Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

At the beginning of February, a month in which an intense, global media spotlight has been focused on Catholicism’s struggles with clerical sexual abuse, the Church celebrated the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord. As February now comes to a close with a global meeting of Catholic leaders to address that abuse, it’s worth reflecting on the fact  that the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord was once known as the Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. 

In the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel (v. 22–38), the child Jesus is “presented” in the Temple, thus inaugurating his life in Judaism; at the same time, Mary is “purified,” forty days after giving birth, and returns to the Jewish community and its rituals. The Gospel narrative of presentation/purification concludes with the famous prophecy of Simeon, a righteous elder of Israel who had been given a divine promise that he would not see death until he met the Messiah. Taking the child Jesus into his arms, Simeon blesses God for having fulfilled his pledge—and then prophesies that, just as Mary’s child will be a sign of contradiction who will cause the rise and fall of many in Israel, she, too, will have her soul pierced by a “sword,” so that the thoughts of many hearts will be brought to light.      

On November 21, 1964, at the end of the Second Vatican Council’s third period, Pope St. Paul VI proclaimed Mary to be Mater Ecclesiae, “Mother of the Church.” The Church’s history, read without blinders, makes clear that what was prophesied for the mother—a sword of sorrow—has also applied over the centuries to her children.  Catholicism, today, is being painfully reminded of this.  

The soul of the Catholic Church is being pierced, day after day, by a seemingly endless scandal of sexual abuse. And it must be hoped that, as many secret thoughts—and temptations, and, worst of all, actions—are being revealed, this piercing is an unavoidable and necessary part of a great process of purification: the purification that is essential if the Church is to preach the gospel credibly and offer that friendship with Jesus Christ that is the greatest of human liberations. As these LETTERS have insisted, and as will be argued again below by Mary Rice Hasson, the reform of the Church is a summons to greater fidelity, for the abuse crisis is, at bottom, a crisis of infidelity.

The Church will never be completely cleansed of infidelity—the Church will never be completely pure—until it is finally and definitively purified in the Kingdom of God: after the Lord Jesus returns in glory, the Last Judgment has been rendered, the wedding feast of the Lamb has begun, and the New Jerusalem—the heavenly City built on the foundation of the apostles—is the dwelling place of the righteous and the saved. To understand that the final purification of the Church is an eschatological, or Kingdom, reality ought not cause us to lose heart, though, about the work of purifying the Church that belongs to every Catholic here and now. It should, rather, invite us to greater efforts in the work of reform, because we are assured that, whatever our failures, God will ultimately make things right.

History also teaches us that reform in the Catholic Church has rarely come from the top down—or, perhaps better, whatever reforms are mandated “from the top” only achieve effect when they are embodied “from the bottom up,” by a more radically converted Catholic flock and by more effective local pastors and bishops. Roma locuta, causa finita (Rome has spoken, the case is closed) is an old Catholic slogan; but Rome’s reformist “speech,” when and if it comes, only has real effect when it is embodied in the life of local churches. And if Rome’s reformist “speech” is hesitant or inadequate, responsibility for purification rests even more heavily on local churches, which need not wait for permission to do the work of reform in ways appropriate to their situation.

It was never in the cards for this global meeting to produce a comprehensive template for Catholic reform. The Church is too diverse, the meeting is too short, and there is still too much denial, fear, and institutional lethargy at play in the Vatican and in some sectors of world Catholicism for any such dramatic turning point to be reached in a mere four days. All the more reason, then, for concerned Catholics to become aware of what reformist efforts are underway, to encourage what is life-giving in them, and to urge their local pastors and bishops on to even deeper, more effective reform initiatives.  So this weekend double-issue of LETTERS FROM THE VATICAN will focus heavily on reforms that are underway, or that could be readily adopted, in the Church in the United States and parallel local situations around the world—after a bracing reflection on the imperative of defining today’s crisis correctly.

