Mistakes of the Bishops

Mistakes of the Bishops

by Monsignor Eric Barr, STL

The U.S. Bishops had an unimpressive week at their biannual meeting in June.  That means this first paragraph will be boring.  But take heart!  It shall get better.  They approved three measures to help alleviate last year’s iteration of the sex abuse crisis, namely, the ex-cardinal Theodore McCarrick controversy.  First, they approved a way for a bishop to discipline another bishop within his diocese.  Next, they approved norms to codify Pope Francis’ February Conference on Sex Abuse results.   And finally, they approved a non-binding agreement to deal with bishops and have the same expectations of bishops as they do of their priests and deacons.  Yawn.  Boring and not very satisfying, and fairly useless in fixing the bishops’ mistakes concerning the sex abuse crisis.

First, let’s kill all the lawyers–Okay, not really

For sure, the measures will be somewhat helpful.  But they do not undue the first mistake the bishops ever made concerning the issue of sexual abuse. That was the embrace of the legal system, both ecclesiastical and civil, as the first response to the crisis.  Sexual abuse by priests did not begin in 2002, but the Church stood on the cusp of a major decision that year.  How would the episcopacy treat this concern?  The bishops tried their best but failed.  Why? Of all the choices before them on how to handle the situation they decided to lawyer up.  They forsook their role as shepherds and cast their lot with lawyers, seeing themselves as CEOs with a need to protect the institution.

What happened next was not the lawyers’ fault.  They were simply doing what they had been asked to do by the Church.  Apply civil law, protect the institution, and keep the amounts dictated by lawsuits low enough to not bankrupt individual dioceses.  The bishops, of course, also tried to apply pastoral justice, trying to care for the victim and punishing the perpetrator.  It did not work out very well.  Casting their lot with the lawyers simply exacerbated a trend that had appeared decades before.  The bishops were relinquishing their role as shepherds and becoming CEOs, executives of their individual companies (dioceses) under the umbrella corporation of the Universal Catholic Church. Simply take a look at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ meetings.  In their black suits and with somber demeanor, the bishops do not look or act like shepherds.  They look like Chief Executive Officers at worst and at best like those elderly bankers in the original Mary Poppins movie, totally out of touch with real life, anxious only to protect the wealth of the bank.  That sounds terribly harsh but the optics are clear–these meetings stress law and order, not pastoral care and practice.

A Quest for Orthodoxy Derailed by an Embrace of Legalism

How could such a thing happen?  When Pope St. John Paul II became pontiff, he and his chief theological adviser, Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, showed immediate concern over the lack of orthodoxy particularly in the West.  They were right to be concerned.  The United States received special attention.  Many bishops back then permitted liturgical and theological abuses.  In an attempt to wipe out those aberrations, the Pope began to appoint very orthodox bishops.  Some came from schools of theology, but many came from the cadre of Canon Lawyers, church lawyers who applied Church law within the dioceses.  These were, on the whole, good men but they became a particular type of bishop. Reliably orthodox, they were not particularly pastorally sensitive.  Their fall back position rested with Church law.  It was precise and clear but flexible enough to be applied in real situations.  But it was not Scripture or Theology.  It was law and it was what they turned to first in times of trouble.   Just like civil law it was very protective of the institution that created it. Church law would always have to have been consulted, but it should not have been the first tool used.

When cases of sexual abuse occurred, the bishops were reflexively defensive.  Their first move was to contact civil lawyers and the whole resolution process therefore began with a legal framework rather than a pastoral one.  Victims and their families did not find a receptive audience at the chancery.  They became plaintiffs and the Church became the defendant and everything began in an adversarial relationship.  Money was seen as the basis of true justice and victims who might have been satisfied and healed by the loving care of a Church which understood their hurt and realized its own failings to root out abusive evil began to see legal settlements as the path to healing.

Hope Exists If Bishops Discard the Role of CEO and Reclaim the Role of Shepherd

But there was little healing because money, though it can do a lot of things, can not bring peace of mind or healing of heart.  There was no real attempt at reconciliation, and when the legal gymnastics were over, Church and victim often parted ways, their former relationship utterly destroyed.  Both sides appeared paralyzed.  Bishops who took the route of Church Law showed little creativity to change their behavior.  They seemed unable to embrace the pastoral shepherding role for which they had been ordained.

What is clear in hindsight was not always clear at the moment of decision making or in the midst of a crisis.  However, we now know the results of the bishops’ actions and it has pushed the Church in the West close to catastrophe.  Until the McCarrick controversy of last year, most defenders and critics of the Church turned the laser light of judgement upon those priestly perpetrators who caused the mess.  If only that problem could be cured, the institutional Church could get its act together and put the muddle behind it.  But once the McCarrick obscenity unfolded, everyone began to realize clearly that the root problem rested with the way bishops handled their authority and their role as shepherds.  The Church could get rid of every clerical abuser but the cancer would still remain, namely, the abuse of authority by bishops who had lost touch with their charism as shepherds of the flock. And what was worse is that the candid acknowledgement of the real problem wouldn’t solve anything.

There was simply not a way to discipline those bishops who continued to abuse their authority.  Of course the Pope could get involved, but that should be the in extremis solution.  Something else has to be created to call the bishops to accountability.  What happened this past week at the biannual meeting of the bishops was not that.  Their measures were stop gap attempts which will help a little but offer no permanent solution.  That sounds hopeless and it is, so long as the bishops continue to act as Chief Executive Officers and see civil and church lawyers as the way to solve both the authority problem and the sexual abuse crisis.  Only by reclaiming their role as shepherds will they be able to move forward in forging a renewed relationship of trust with the people they are supposed to lead.

