clergy that does not involve minors or coercion. American Catholics (and Australian Catholics, and other Catholics) can and should welcome the rest of the world Church getting itself up to speed by confronting the denial and the institutional lethargy that helps facilitate sexual abuse. But it would be imprudent to expect that a great global plan of reform is going to be announced at the end of the Vatican meeting on February 24.

What that suggests is that, once everyone returns home, the leadership of the U.S. bishops conference should proceed, and quickly, with its own reform plans—hopefully, with the support of the Roman authorities, including Pope Francis. Even better, and with many of the Church’s leaders in Rome this week, perhaps the reforms that have been undertaken in the United States and that continue to be refined there (and elsewhere) could become better known (and even appreciated) in those parts of the world Church just beginning to face the hard facts of clerical sexual abuse.

                                                                                    - Xavier Rynne II


Giving Voice to Catholic Women

by Mary Rice Hasson

Since the McCarrick scandal broke last year, I have heard from thousands of women all over the globe—women are “devastated,” “heartbroken,” and “outraged,” not only by the horrific abuses and cover-ups that have occurred in their parishes and dioceses, but also by the stunning unwillingness of many in the hierarchy to address the crisis honestly and resolutely. Women’s anguish over the clergy sexual abuse crisis runs raw and deep, and  many feel voiceless, with few ways to communicate their concerns and no way to propose reforms.

As Director of the Catholic Women’s Forum, an international network that seeks to amplify the voice of Catholic women in support of Catholic teachings, I sought to share the perspectives of U.S. Catholic women with the Vatican in three ways:

First, through the eyes of Letitia Peyton, the wife of a deacon and mother of a 16-year-old boy molested three years ago by his parish priest in Louisiana.  Her letter, linked here, is a moving reminder that the Church’s abuse crisis is not past history, but a present, terrible reality.

Second, through the recommendations of experienced seminary professors (all women), whose document, “Sharing a Spirit of Discernment: Recommendations from U.S Women Seminary Professors,” offers insights on strengthening seminary culture and formation, reducing clericalism, and fostering chaste celibacy. (A summary of this document will be published in LETTERS FROM THE VATICAN later this week. XR II)

Third, through the responses of over 5,000 U.S Catholic women who participated in a survey about the clergy sexual abuse crisis. Our report, “Giving Voice to Catholic Women: A Survey of U.S. Catholic Women on the Clergy Sexual Abuse Crisis,” linked here, offers a window into the hearts of Catholic women strongly committed to the faith and generous to the Church.

Although we make no claim to speak for all Catholic women, these voices are nevertheless thoughtful and compelling, and they deserve to be heard. I strongly encourage all readers, especially clergy and members of the hierarchy, to read the findings of our survey in full, and to listen to the voices of Catholic women. Here, I want to highlight a few of the survey’s findings.

Faith in God, yes. Trust in the hierarchy, no.  Although the vast majority of women surveyed say their faith in God has grown stronger or is unaffected by the crisis, their trust in the hierarchy has been shattered. Only 2 percent of women say they have a “great deal of trust” in Vatican officials’ handling of the crisis; 87 percent have “not much” or “no trust” in the Vatican. Bishops fare a bit better with their flocks, but that’s not saying much: just 29 percent of women express a “great deal” of trust in their bishop’s handling of crisis-related issues. The majority of women (58 percent) say they have a “great deal” of trust in their parish priest.

The ripple effect of the crisis is clear: Although the vast majority (94 percent) of women surveyed attend Mass weekly or more, 13 percent now struggle over whether to stay or leave the Church. Their once-rock-solid commitment to the Church has been shaken. More than half of women (53 percent) say the Church’s handling of the abuse crisis makes it harder to invite family or friends who have left the Church to come back. The mother of a son who has now left the Church put it this way: “The actions of Church leaders have cut me off at the knees in my attempt to bring him back to the Church.” Her son, like thousands of others, is not an official victim in the statistical tallies of the abuse crisis, but he is a casualty nonetheless. Women also report greater reluctance to promote Catholic education (which is struggling already) or to allow their children to serve Mass. Many mothers who encouraged their sons or other young men to consider the priesthood have now fallen silent.

No more double lives. While members of the hierarchy often seem unwilling to state clearly the causes of this crisis, Catholic women aren’t mincing words. An overwhelming number (96 percent) insist that the hierarchy must address the problem of clergy (including bishops) living double lives involving sexual activity with men. Clergy who live double lives aren’t fooling anyone. Laity are not blind. As one woman wrote, “Those of us paying close attention to the double lives of homosexual priests have nowhere to turn. Where is the hotline to turn my pastor in because he is not faithful to his priestly vows?”