                                                                        - Xavier Rynne II


Obstinate Misdiagnosis

by Mary Rice Hasson

Modern popes describe the Church as an “expert in humanity.” So why has this “expert in humanity” so often failed to grasp the human failings at the heart of the clergy sexual abuse crisis? It’s not because the Church has failed to “initiate processes,” as Pope Francis says, or to define and share “best practices,” as the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors has done. (Crux describes the Commission’s “signature success” as its work helping bishops’ conferences around the world adopt best practices.) And Pope Francis kicked off this week’s Vatican meeting on clerical sexual abuse in a global perspective with “21 points” full of concrete proposals. 

The abuse crisis remains an open, bleeding wound in the side of the Church because the Church’s leadership continues to misdiagnose the problem. Restoring the hierarchy’s credibility—and the Church’s moral authority—starts with a reality check: The Church has a sexual abuse crisis, not (for example) an embezzlement crisis or a clericalism crisis or a management crisis. This is a crisis of faith, fidelity, and sexual integrity. It can’t be fixed with narrowly tailored prescriptions for better governance and procedures.

Misdiagnoses can be deadly. Surgeons are masterful at stitching up wounds—but the bleeding won’t stop, and the patient will die, if the correct cause of the bleeding is not diagnosed first. Writing in La Civiltà Cattolica a few days before the start of the Vatican meeting he is chairing, Fr. Federico Lombardi, S. J., made a similar point, saying that the meeting’s success—and the restoration of the Church’s credibility—requires “the discernment of the roots of evil in order to effectively combat and extirpate these roots.” 

But is the Vatican on the right track? In a December 2018 piece for La Civiltà Cattolica, Lombardi chronicles the “recent history of the issue of sexual abuse in the Church, the different phases it has been through, and the ways the recent popes have responded.” He traces the history in the U.S., including the McCarrick case, the efforts to revise canonical norms (especially under Pope Benedict XVI), the work of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, the tangible results from new Vatican offices created to educate and assist countries in developing and implementing new guidelines, and new juridical and pastoral documents issued by Pope Francis, addressing bishops’ transgressions and the global nature of the crisis. According to Lombardi, Pope Francis envisions the Church taking a more expansive, global role in the protection of minors, “well beyond the ‘internal’ questions of its institutions, to stretch beyond confessional barriers to the widest horizons, to promote protection in the world of today with all its problems…” (Quite a goal for a Church that has yet to get its own house in order.)

Considered objectively, these efforts are good and necessary. But the bird’s-eye view reveals a Church in reactive mode, responding incrementally, still unwilling to see the problem for what it is. This is the direct result of defining the problem by a category of victims instead of “the roots of the evil.”

The inadequacy of the focus on minors

Like a laser beam focused on a single tumor, the Vatican has stubbornly insisted that clergy sexual abuse of minors is a stand-alone problem, and it has been the only topic under discussion at this week’s abuse summit. But metastatic cancer has never been cured by targeting just one tumor. This arbitrary line-drawing relegates everything but the abuse of minors to the perimeter—the sexual abuse of seminarians, vulnerable adults (with impaired reason), religious sisters, and adult women, as well as the problem of clergy “consensual” sexual activity with adults—as if the evil at work could be counted on to respect the Vatican’s neat and tidy categories. Those involved in planning the February summit claimed that getting the abuse-of-minors problem fixed would have spillover effects in addressing other forms of sexual abuse and misconduct. That remains to be seen (as the abuse-of-minors scandal remains to be fully addressed). But it’s worth asking if the Church’s “minors only” approach has been unduly influenced by the views of outside experts on child abuse. For within the secular professions the bright line that separates a minor from an adult imposes its own secular pseudo-morality: on the minor’s side of the age divide, sex with adults is abuse; on the adult side of the line, sex with any adult (male or female), of any kind (no matter how kinky) is “morally” neutral, assuming it is consensual.

This blinkered view—conceptualizing the problem by the identity of the victim—prevents the Vatican from identifying the roots of the problem and the best remedies for resolving it.

One glaring exemplar of the Vatican’s wrong-headed approach is Theodore McCarrick. In 2017, the allegation that McCarrick had abused a minor finally triggered the right alarm bells at the Vatican. Because the identity of the victim—a minor—finally fell within the Vatican’s carefully circumscribed boundaries, it was time for resolute action. But McCarrick was suspected to be a bad actor for years before allegations surfaced that he had abused a minor. Not for him the bright line between “minors” and those victims on the perimeter. (I’m willing to bet that his behavior was not unique, in that respect, among abusers. After all, these men by definition don’t abide by others’ boundaries very well.)

