Two days after the release of the devastating Pennsylvania grand jury report that documented clergy sexual abuse in six Pennsylvania dioceses over the span of 70 years, the two institutions that will be the most vital in responding to the ongoing scandals in the Church both issued significant statements within a few hours of each other.

 

‘A Moral Catastrophe’

The first statement came on the morning of Aug. 16 from the U S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, through its president, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston. “Whatever the details may turn out to be regarding Archbishop McCarrick or the many abuses in Pennsylvania (or anywhere else),” he wrote, “we already know that one root cause is the failure of episcopal leadership. The result was that scores of beloved children of God were abandoned to face an abuse of power alone. This is a moral catastrophe.”

Answering the public outcry over the failure of many bishops to address abuse properly, Cardinal DiNardo provided more than vague promises of future reform or establishing a commission of bishops to investigate other bishops.

Cardinal DiNardo’s proposed solution has three goals: “1) an investigation into the questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick; 2) an opening of new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and 3) advocacy for more effective resolution of future complaints. These goals will be pursued according to three criteria: proper independence, sufficient authority and substantial leadership by laity.”

The overarching objective, Cardinal DiNardo wrote, “is stronger protections against predators in the Church and anyone who would conceal them, protections that will hold bishops to the highest standards of transparency and accountability.”

Bishop Lawrence Persico of Erie, the lone bishop praised by the Pennsylvania grand jury report, told the Register, “The statement of Cardinal DiNardo is very good. We are finally moving in the right direction. I am pleased there will be substantial lay leadership and that the board will be given sufficient authority and proper independence, and there will be an outside investigative mechanism to maintain episcopal accountability. I am pleased with the USCCB’s direction. It is long overdue.”

 

Ultimate Responsibility

Many questions remain, though, as to the details of the USCCB goals. Bold actions are needed to start restoring the moral credibility of our shepherds, but any plans must be faithful to authentic moral and spiritual reform and to Church law. In an interview on Raymond Arroyo’s The World Over Aug. 16, Cardinal Raymond Burke, former prefect for the Apostolic Signatura, the highest court in the Church, said, “It is the responsibility of the Holy Father, the Roman Pontiff, to receive such complaints against the bishops and to investigate them, and to use whatever means are necessary and appropriate to do so. This is not part of the responsibility of the conference of bishops.”

As Cardinal Burke noted, the Holy See is ultimately responsible for the conduct of the world’s bishops. The very public mechanism for dealing with these messy situations — as seen most recently in Chile — has been to send a Vatican official with broad authority to investigate.

What form a Vatican investigation into the McCarrick scandal might take remains to be seen. The visitation to Chile by the Holy See’s representative, Archbishop Charles Scicluna, led to the Chilean bishops being summoned to Rome in May and ultimately submitting their mass resignation. The Pope has accepted the resignation of five bishops so far, but the problems for the Church in Chile are far from over.

Likewise, any apostolic visitation to the U.S. will bring the expectation for Pope Francis to call the bishops to Rome and demand that some of them resign. It will also certainly bring with it a new media frenzy, as well as new concerns about the authority of episcopal conferences over bishops and skepticism by laypeople, given the unreliable assurances of the past.

 

“Shame and Sorrow”

That skepticism was not appreciably helped by the statement issued at the highly unusual hour of 9:30pm Rome time by the Holy See Press Office through its director, Greg Burke. The statement read:

“Regarding the report made public in Pennsylvania this week, there are two words that can express the feelings faced with these horrible crimes: shame and sorrow. The Holy See treats with great seriousness the work of the Investigating Grand Jury of Pennsylvania and the lengthy Interim Report it has produced. The Holy See condemns unequivocally the sexual abuse of minors.

“The abuses described in the report are criminal and morally reprehensible. Those acts were betrayals of trust that robbed survivors of their dignity and their faith. The Church must learn hard lessons from its past, and there should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.

“Most of the discussion in the report concerns abuses before the early 2000s. By finding almost no cases after 2002, the Grand Jury’s conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse. The Holy See encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm. The Holy See also wants to underscore the need to comply with the civil law, including mandatory child abuse reporting requirements.

“The Holy Father understands well how much these crimes can shake the faith and the spirt of believers and reiterates the call to make every effort to create a safe environment for minors and vulnerable adults in the Church and in all of society.

“Victims should know that the Pope is on their side. Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”

The Pope has chosen not to make a public comment on the scandal involving Archbishop Theodore McCarrick beyond the formal Vatican announcement that the retired archbishop of Washington had resigned from the College of Cardinals (he had been a member since 2001), was consigned to a life of prayer and penance, and would all but certainly face a canonical trial for the accusations of sexual abuse of minors and adults. Given that relative silence, the media storm that had been unleashed by the grand jury report could not be left without some kind of a reply from the Holy See.

The peculiar timing of its release, late in the day in Rome, would point to an awareness in the Vatican of the need to confront the growing number of calls for Pope Francis to weigh in on the matter and to commence what is likely to be a long and grinding process of dealing with all of the issues angering and demoralizing Catholics in the United States and beyond.

The statement made two key points. First, it noted the progress that has been made in dealing with the crisis of sexual abuse by the clergy. It stressed that as there were “almost no cases after 2002, the Grand Jury’s conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse.” Certainly, the Holy See will work for further progress, but that simple fact has been overlooked in the wake of the McCarrick scandal and the grand jury report. 

The other, even more important, point is that there are “hard lessons from its past” to be learned, and one of them “should be accountability for both abusers and those who permitted abuse to occur.” That last phrase regarding “those who permitted abuse to occur” has assumed urgency not just because of the grand jury — as shattering as its condemnation of bishops in the handling of the cases in Pennsylvania might have been — but because of the apparent utter failure in episcopal leadership, accountability and proper oversight in preventing McCarrick’s rise to the top of the American hierarchy and into the Cardinalate. It also seems to forecast the call by Cardinal DiNardo for an apostolic visitation, which many have assumed to be inevitable since the first McCarrick revelations came to light in June. 

The U.S. bishops are scheduled to meet for their annual fall meeting in Baltimore in November. The ghastly grand jury report and the spreading taint of Theodore McCarrick’s alleged monstrous appetites will be center stage. Given the unremitting pace of the scandals and the surging rage of the lay faithful, however, the bishops may discover that a meeting several months away will prove wholly inadequate to the scale of the spiritual and institutional crisis right now.

And Cardinal DiNardo’s plan to invite a Vatican investigation seemed undercut by the Vatican statement that followed. Disseminated hastily in the night and lacking a sense of practical and sober resolve to bring reform,  it hardly seems enough to rally faithful but discouraged Catholics who are exhausted by the scandals and feel they are journeying alone in the dark.