Psychologist Richard Sipe and other researchers made the case to members of the hierarchy years ago that the toleration of sexual activity among supposedly celibate clergy creates a culture of secrecy in which predators find room to roam. Even worse, when members of the hierarchy are themselves compromised, it’s predictable that they will drag their feet, cover up, or look away from other clergy transgressions, whether misconduct with adults or even crimes against children. A culture of clerical sexual immorality not only enables the abuse of children by creating a culture of secrecy—where many have something to hide—it also deeply damages the laity’s trust, particularly in the hierarchy. So it is not surprising that 96 percent of Catholic women agree with Pope Francis that clergy who lead double lives and are unwilling to change should leave ministry. “Clergy who cannot teach, follow, and live by the teaching of the Catholic faith should resign or be fired,” wrote one survey respondent.

Catholic women in the pews are not ambivalent about the need for sexual integrity, and express frustration with the hierarchy’s failure to insist that clergy lead lives of integrity and honesty, in alignment with Catholic teachings. “[T]he priests think they can make different rules for themselves,” observed one woman, “They do not practice what Jesus preaches. They are fakes.” That judgment obviously ought not apply to all priests, but the intensity of it suggests how deep the anger among serious Catholic women is.

Women also recognize the importance of seminary formation, ongoing priestly formation and support: 95 percent place high importance on rectifying “inadequate” screening of seminary candidates, and nine out of ten identify clergy lack of holiness and weak prayer and sacramental lives as significant factors to be addressed. Abuse of power and lack of transparency generally are viewed as major issues to be addressed.

Codes of Conduct and Transparency. Although the U.S. bishops were not able to pass a code of conduct at their meeting last fall because of a Vatican intervention in the bishops conference’s work, women overwhelmingly support such measures:  96 percent of women favor a code of conduct for bishops that covers sexual abuse and misconduct. This support for a code of conduct, however, should be understood for what it is: a reflection of the level of distrust in the hierarchy. As one woman writes, “The Church, our priests, and our bishops should all be held to a standard far higher than what is ‘legal.’ What is moral? Having sex with seminarians and abusing power is not somehow ‘okay’ just because there aren’t laws against it.” Similarly, women’s strong support for transparency suggests that they fear that, without lay oversight and bishops “bringing everything to the light,” the crisis will not end.

What Women Expect from the Vatican meeting:  The Vatican has gone to great lengths to downplay expectations for this meeting, with Pope Francis limiting his goals to “catechesis” on the evil of abuse of minors, raising bishops’ awareness that this is a global problem, and instructing them on how to deal with it. Unfortunately, the Vatican’s truncated view of the problem (limited to minors only), and the accompanying inability to spell out needed reforms, seems likely to confirm for many laity that the Church hierarchy—at least in Rome if not on the home front—simply lacks the will to address the crisis honestly. The U.S. Catholic women we surveyed say it is “essential” for the Vatican meeting to address the problem of clergy living double lives, to seek expansion of the canonical definition of “vulnerable adults” to include seminarians, to emphasize clergy repentance, spiritual conversion, and commitment to holiness and integrity of life.  Nine out of ten women also insist that the U.S. bishops must continue to pursue the truth about McCarrick’s career advancement in spite of rumors about his sexual misconduct.

What do women want? Integrity. Holiness. Leadership. As one woman observed,  “Better that our Church actually practice what it preaches and have one priest who is truly faithful than 1000 criminals. Please do the right thing.” Another adds, “Be bold. Be men.” Be the spiritual fathers and faithful shepherds we need.

Mary Rice Hasson, J.D., is a wife, mother of seven, and director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she is also the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies.


by Stephen White  

As the leaders of the world’s episcopal conferences and the Roman Curia meet with Pope Francis this week to address the “protection of minors,” there should be no confusion about the nature of the Catholic Church’s current crisis. And yet there is.

Some will tell you the crisis is about the sexual abuse of minors by priests and bishops, and it surely is. But is that all? What about “vulnerable adults” (whatever that term means) or those who just happen to have passed the age of majority when they were abused? Isn’t it also about episcopal malfeasance and the cover-up for those crimes? Or about all kinds of unchastity among the clergy, and the failure of spiritual fatherhood such sins entail? What about the “gay lobby” we hear so much about, and its networks of influence and blackmail in chanceries, seminaries, and the Vatican? What about clericalism, simony, and the corrupting effect of power, influence, and money? What about a reluctance to name sin for what it is?