The widely-circulated rumors of McCarrick’s homosexual harassment and abuse of seminarians should have triggered a thorough investigation and a resolute response from the Vatican. Why didn’t they? Were seminarians the wrong victim class? Did a priest sexually pursuing other adult males merit a special carve-out, an exception, in spite of the Church’s teaching on homosexual behavior—and McCarrick’s vow of celibacy? Didn’t anyone in the hierarchy worry that McCarrick’s sexual habits with adults would undermine his priestly and episcopal missions? These questions are likely to go unanswered. And the hierarchy’s influential friends remain on message that the abuse crisis is mainly a problem of minors. Thus when news broke that McCarrick had been laicized, Fr. James Martin, S. J., was immediately on script, tweeting about McCarrick’s abuse of minors—and ignoring his abuse of seminarians.

Sexual integrity and fidelity

If Church leaders fail to acknowledge that the roots of this crisis—failures of faith, fidelity, and sexual integrity—are common to all forms of sexual abuse and misconduct, then this crisis is nowhere near over. The sexual abuse of minors is truly evil. When children are abused, our hearts rightly cry out for justice because of the horror of it all. But the toxic climate of sexual self-indulgence, secrecy, and lack of integrity that enables the sexual victimization of little boys and girls also enables the sexual victimization of teenagers (predominately male), seminarians, religious sisters, and adult women. It fuels the sexual exploitation of “consensual” partners as well.

Applying the secular language of “consenting adults” to clergy sexual activity with adults is, we should note, another import from secular scripts—and it has no place in a discussion of Catholic morality. Those who are reluctant to condemn clergy “consensual” sexual activity ignore the truth that all non-marital sexual activity involves using another person for personal gratification. It is inherently exploitative. (One has to wonder whether bishops who seem to shrug at clergy sexual activity with adults, distinguishing it as “consensual” sexual activity, implicitly accept the secular standard of “consent” as the only appropriate criteria for judging the morality of sexual activity between adults.)

A clerical culture that winks at—and covers for—clergy sexual activity with adults creates a culture where sexual secrets are the norm and there is room for sexual vice of all sorts. It becomes a culture of infidelity, corrosive of personal integrity. Pastors or bishops who turn a blind eye to priests habitually viewing pornography, using “gay hookup” apps on their smart phones, or sexually harassing younger priests or seminarians practice a false mercy: Sins that go unnamed often vanish—in the mind of the sinner at least. A sinner who has grown comfortable in serious sexual sin will minimize, rename, or even valorize his sin in order to keep it—that’s true of all of us. But when a priest or bishop resolves the conflict between his sins and the Church’s teachings by fashioning his own alternative morality, his pastoral ministry also suffers, further harming the Body of Christ.

So how can the Church begin to restore its credibility? Members of the hierarchy must lead by example, recommitting themselves to sexual integrity, fidelity to the Church’s teachings, and humble service to the Church. If our bishops lack the will to live out the Church’s teachings on sexuality in their own lives, to preach the Church’s vision of integral sexuality and the moral norms that flow from it, and to demand integrity and accountability from their priests and brother bishops, then all the “best practices” in the world will not fix what ails us.

Mary Rice Hasson, who holds the JD from the University of Notre Dame, is the director of the Catholic Women’s Forum at Washington’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where she is also the Kate O’Beirne Fellow in Catholic Studies. She and her husband Seamus, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, have seven children.


by the Rev. Brett Brannan

St. Vincent de Paul, who was painfully aware that he’d been trained to be an ecclesiastical functionary rather than a pastor, and who realized that that experience had almost destroyed his priestly vocation, once wrote that “there is nothing more perfect than the formation of a good priest.”  A holy, well-formed priest is indeed worth his weight in gold. But because grace builds on nature, the screening and selection of candidates for the seminary is of the utmost importance.  Long gone—and thankfully so—are the days described by my “Foreign Born Irish” colleagues, who tell me that their evaluation as a candidate for the priesthood was a four-line, hand-written note from their pastor to the rector of the local seminary: “John is a good lad.  He comes from a strong Catholic family.  The O’Briens are a respected clan.  He will make a fine priest.”  And off John went. 

