Peter Jesserer Smith is a staff reporter for the National Catholic Register. He covered Pope Francis’s historic visit to the United States in 2015, and to Jerusalem and the Holy Land in 2014. He has reported on the Syrian and Iraqi refugee crisis, including from Jordan and Lebanon on an Egan Fellowship from Catholic Relief Services. Before coming on board the Register in 2013, he was a freelance writer, reporting for Catholic media outlets as the Register and Our Sunday Visitor. He is a graduate of the National Journalism Center and earned a B.A. in Philosophy at Christendom College, where he co-founded the student newspaper, The Rambler, and served as its editor. He comes originally from the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl has floated a proposal, published Monday morning in an exclusive interview with the National Catholic Reporter, that bishops should be impaneled to investigate the sexual predations of Theodore McCarrick, the former Cardinal, and Cardinal Wuerl’s predecessor as archbishop of Washington.
Cardinal Wuerl proposed that a panel or board of bishops, coming from the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, investigate rumors of a bishop committing sexual abuse. Such a board would not pass judgment on the accused bishop, but send the information on to Rome.
This afternoon, Bishop Edward Scharfenberger of the Diocese of Albany, who had a priest sexually molested by ex-Cardinal McCarrick, sent a public message to the entire U.S. episcopacy that indicated clearly Cardinal Wuerl’s solution — bishops investigating bishops — would have zero credibility with the People of God.
Bishop Scharfenberger’s observations are buttressed by the fact that an as-yet unknown number of bishops were aware of McCarrick’s sexual predations on seminarians and young priests under his authority — a crime Bishop Scharfenberger condemned as spiritual incest. Previous attempts to get these crimes addressed by Rome through the papal nuncio never succeeded, and McCarrick only rose through the episcopal ranks — it was only when the Archdiocese of New York could substantiate the credibility of an allegation that McCarrick sexually abused a minor that the prelate fell. This opened up #MeToo sexual abuse revelations, as well as revelations that McCarrick preyed on the first child he baptized— even through adulthood.
Furthermore, it was revealed that McCarrick’s sexual predation on #MeToo seminarians and adults were given the blind eye, and pleas to investigate him ended up in dead ends or dead letters — quite literally the case with Cardinal Sean O’Malley, who maintains his personal secretary, Father Robert Kickham, never passed on a letter to him from McCarrick-whistleblower Dominican Father Boniface Ramsey in June 2015. Three months later, McCarrick and Cardinal O’Malley joined Pope Francis in Cuba and spoke together about U.S.-Cuba relations and their experience.
A global portrait is emerging of #MeToo nuns, seminarians, and priests who sought to report their sexual abuse (up to and including repeated rape) and were failed by bishops, or in some cases victimized by them. The Church in India has been scandalized by revelations that Cardinal George Alencherry told a nun he would deny that he knew a bishop had been raping her if she went to the police, instead of the apostolic nuncio. Cardinal Alencherry followed through on the threat – without knowing the conversation had been recorded — and was caught by the media. India’s episcopal conference is investing. (Read the story at Catholic News Agency).
Bishop Scharfenberger has called for a national, independent panel of expert lay faithful — completely separated from any source of power in the Church that could exert influence on them — to investigate the bishops. And this national panel should be commissioned and “duly approved by the Holy See.”
Bishop Scharfenberger said it was time for the bishops to call forth the expertise of the lay faithful, who can exercise their baptismal priesthood, in helping the bishops make lasting reforms in the Church.
The proposal from Bishop Scharfenberger also addresses a key point that was leveraged against lay oversight of bishops on sexual abuse — namely this idea that lay people cannot tell bishops what to do, only the Pope can — when the Dallas Charter was debated. In this case, the lay people investigating would have their authority from the Pope himself and bishops would have to obey that mandate.
The entire statement is below:
LAITY ARE “ESSENTIAL,” MUST LEAD ANY INVESTIGATION
Statement by Bishop Edward B. Scharfenberger of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany:
While I am heartened by my brother bishops proposing ways for our Church to take action in light of recent revelations – and I agree that a national panel should be commissioned, duly approved by the Holy See – I think we have reached a point where bishops alone investigating bishops is not the answer. To have credibility, a panel would have to be separated from any source of power whose trustworthiness might potentially be compromised.
It is time for us, I believe, to call forth the talents and charisms of our lay faithful, by virtue of their baptismal priesthood. Our lay people are not only willing to take on this much-needed role, but they are eager to help us make lasting reforms that will restore a level of trust that has been shattered yet again. In speaking with them, we all hear their passion for our universal Church, their devotion to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and their hunger for the truth. They are essential to the solution we seek.
What is needed now is an independent commission led by well-respected, faithful lay leaders who are beyond reproach, people whose role on such a panel will not serve to benefit them financially, politically or personally. These will be people with a deep understanding of the Catholic faith, but without an axe to grind or an agenda to push. It will not be easy, but it will be worth every ounce of effort, energy and candor we can muster.
We bishops want to rise to this challenge, which may well be our last opportunity considering all that has happened. We must get this right. I am confident we can find a way to look outside ourselves, to put this in the hands of the Holy Spirit, and to entrust our very capable lay people, who have stood with us through very difficult times, to help us do the right thing. We need an investigation — the scope of which is not yet defined but must be defined — and it must be timely, transparent and credible.