Fall of a West Virginia Bishop Widens the Catholic Crisis Over Sex Abuse

Fall of a West Virginia Bishop Widens the Catholic Crisis Over Sex Abuse

China and Vatican to Sign Landmark Deal Over Bishops

The Vatican and China are set to sign a landmark agreement later this month intended to bring together Chinas state-backed and unauthorized Catholic communities, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The controversial deal would mean the first official recognition by Chinas government of the pope as the head of the Catholic Church in China. In return, Pope Francis would formally recognize seven excommunicated Chinese bishops who were appointed by the Communist government without Vatican approval.

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However, not all operations require Roman collars. Day-to-day business in the diocese and in the seminary, including the handling of complaints about priests and bishops, could easily be tasked to lay employees with independent lines of authority to central lay leadership within national conferences. (This would also free up priests and some bishops in administrative functions to work in parishes, where the pastoral needs are also reaching crisis proportions.) While those lay functions would eventually come under the authority of the bishops at the national level, it would create a long line of people able to blow the whistle on abuse and especially on cover-ups, with enough credibility to make sure it sticks. Had the Vatican and bishops moved to create such a structure 16 years ago, this crisis might have been fully disclosed and well along the way to recovery.

Time for an intervention at the Vatican Edward Morrissey

ImagePope Francis faces important decisions after a series of accounts of pedophilia in the Roman Catholic Church.CreditCreditTony Gentile/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesPope Francis has summoned senior bishops from around the world for the first global gathering of Roman Catholic leaders to address the crisis of clerical pedophilia. The action is long overdue, and the outcome cannot be yet more apologies and pledges of better behavior. The unending revelations of clerical sexual abuse and cover-ups demand radical, public, convincing systemic change.

However, the report from Germany highlights a topic missing from the announcement: the cover-up for abusers within church hierarchy, which has been going on for decades and has continued right to the present day. The Catholic Church in the U.S. created a significant response to stop abuse itself via the Dallas Charter in 2002, most recently revised this year. What has not happened is an accounting for the systematic efforts to protect priest-abusers by shuffling them within and between dioceses, paying off victims, and ignoring complaints from seminarians of endemic sexual pressure. Cardinal Theodore McCarrick rose to one of the most prominent positions in the American church despite reported widespread knowledge of predatory behavior, knowledge that reportedly went as far as the Vatican and to the leadership of the American church.

In the face of this scandals abuse of power, listen to the powerless

The latest barrage of revelations and developments — including a gut-wrenching report by a grand jury in Pennsylvania detailing seven decades of sexual abuse of at least 1,000 children, and probably thousands more, by more than 300 Catholic priests — has left no question that Pope Francis legacy will be decided by how he confronts this crisis. It is devouring the Roman church — erasing trust in its hierarchs, dismaying the faithful and blackening its image. To be meaningful, any further response must include openly addressing allegations that the pope was himself party to a cover-up.

On the plus side, this convocation shows that the pontiff recognizes that the abuse scandal involves the entire church, and not just the anglophones. A leaked report from an independent investigation in Germany on the same day as the Vaticans announcement documented over 3,600 victims of sexual abuse over the last 70 years, involving more than 1,600 priests. Many of the records within the church had been “destroyed or manipulated,” according to the report, meaning that the totals for both are likely well north of that mark. By going directly to the conference presidents in what is being called a “personal meeting,” Francis will have the opportunity to get a direct briefing on the scope and depth of the scandal of abuse, and to outline further steps to deal with it.

The president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, met with the pope on Thursday to demand a full investigation into how the former archbishop of Washington, Theodore McCarrick, rose to high rank despite a long and apparently well-known history of sexual predation. As if to underscore the importance of the meeting, it coincided with an announcement that Pope Francis had accepted the resignation of a bishop in West Virginia, Michael Bransfield, and ordered an investigation into allegations that he had sexually harassed adults.

The current archbishop of Washington, Cardinal Donald Wuerl, was also en route to the Vatican to discuss his own possible resignation over a former posting in Pittsburgh.