Well before 2002, when the sexual abuse scandal erupted in Boston and spread throughout the country, the process of screening candidates for the priesthood and admitting them to seminaries had become much more stringent. Now, it is even more rigorous. It is no exaggeration to say that, in 2019, it is more difficult to become a Catholic priest than a Secret Service agent. The screening and formation of candidates is exhaustive—and often exhausting for the man himself.

Even before a man applies to a seminary, his journey is typically rigorous. Most potential candidates, who likely know many priests and seminarians in their diocese, spend a year or more in serious discernment; this includes attending vocation retreats, meeting regularly with a spiritual director, and establishing a spiritual plan of life. Once a man has completed a careful discernment with the guidance of his spiritual director and the diocesan vocation director has gotten to know him, he—a man already known by his local church—may be invited to apply for acceptance by his diocese as a candidate for priestly formation.

It might be imagined that, given the growing shortage of priests, diocesan vocation directors are tempted to let marginal candidates slide in. In my experience, that is not the case.  Having been wounded by the scandal of bad priests, vocation directors feel a tremendous weight of responsibility to select only the best candidates. Seminarians are, of course, human, with their own flaws and failings. But the range of acceptable flaws has been considerably narrowed.

Today’s application process is rigorous, thorough, and usually takes several months to complete.  Most dioceses require a complete physical examination, a thorough psychological exam including psychosexual development and sexual history, a lengthy autobiography, letters of recommendation, fingerprinting and a criminal background check, a credit check, and both academic transcripts and sacramental records.  Vocation directors have also become much more discriminating in both the psychological tests that are used and in the mental health professionals they choose to do the psychological examination of a potential candidate. The psychologist needs to be a man of faith who understands the unique stresses of the Catholic priesthood and knows the kind of candidate for which bishops and vocation directors are searching.  Thanks to all of this, the final dossier given to the local bishop is usually several inches thick.

And let’s keep in mind that this lengthy process leads only to a man being accepted by his diocese to begin priestly formation.  The seminary to which he is sent will have its own admissions process, usually requiring similar information and more.  Vocation directors today know that just because they’ve accepted a man as a diocesan candidate for the priesthood does not mean that a seminary will accept him.  And after a man has been accepted by both diocese and seminary, priestly formation continues for six to seven years. 

I’ve spent most of my priestly life directly involved in priestly formation.  Today, I give retreats for seminarians and priests, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting almost every seminary in the U.S.  My experience in all this has been overwhelmingly positive and suggests to me that priestly formation in the United States today is better than it has been in a long time—better, perhaps, than ever—because the priest-formators in our seminaries are, by and large, holy, well-balanced priests.  And I’m impressed by the high quality of the men studying to be priests today.  

The reforms that have led to a new era of excellence in American priestly formation are largely due to the genius of St. John Paul II and his monumental apostolic exhortation, Pastores Dabo Vobis (I Will Give You Shepherds, or PDV). Every program of priestly formation in the United States today is based on the principles laid out in PDV, especially its exploration of formation’s four dimensions: human formation, spiritual formation, intellectual formation, and pastoral formation. Most priest-formators in seminaries today are themselves men inspired by the spirit and teaching of John Paul II. And because they have been well-formed in their own priestly identity and have seen in the late pope an exemplar of priestly holiness, they are better able to form men to be the priests the Church needs and deserves. Orthopraxy follows orthodoxy. A proper priestly identity leads to priestly holiness. And from the vocation director’s point of view, good candidates lead to good priests, as grace builds on nature.