So they lawyered up.  That was the first mistake the bishops made in the sex abuse crisis.  Deciding to be CEOs rather than shepherds.  Thinking that money would solve what pastoral care would not attempt.  Then the leaders of the Church made a second mistake:  the bishops broke the foundational sacramental link between a bishop and his priests.  What was supposed to be a firm partnership of brothers in ministering to the People of God became a standoff between a boss and his employees.  Vatican II saw the priests as the sacramental extension of a bishop’s ecclesiastical shepherding outreach.  Instead, they were used as pawns to buttress the wall of defense between a bishop and his people.

The Breaking Of Trust Between Bishop And Priest

To be fair, this split had already been happening for decades in the Catholic Church of the U.S.A.  But it was exacerbated by the sex abuse crisis.  What should have been a cooperative united attempt to heal a Church reeling from the crisis in authority occurring because of sexual abuse, became instead a circling of the wagons by the chancery, with the priests left to fend for themselves.

Priests were supposed to trust that their bishop had their backs, that the bishop would support and lift up his priests in times of crisis.  The bishops did not desert the priests out of malice; rather, they fled from their priests out of fear.  The laity mistakenly believed the bishops were defending priests by hiding the predators among them.  Not so.  They were trying to pretend those bad priests did not exist.  The bishops did this to protect themselves.  Now they went to the other extreme.  As the crisis grew, the bishops willingly threw away the innocent as well as the guilty.  There was a presumption that an allegation against a priest was true until it was proven false.

The Problem With Zero Tolerance

The bishops imposed a zero tolerance policy, which at the time made perfect sense.  Sexual abuse was a heinous offense and though it came in different guises, it was bad and had to be punished.  Just like a plague would be quarantined, bishops felt the contagion of sexual abuse needed similar draconian action.  It is an effective way to stop an evil, but its take no prisoners attitude caused unforeseen damage.  In hindsight,  zero tolerance, still in effect throughout the Catholic world, did and continues to do several terrible things:

  • First, it brands all sexual abuse as equal.  Inappropriate words, conversations, touching, sexual contact, rape, pedophilia–all these were de facto considered the same offense.  Understandably so, as the Church reacted to its previous denial of any type of crime inherent in these activities.  But with time, new understandings have appeared.  There are different levels of sexual abuse, some much more serious than others.  But the penalties remain equal–total suspension of priestly ministry.
  • Priests began to fear almost any contact with young people.  Children, wishing to hug their priest after Mass now were often pushed away.  Priests shied away from comforting anyone lest it look too personal.  Priests who for decades had been taught to become more relatable, more human, more accessible now questioned the very way they communicated with parishioners.  They began to fear the people they were supposed to serve. A laity which despises the distant priest standing on a pedestal, is now seeing there fears confirmed as priests are forced to keep their distance from parishioners in new, unforseen ways.
  • Laity read back today’s understanding or fear of sexual abuse to actions between priests and people from decades ago.  Rape will always look like rape and pedophilia will always look like pedophilia, but past actions from a different time and cultural expression are now often read as serious sexual improprieties.  Why?  Memories fade and are often mistaken and the present fears are sometimes imprinted upon past actions that originally never had any sexual connotation.
  • A priest in trouble in times past, would go to his bishop for help.  That came to a screeching halt after 2002, when a priest could no longer trust that his bishop had his best interests at heart.  In fact, any whiff of sexual impropriety would cause a bishop to now place immediate restrictions on priestly ministry whether accusations were true or not.  That sounds prudent on the part of the bishop, but it destroys the trust between ordained ministers.  To this day, an adversarial relationship is implanted and growing between priest and bishop.  While that is terrible for priests, it is even worse for bishops who now find themselves almost totally alone in the leadership of their dioceses.
  • Restrictions on priestly ministry based simply upon a credible accusation destroy a priest’s career–“credible” not having any real definition but determined instead on what  the individual bishop or review board says a credible accusation actually is.   The caveat that a bishop must try to restore an innocent priest’s reputation is ludicrous.  The priest has been convicted in the realm of public opinion and the bishop never forgets that a priest has been accused, even falsely.  And the institutional Church accepts this as necessary collateral damage.  A bishop is willing to forgo his role as shepherd both to priests and laity in order to save the economic future of his diocese.
  • Zero tolerance is still accepted as the best way forward, and perhaps it is, but at what a cost.  It definitely works.  But is it moral?  It is the ecclesiastical version of the Vietnam War’s view of victory; namely, “we must destroy this village in order to save it.”  Zero tolerance is spiritual napalm, burning the enemy predators but also destroying the innocent in its raging inferno.  And when the victor, in this case the bishop, looks over the field of battle, he finds a populace and a priesthood no longer trusting him.  All are appalled at the destruction of community and of individual trust.  The presence of God is obscured by the smoke of battle.  The bishop is no longer looked on as shepherd, but as enforcer. Someone, please explain how such a leader is going to be the hands, voice, eyes and face of Christ to the people.

Look On My Works, Ye Mighty, And Despair

From a legal viewpoint, the Church is doing what it must do to survive.  But from a spiritual viewpoint, the bishops have created an ecclesiastical wasteland with the Church in America a shadow of its former self.  What a disaster.  Unfortunately, it looks like we have hit the nadir of creative ideas to further correct the problem of sexual abuse in the Church.  The bishops have accepted that the institution will continue to use the legal profession, both canonical and secular, as the first response to any occurrence of abuse.

The bishop’s approach might have inched the Church over finish line toward a solution to the problem, but then came their third and most destructive mistake:  The McCarrick affair and the Church’s response to it.  For an explanation of that, please look forward to Part Three on The Mistakes of the Bishops.

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