The current crisis is all these things, bound together in one festering, diabolical mess. Treating any one of these problems without addressing them all is a bit like trying to cure cancer by removing part of a tumor. It not only fails to cure the sickness, it weakens the body in its struggle against the remaining disease. A thorough and comprehensive treatment is called for.

The crisis, especially in its current iteration, is also a crisis of credibility. The profound loss of the people’s trust in the leaders of the Catholic Church endangers the Church’s unity and makes renewal and recovery that much more difficult. The need for accountability—both for abusive priests and bishops and those who have covered for them—is immediate and pressing. Laity don’t trust bishops to police their own. But institutional reforms and mechanisms, while necessary for accountability, won’t ultimately resolve the crisis because they only deal with failings after the fact. Pope Francis, to his credit, seems to understand this:

[Credibility] cannot be regained by issuing stern decrees or by simply creating new committees or improving flow charts, as if we were in charge of a department of human resources. That kind of vision ends up reducing the mission of the bishop and that of the Church to a mere administrative or organizational function in the “evangelization business.” Let us be clear: many of those things are necessary yet insufficient, since they cannot grasp and deal with reality in its complexity; ultimately they risk reducing everything to an organizational problem.

The recent laicization of Theodore McCarrick, for example, did nothing to resolve any of the underlying questions about why he rose through the ecclesiastical ranks despite persistent rumors about his misbehavior. Pope Francis has insisted that, regarding McCarrick, the Church must “follow the path of truth wherever it may lead.” That path has led to McCarrick’s dismissal from the clerical state, but not much of the truth about McCarrick’s career has been brought forth so far.

The McCarrick case has been particularly damaging to the Church’s credibility, both because of the hypocrisy it reveals and because of the kind of pharisaical thinking that helped enable it. For decades—and long before Francis was pope, it should be noted—Church leaders seemed content to hide behind the (necessary) legal distinctions between the abuse of a minor and a bishop’s abuse of his seminarians and young priests. But does anyone doubt that, if McCarrick had just stuck to seminarians and left the under-18s alone, he’d still be a cardinal today? Perhaps not, but, then, perhaps so.

Insisting on “zero tolerance” for the abuse of minors while treating the abuse of “adults” as if it were merely a source of embarrassment rather than a sin that cries out to heaven suggests a disturbing obtuseness about the seriousness of unchastity. Why did so many, both here and in Rome, seem so untroubled for so long by the rumored “dalliances” of a fellow cleric? Not to put too fine a point on it, but if our bishops don’t take fidelity to the gospel seriously, at least when the Sixth Commandment is involved, why should we trust their judgment in other matters?

The crisis of credibility was built on foundations of infidelity. Credibility can only be restored through fidelity. And that’s a challenge, not just for priests and bishops, but for the whole Body of Christ. Fidelity doesn’t just mean “no more sinning,” though, of course, that would be good, too. It means telling the truth about the Church’s sins—both sins of commission and omission. It means insisting that lying never serves the good of the Church and always serves the purposes of the Enemy.

It means recovering a true sense of the horror of sin and the staggering gratuity of God’s mercy. It means never forgetting that sin really does imperil immortal souls and that God’s grace really does suffice. It means taking fidelity—as in faithfulness to vows—seriously, both for laity and clergy.

It means taking seriously the ecclesial dimension of sin and forgiveness: our sins are never “private” affairs between us and God. It means recovering a proper sense of the danger of how sin causes scandal and taking seriously the Lord’s own admonition: “Temptations to sin are sure to come; but woe to him by whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17.1–2).

Restoring credibility through fidelity also means the Church can’t be embarrassed by her own teachings on human sexuality. We must stop treating sexual sin as “normal” and chastity as some unattainable ideal or the calling of a rare few. It means rejecting the lie that says the Church will be well-served by accommodating to the spirit of the age, especially an age so confused and disordered as ours.

What is needed, above all and as always, is a renewal of fidelity to Christ and the Cross. There are no shortcuts around conversion. There’s no detour around Calvary. Anyone who is looking for such a shortcut is halfway to giving up. And that is one more reason—perhaps the best reason—for seeking renewal in fidelity to Christ and his Cross: therein lies our one and only hope.

Stephen White is a fellow in Catholic Studies at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center.

Photo by Jebulon via Creative Commons. Image cropped.

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