The vocation directors who took up their mission in the 1980s and 1990s—whom I honor for heroic work that was often discouraging—did not have at hand the tools available to vocation directors and seminary rectors today. And while the recruitment and screening process can still be improved, the training of vocation directors today is also better than it has been; one example is the “New Vocation Directors Institute,” a three-day course offered annually by the National Conference of Diocesan Vocation Directors (itself an organization that has been reformed). This NCDVD course has helped elevate the quality of today’s seminarians by more rigorously educating those whose work is to identify suitable candidates for the priesthood. That work of preparing vocation directors is all the more important when one considers that, of the 177 Catholic dioceses in the United States, about one-quarter appoint a new vocation director every year. Which suggests to me that as much as the reformed NCDVD process has helped improve the quality of vocations work, the training given new vocation directors should be even more rigorous and thorough, given the gravity of the judgments these men are called upon to make.

I like to say to men discerning the priesthood that seminary requires about seven thousand hours of prayer before ordination.  This includes six to seven years when a man will attend daily Mass, pray a holy hour before the Blessed Sacrament, pray the Divine Office and the rosary, etc.  Those numbers have good shock value when I’m giving retreats, but they’re really not hyperbolic. Seminarians today really do pray this much.  The Church’s theology of the priesthood cannot be learned in the classroom alone; a man must learn it on his knees in the chapel. My experience has taught me that candidates today really desire the priestly identity and holiness that is revealed in Christ, the Master. And surprising as it may seem to some, my experience also tells me that seminarians want to live apostolic celibacy and live it well.  In all my years of work in various forms of priestly formation, I have never heard a seminarian say, “I wish the Holy Father would allow us to get married.”  But I have heard many say, “Father, pray for me for the grace to live the priesthood as Christ intended.  Pray that I may have purity of heart.”

Vocation directors in 2019 are entirely aware of the damage that has been caused, and is caused, by bad priests.  As my predecessor in the office said when I became vocation director in the diocese of Savannah: “My greatest gift to the priesthood in this diocese is not who I got in, but who I kept out.”  Priest vocation directors are gatekeepers, and they acutely feel the pressure caused by the abuse scandals. These men have suffered with the Church, as have so many others. And because of that suffering, vocation directors, seminary rectors, and bishops are much less willing to accept marginal candidates than they were in 1992.  Vocation directors and formators of priests today know that, if they are going to err, they should err in favor of the Church.

Father Brett Brannan was vocation director in the Diocese of Savannah, Georgia, for ten years and vice rector of Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Maryland for six years.  He has written two books: To Save a Thousand Souls: A Guide for Discerning a Vocation to Diocesan Priesthood (2010) and A Priest in the Family: A Guide for Parents Whose Sons are Considering Priesthood (2014).  A retreat master for diocesan priests’ retreats and for seminaries, he is currently the pastor of Blessed Sacrament Church in Savannah. 


by Andrea Picciotti-Bayer

Can the police be a part of the answer to the Catholic Church’s current sex abuse crisis?  Yes, but not only in the way you might immediately think.  Turning over suspected cases of clerical sex abuse to law enforcement officials addresses the problem after the fact.  The experience of law enforcement agencies, however, also provides a way to prevent incidents before they happen, before a victim becomes a victim, before a priest or prelate becomes an offender, before the Body of Christ is injured by scandal. 

Any number of reform ideas will be proposed during Pope Francis's abuse summit, and indeed important reforms have already been implemented.  The Dallas Charter, enacted in 2002 by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, includes a “zero tolerance” promise to sweep the Church clean of any priest or deacon who sexually abuses a child.  The Charter has already helped enhance a culture of safety for children in U.S. Catholic schools and parishes.  As the McCarrick affair makes painfully clear, though, amending the Dallas Charter to include bishops is not enough.  Rather, the entire Church, both laity and ordained leadership, must confront the broader issue of sexual infidelity among too many of our clergy.  Lessons learned by American law enforcement in addressing police misconduct can help restore a culture of fidelity among clergy and a climate of trust among the faithful.

In the late 1990s, I worked as a trial lawyer in the Special Litigation Section of the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Shortly before I arrived, Congress had passed the Violent Crime and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, which made a pattern or practice of police misconduct unlawful.  My office was tasked with the enforcement of that law.  Since our 2018 Catholic “summer of shame,” I’ve often pondered how reforms that helped address and prevent police misconduct might help heal my beloved Church.

