Msgr. Charles Pope is currently a dean and pastor in the Archdiocese of Washington, DC, where he has served on the Priest Council, the College of Consultors, and the Priest Personnel Board. Along with publishing a daily blog at the Archdiocese of Washington website, he has written in pastoral journals, conducted numerous retreats for priests and lay faithful, and has also conducted weekly Bible studies in the U.S. Congress and the White House. He was named a Monsignor in 2005.
Like many in the Church from both the clergy and laity, I am increasingly shocked by the depths of the crisis before us. Every day seems to bring forth new allegations of sexual immorality or the cover-up of such behavior.
Further, recent statements of the Pope, while containing some signs of hope, have more often been discouraging—even deplorable. In the face of legitimate requests for a full investigation of the testimony in Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò’s recent letter, his general approach has been one of silence.
However, in a homily delivered in early September, the Pope seemingly compared those requesting investigation to “a pack of wild dogs” and to those who “seek only scandal, who seek only division, who seek only destruction.” In a more recent homily, he appeared to dismiss them as tools of the Great Accuser, Satan, who is “attacking bishops” so as to “uncover their sins ... in order to scandalize the people.”
This does not sound like the talk of a father who loves his children or of a shepherd who “has the smell of the sheep.” Catholics are rightly concerned and deeply saddened by such harsh comments. Serious charges have been made and they warrant investigation — because real people have been profoundly harmed and because the reputation of the entire Church is at stake. A sad result of this scandal and the way it has been handled has been the destruction of the trust that the faithful should be able to have in their leaders. Without this trust, teaching authority and leadership have no foundation.
Further, lay Catholics have the right — even the duty — to raise concerns of this very sort to their pastors at every level, publicly if necessary. The 1983 Code of Canon Law states:
According to the knowledge, competence and prestige which [the Christian Faithful] possess, they have the right and even at times the duty to manifest to the sacred pastors their opinion on matters which pertain to the good of the Church and to make their opinion known to the rest of the Christian faithful, without prejudice to the integrity of faith and morals, with reverence toward their pastors, and attentive to common advantage and the dignity of persons (Canon 212.3).
This duty has not been exercised lightly by the Christian faithful, who have been overwhelmed by what seems to be the repeated inability of the hierarchy to maintain moral discipline in and accountability for clerical behavior. In fact, the duty is being exercised regretfully, with sadness that it has become necessary.
As the bishops prepare to gather for the November meeting of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB), I pray that they will consider some of the following in developing an effective pastoral response to the crisis at hand:
1. Insist on a full investigation of the current scandal in all its dimensions.
Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, President of the USCCB, has said that Archbishop Viganò’s testimony “brings particular focus and urgency” to the need for an “examination into how the grave moral failings of a brother bishop could have been tolerated for so long and proven no impediment to his advancement.” Although the Pope recently met with Cardinal DiNardo and other representatives of the USCCB, practical steps to begin the investigation have not been forthcoming. I pray that Cardinal DiNardo and the USCCB will not easily be deterred from their call for a full investigation into the causes of this crisis, both here and in Rome, including scandals related to seminary formation.
Not even the Pope should claim to be practically unaccountable or permitted to remain silent in these matters, with the exception of those incidents protected by the Seal of Confession.
God’s people deserve answers and a full accounting that will help to ensure that such abuse is not tolerated in the future. The bishops, working together, have the power to dissuade the Pope from his current stance of resistance and rebuke of the faithful.
2. Hold honest discussions about the connection of this crisis to the toleration of active homosexuality in the priesthood and in seminary settings.
In the past, this has too often been a forbidden topic. While it is certainly true that not all clergymen with same-sex attraction have been involved in sexual abuse, the John Jay Study of 2004 reported that approximately 80 percent of the victims in the priestly sexual abuse crisis were post-pubescent males. In the current scandal involving Theodore McCarrick and in the investigations of several of our seminaries and vocations programs, 100 percent of the victims were adult males.
This is not a call for a witch hunt, but a request for a candid conversation about the effect of homosexuality in all-male settings. Simply barring this from being discussed is not an acceptable stance at this point if credible reform is to be forthcoming.
3. Work toward restoring the role of fraternal correction in the Church.
This crisis of clergy sexual abuse is certainly an example of the modern reticence in the Church to correct the sinner and to call out sin as such. Our Lord Himself indicates the need for a process of fraternal correction and describes it in Matthew’s Gospel (see Matthew 18:15-17). St. Paul also insists that unrepentant sinners must suffer consequences such as exclusion in serious matters (see 1 Corinthians 5:1ff).
Today, open dissent by clergy, parishes, prominent Catholics, Catholic universities, and Catholic organizations continues with impunity. Liturgical abuses are widespread and often go uncorrected and unpunished. Faithful Catholics are wearied and scandalized by the silence and the lack of rebuke.
I pray that our bishops courageously recover their role as individual prelates and as a body to rebuke error and distinguish it from the true faith.
4. Focus attention on ensuring sound doctrine and discipline within the Church.
The USCCB expends a great deal of energy in attempting to shape national policy (e.g., immigration, environmental issues, poverty), yet our own house is not in order. Catholics are divided on doctrine, liturgical discipline is lacking, attendance at Mass is plummeting, and serious moral failings and dissent are being overlooked. While we should not abandon all critique of secular laws and policies, we currently have little credibility and must first restore integrity of faith and morals among our own flock and clergy.
As a priest, I pledge to work for internal healing and for sound doctrine and practice, but I hope and pray for clearer leadership from our bishops, rooted in solid Catholic doctrine, Scripture, Sacred Tradition and faithful liturgical discipline.
Is this too much to hope for? You decide, but I can pray and hope, can’t I? At a minimum, let’s all pledge to support the efforts that our bishops make to call for a full investigation, here and in Rome. Let’s insist that they work to ensure that such a tragic and harmful crisis does not happen again. The victims of this abuse, and all those scandalized by it, deserve the bishops’ very best efforts.