The crimes outlined in the Pennsylvania grand jury report are horrifying in a scope and kind that institutional apologies do not sufficiently confront. Announcements by more attorneys general of investigations into their states dioceses should be welcome news to all. The church clearly needs outside help if it has any hope of reforming, and given the fat checks to lobbyists that defend the accused and thwart efforts to deliver justice to victims, one could be forgiven for doubting the hierarchys stomach for change.

The crisis has been further complicated by a scathing public letter from a former Vatican envoy to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, accusing Francis of lifting sanctions against Cardinal McCarrick. The accusations are tainted by Archbishop Viganòs open hostility to Pope Francis, and his bigoted view that homosexuality is at the root of the sexual abuse.

I myself have never felt particularly powerless as a Catholic. Our religion maintains considerable sway in the United States, and as a man, I have always implicitly known that the churchs design set many possible paths before me. Several good priests have approached me over the years and asked if I had ever considered joining their ranks. While I like to believe this is because I displayed qualities of a worthy pastor, I know many holier and more pastoral women who are barred from even contemplating that idea.

But the Viganò letter, the culture wars it reveals within the church, the McCarrick affair and even the Pennsylvania grand jury report must not deflect attention from the core of the crisis. They are only the latest in a string of scandals and revelations in the 16 years since The Boston Globe first shed light in 2002 on the systematic cover-up of pedophilia among Boston priests by the late Cardinal Bernard Law, forcing his resignation and unleashing a torrent of similar accounts.

But in the wake of McCarrick and Pennsylvania, it is hard not to feel powerless. I can stop going to Mass, join another religion, withhold money from the collection basket, write a letter to my diocese, or fervently pray that we respond as victims deserve, but will it make any difference? Those at the top of the chain of command are not required to reply to me. As a priest said in response to a parent seeking specifics in how the church should adapt, “You and I have no influence.”

The Pennsylvania report on abuse of children ran to 1,400 pages, and it is sickening. 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. For decades, the grand jury wrote.

That report has prompted attorneys general in New York and New Jersey to open their own investigations into whether institutions covered up sexual abuse, and prosecutors in Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska and New Mexico have said they plan to do the same. In Germany, Spiegel Online wrote on Wednesday that it had seen a report commissioned by the German bishops conference detailing 3,677 cases of abuse by at least 1,670 clergymen from 1946 to 2014.

As I have thought of my own calling and considered what this moment demands from me, I keep returning to the concept of powerlessness. People have rightly pointed out that the many layers of abuse in this scandal include the abuse of power. Priests used the power of their prestige to prey on the vulnerable, and bishops wielded the same tool to keep these offenses under wraps.

This is not some flaw to be healed through spiritual renewal. This is a pattern of widespread and gross violations of the power a man of God has over a child, and of cover-ups stretching from Pennsylvania and Boston to every corner of the United States and the world.

How have so many pedophiles been allowed into the priesthood? How could so many bishops have so consistently looked the other way or worse, paid off victims or foisted predatory priests on unsuspecting parishes elsewhere? Many explanations have been offered: the all-male priesthood and the celibacy imposed on Catholic priests; the elitism, careerism and clericalism of the church hierarchy; the lack of transparency or accountability among bishops.

All that must be addressed by the pope and his bishops, but not only by them. Cardinal DiNardo and his delegation of American bishops intend to demand not only a full investigation into questions surrounding Cardinal McCarrick, but also better mechanisms for reporting abuse by bishops, and for resolving complaints. Critically, the bishops have listed substantial leadership by laity as one of their goals.

That is essential. Pope Francis has made strides in changing the culture of the papacy and in making the Catholic Church more inclusive, and he seems now to have grasped the gravity of the sickness afflicting the church. But for what is sure to be a defining struggle of his papacy, he will need to look beyond the cardinals, prelates and priests — indeed beyond himself — for answers and solutions.

Any credible effort at reforming the clerical culture of the church, restoring trust, instituting accountability and eradicating the cancer of sexual abuse will require the full participation of experts, prosecutors, victims and many others outside the clergy and the church — women as well as men. If that runs against tradition and practice, so be it.


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