My first police misconduct case, in 1999, involved the Washington, D.C., police department.  Chief of Police Charles Ramsey had requested the investigation on the heels of a Washington Post series on deadly force.  “The District of Columbia’s Metropolitan Police Department has shot and killed more people per resident in the 1990s than any other large American city police force,” the opening line of the series’ first article read.  The Post identified troubling uses of deadly force, rampant mismanagement, and a general lack of accountability.  Despite having implemented a new use-of-force policy shortly after his appointment earlier that year, Chief Ramsey was humble enough to admit that he did not have a handle on the extent and nature of the problem.

Ramsey’s request was broad.  He asked for a review of all uses of force, as well as a thorough review of department policies, training, supervisory oversight, record-keeping, investigation, and discipline.  Our Justice Department investigation culminated in an enforceable Memorandum of Agreement. Along the way we provided technical assistance to police leadership.  High among our recommendations was an early warning tracking system.  An early warning system, as we defined it, is a “data-based police management tool designed to identify officers whose behavior is problematic and provide a form of intervention to correct that performance.”  It allows a department to intervene through counseling and training—before an officer requires formal disciplinary action.  

Among police officers, what performance indicators raise “red flags”?  Citizen complaints, firearm discharges, use-of-force reports, resisting arrest incidents, high-speed pursuits, and vehicle damage are among the basic indicators.  As part of the 2015 White House Police Data Initiative, University of Chicago researchers have expanded the list and developed an even more accurate model to identify “at-risk” officers.  Once a police officer is identified as “at-risk,” immediate supervisors and other command officials must provide individualized counsel and training and the department must monitor the officer’s performance for a period of time afterwards.

Of course, early warning systems only work if the department requests and receives accurate data and, more importantly, if supervisors and top brass are committed to its implementation and use.

While police misconduct does not offer a perfect parallel to clerical sexual misconduct, I believe safeguards like early warning systems can help our Church leaders respond more effectively to the challenge of inspiring and helping foster clerical chastity. This past fall, the American bishops expressed a desire to get in front of things instead of only reacting to crises.  To do so effectively, they must define the factors that contribute to and correlate with clergy sexual misconduct, identify priests in need of intervention, and undertake corrective support and discipline.

So, what are the “red flags” that might lead a man to become an “at-risk” priest?

Personality traits that may not be significant enough to disqualify a man from the priesthood cannot be ignored post-ordination.  Does he show signs of a personality disorder, or behaviors like impulsivity or haughtiness that close him off from obedience and fraternal correction?  Does he struggle with untreated depression?  In his childhood and youth, did he suffer abuse (sexual or otherwise)?

Since ordination, has a priest lived a spirit of prudence and sobriety?  Are there any allegations of financial impropriety?  Are there any known external behaviors contrary to priestly chastity?  Have there been complaints about boundary issues?    

Because the abuse crisis is, at its core, a crisis of sexual infidelity, the issue of same-sex attraction cannot be ignored.  “If a candidate practices homosexuality or presents deep-seated homosexual tendencies, his spiritual director as well as his confessor have the duty to dissuade him in conscience towards ordination,” according to the Vatican’s instructions for seminary formation. Although having homosexual desires is not an automatic disqualifier to the priesthood, a priest thus afflicted will need special counsel and supports to live a life of continence.  

The invidious influence of pornography on a proper respect for human sexuality cannot be dismissed either.  More than a decade ago, Bishop Paul S. Loverde of the diocese of Arlington, Virginia, published a pastoral letter entitled “Bought with a Price: Every Man’s Duty to Protect Himself and His Family from a Pornographic Culture.” The letter’s most recent edition includes a forward from a man who overcame an addiction to pornography.  “I came to understand,” he lamented, “how when husbands and fathers use porn, they not only make themselves slaves to sin, they also deeply wound their ability to love and protect in a way their vocation demands.”  Priests are susceptible to our modern plague of pornography and the harm it can do to their own vocation.  Does a priest consciously guard his eyes?  Are there indications—say, an Internet browsing history—of pornography use?

The McCarrick case has shed harsh light on how a clerical “double life” is lived, and how inconsistent it is, or should be, with the priesthood.  Does a priest inform his pastor/parochial vicar or secretary (his closest collaborators) of his whereabouts?  Does he have healthy friendships with happily married practicing Catholics?  Does he have healthy friendships with other well-formed priests?

Finally, is a priest serious about his interior life?  Is he actively living a pious life?  Does he go to confession regularly?  Does he seek spiritual direction and make his annual canonical retreat?  Does he pray?  Does he humbly receive filial correction from his parishioners, fraternal correction from brother priests, and corrective discipline from his superiors?

A priest’s superiors and priest colleagues can answer many of these questions. The laity can answer others.  For the good of the Church, all should have voice in this early warning system.  

An ecclesiastical early warning system would lower the number of cases of sexual abuse by clergy, whether the victims be minors or vulnerable adults.  It would also provide bishops the hard data to confront a culture of sexual infidelity where it exists, and to tailor specific supports for priests struggling to live fruitful and chaste vocations.  For bishops who are already well-aware of the vulnerabilities of their priests, an early warning system is a useful tool for initiating effective interventions and follow-up.  As for bishops who have either downplayed the problem or rationalized looking the other way, the system will more effectively hold them accountable.  

With law-enforcement’s “early warning” system as a model, and God’s grace, our bishops might see a day when they will not have to call in the police regarding one of their priests or fellow bishops. 

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is legal adviser to the Catholic Association Foundation, an organization dedicated to being a faithful Catholic voice in the public square.  In addition to opinion pieces in Catholic and secular media, she is the author of several amicus briefs submitted to federal courts of appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of pro-life pregnancy centers and faith-based foster care agencies.  A graduate of Northwestern University and Stanford Law School, she served as a trial and appellate lawyer in the U.S. Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division.   


by the Rev. Thomas P. Ferguson

Almost immediately after reports of Theodore McCarrick’s misconduct were published in the summer of 2018, to be quickly followed by a Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on clerical sexual abuse and its mismanagement by local bishops, the idea that lay people should be involved in investigating accusations of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy immediately emerged in Catholic and non-Catholic circles alike. While some thought this a novel idea to consider, and others a moral imperative to implement, my initial reaction was, “Actually, we’ve been doing that for the last sixteen years.”

In 2002, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, at its meeting in Dallas, Texas, adopted the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.  The Dallas Charter requires that all dioceses “have a review board that functions as a confidential consultative body to the bishop.” The Charter further states that “the majority of its members are to be lay persons not in the employ of the diocese.”

To illustrate how this mandate has been implemented in one American diocese, let me describe the experience and practice of the Review Board in the Diocese of Arlington, Virginia, with which I have worked in my capacity as diocesan vicar general.

In Arlington, the Diocesan Review Board is composed of ten members: two priests, five laymen, two laywomen, and one religious sister.  The lay members of the board bring to their work a depth and breadth of education and experience in psychology, law enforcement, legal practice, and pastoral care, including the care of victims of sexual abuse. 

Arlington diocesan policy, publicly available on the diocesan Web site, states that, when there is an allegation of sexual abuse by clergy, the following steps are to be taken:

+  The allegation is immediately reported to legal authorities.

+ The diocese cooperates fully with any investigation by law enforcement. 

+ The diocese forwards all allegations to the diocesan Victim Assistance Coordinator so that outreach to the alleged victim/survivor can be offered.

+ After a prompt internal initial investigation, and if the allegation meets a preliminary threshold of credibility, the accused cleric is relieved of his assignment and placed on administrative leave. He may not live at a parish or present himself as a priest/deacon while the investigation proceeds. 

+ An announcement is published at the parishes, and at any diocesan institution, where the accused cleric has served. The announcement discloses the allegation and requests that anyone with relevant information contact legal authorities and the diocese. 

+ The diocese conducts an internal investigation, at times employing outside investigators or other experts. Care is taken to avoid any interference with the law enforcement investigation. This is done by working in conjunction with law enforcement, if possible, or by deferring the diocesan investigation until the law enforcement investigation is complete.

+ When the diocesan investigation is complete, all evidence is considered by the Diocesan Review Board.

+ The Review Board determines whether the allegation is credible and advises the Bishop regarding the accused cleric’s suitability for ministry.  

+ No cleric with a credible allegation of sexual abuse against a minor may return to ministry.

+ The determination by the Review Board is independent of that by law enforcement. The Review Board may find an allegation to be credible even if law enforcement determines that evidence is not sufficient for a criminal prosecution. 

+ If an act of child abuse by the accused cleric is admitted or established, the bishop will take appropriate canonical action, up to and including laicization.

I have served as Vicar General of the Diocese of Arlington for nearly three and a half years, and in that time I have witnessed firsthand the variety of contributions the Diocesan Review Board makes to the ministry of the diocesan bishop.  Initially, from 2015 to early 2018, the Diocesan Review Board met, of necessity, only annually, reviewing the audit of the diocese’s Victims Assistance ministry and its program for the protection of children and young people.  Thankfully, allegations of sexual abuse of minors by clergy were rare during those years.

The events of summer and fall of 2018, however, led to an uptick in allegations of the sexual abuse of minors by clergy. As a result, monthly meetings of the Diocesan Review Board have become the norm. These meetings are always held in person, and to ensure the most effective communication within the Review Board, members cannot participate electronically.  The bishop presides at the meetings, with the presence of diocesan staff to assist in presenting cases to the Review Board members.  Meetings last anywhere from ninety minutes to two hours, depending on the number and complexity of cases under review.  The strictest confidentiality is observed on the part of all members, given the sensitivity of the matters being considered.

In my experience, our Diocesan Review Board members know exactly what their role is, and what it is not.  As an advisory or consultative group, the Board does not possess ecclesiastical authority to render decisions or take disciplinary action against clergy.  The Review Board serves the bishop in the effort to determine the credibility of an accusation, so that he, the bishop, may fulfill his responsibility to discipline a member of the clergy if necessary, and to provide for the common good of the faithful, especially the safety and protection of children and young people in this Church.          

The Diocesan Review Board determines the credibility of accusations of sexual abuse of a minor by clergy in one of three ways.  At times, the accused himself will admit guilt.  There may also have been a determination of guilt in a civil court.  Absent these, the Diocesan Review Board finds an accusation to be credible if, based upon the available evidence, the allegation is believed to be more likely to be true than not by a majority of Board members. This standard is similar to what is understood as a preponderance of evidence in a civil court.

The members of the Diocesan Review Board are people of great integrity, with a commitment to the truth as well as to the human dignity of all those involved in the difficult cases that come before them.  As a result, their deliberations presume honesty on the part of persons making accusations.  There is also a deep appreciation of the human right of clerics to a good name and reputation.  Reflecting all vocations and states in life in the Church, the members of the Review Board bring the collective wisdom and experience of the whole people of God to their deliberations.

The psychological, legal, and pastoral expertise of the Review Board members is also a great asset in the recommendations they make to the bishop regarding a cleric’s suitability to return to ministry.  As noted above, no cleric with a credible allegation of sexual abuse against a minor may return to ministry.  With due regard for the rights of all parties in a case, and reflecting as it does all states in life in the Church, the Review Board is collectively poised to know how the common good of the ecclesial community is best served by the recommendation it makes to the bishop.

As I noted at the outset, it’s been commonly said, amidst today’s scandals of clerical sexual abuse, that lay people must be involved in the investigation of abuse allegations. I sincerely hope that those who express this sentiment, both inside and outside the community of the Church, will recognize the value of the contributions being made by the Diocesan Review Boards mandated by the U.S. bishops’ 2002 Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People.

Father Thomas P. Ferguson is vicar general of the Diocese of Arlington and pastor of Good Shepherd Church in Alexandria, VA.  He earned a PhD in Government from the University of Virginia and a J.C.L. in canon law from St. Paul University in Ottawa.  After studies at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary in Emmitsburg, Maryland, he was ordained a priest in 1994 and has served in a number of pastoral, tribunal, and chancery assignments.  He is the author of Catholic and American: The Political Theology of John Courtney Murray (1993).

Photo by Giuseppe Milo via Creative Commons. Image cropped. 

Become a fan of First Things on Facebooksubscribe to First Things via RSS, and follow First Things on Twitter.  

Comments are visible to subscribers only. Log in or subscribe to join the conversation.



Filter Web Exclusive Articles

Related Articles