National Catholic Register


The Abuse Of Secrecy

Author Says Church Has Nothing to Hide

BY John Burger

News Editor

June 22-28, 2008 Issue | Posted 6/17/08 at 12:16 PM


Russell Shaw is a longtime Catholic journalist and former spokesman for the U.S. bishops.

He has been thinking for a long time about how the abuse of secrecy in the Church has damaged the communion that should exist among her members. And now he has written a book about it. Nothing to Hide was published by Ignatius Press in May.

Shaw spoke about it with Register News Editor John Burger.

What is your new book about?

Nothing to Hide is a book about the abuse of secrecy in the Catholic Church. It’s a book about truth-telling and the desirability and necessity to tell the truth in all contexts and on all occasions, but the need particularly exists in the Church because it is what it is. And this question of telling the truth and sharing information is essential to the well-being of the Church precisely as a communion or a community of faith — communio.

I started out many years ago favoring openness in the conduct of the Church’s business simply on utilitarian grounds because things work better that way. I came to the conclusion over a period of time that unnecessary secrecy, the abuse of secrecy and other faults in communication are really deadly to the aspect of the Church and the nature of the Church as a communion or a community of persons who are fundamentally equal.

It’s an exercise in criticism, but I hope it’s constructive criticism.

When did you first begin to be concerned about secrecy in the Church?

I probably first became fully conscious of the problem of a lot of unnecessary secrecy in late 1969, when I went to work for the Conference of Bishops here in Washington as director of information, and at that time I found that the relationship between the bishops and the journalists who covered the bishops’ activities were really atrociously bad.

It was a relationship marked by hostility and suspicion on both sides. And a lot of that bad blood between the press and the bishops focused on the bishops’ general meetings.

Prior to the Second Vatican Council, the bishops’ general meetings had been rather quiet, sedate affairs, conducted in privacy on the campus of The Catholic University of America, and nobody paid much attention to them, frankly. Certainly the meetings were not directly covered by the media.

But after Vatican II, when the bishops set up shop as the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference, they moved the site of their November general meeting to a downtown hotel and invited reporters to come and cover the meeting. So far, so good.

But in inviting the reporters to cover the meeting they refused to allow the reporters to observe the meeting. The meetings were conducted 100% in executive session behind closed doors, and journalists covering the bishops’ meetings were forced to rely on official briefings, which they found intrinsically unacceptable and objects of suspicion. Plus leaks — plenty of leaks.

What with one thing or another, the journalists who were covering the bishops’ meetings were hopping mad by the time I arrived on the scene, and the bishops for their part were hopping mad at the journalists. And the problem manifested itself in extremely bad coverage, hostile coverage, negative coverage of the bishops and what they were doing.

I saw this at work with my own horrified eyes for the first time in November of 1969, and I came to the conclusion then that the secrecy with which the bishops were conducting their affairs and especially the general meeting was totally counter-productive.

There was no good reason to meet entirely in executive session; there was no good reason to have the meeting room doors closed all the time, and yet the bishops were doing it.

How did you personally get involved?

I and others — and I don’t mean to suggest that I was uniquely responsible for this — I and others on the staff level, and also among the bishops, set out about then to try to persuade the bishops to open their general meetings to direct coverage by reporters and direct observations by designated observers.

In November 1971, the bishops voted to do that, and in the spring of 1972, meeting in Atlanta, Ga., they had an open meeting for the first time, and the problem seemed, at least as it pertained to the general meeting, which was so large a part of the problem for the bishops’ conference, the problem seemed to be solved.

That arrangement worked pretty well for the next two decades, but along about the early 1990s or mid-1990s, by which time I was no longer working for the bishops but was working as a journalist and covering bishops’ meetings, I became aware, as did others, that more and more time of the bishops’ meetings was taken up with executive sessions.

In other words, the bishops had gone back behind closed doors, and an increasing percentage of each and every meeting was occurring in executive session.

I felt that was a shame. There was no better reason to do it in, say, 1995 than there had been in 1969.

By the way, no explanation or account of what the bishops were doing and why they were doing it, why this reversion to secrecy was taking place. No explanation was ever offered.

When did you start writing about this?

So I started writing about the problem then, back in the 1990s, about the problem of secrecy as it pertained to the bishops’ meetings and to the activities of the bishops’ conference generally because the same phenomenon, the same pattern of what I perceived as an abuse of secrecy had spread into other aspects of the bishops’ conference’s activities by then and there seemed to be a growing practice within the organization to do things in a secretive, closed-door manner.

I began to write about those aspects of the secrecy problem and also about secrecy in the Church in general because the more I thought about it and the more I observed what was going on in the bishops’ conference, the more I could see that, well, the bishops are conforming to a pattern that’s pervasive in the Church, from the international level all the way down to the level of one’s own parish.

So much of the decision-making, so much of the management, so much of the activity that really counts rests in the hands of a small group of people who don’t share information with the community at large.

Then came 2002 and the sex-abuse scandal erupted with full force. It was patent then that secrecy, cover-up, had been an intrinsic part of the pattern of clerical sex abuse and had contributed a great deal to making the whole ugly reality of sex abuse larger than it was and a much more serious problem for the Church than it was.

It’s not that secrecy caused sex abuse or sex abuse caused secrecy, but the two things interacted and reinforced one another. The cover-up phenomenon was the particular form that secrecy in this instance took. …

I guess it was about then, 2002, perceiving this new deeper dimension of the abuse of secrecy in the Church, seeing how bad it really was, becoming more and more convinced that in fact the abuse of secrecy was pervasive in the Church on all levels, existed throughout the Church’s institutions and structures and processes, I concluded that really to do justice to it would take a book.

What is happening to improve the situation, and what more needs to happen?

Someone who read the book in an earlier form than the published version objected to it on the grounds that I was imputing moral fault to bishops and others for abusing secrecy. I’m not.

I think the reality is quite different than that, and as a matter of fact more serious and more difficult to deal with.

The reality is the people who abuse secrecy take it for granted. It’s a systemic problem; it’s leached into our processes and our ways of doing business.

Now, the response so often, when you raise objections to it, boils down to, in the final analysis, “We’ve always done it this way.”

I don’t think “we’ve always done it this way” is a very strong argument for much of anything, but it’s the kind of argument that you run into again and again in the case of this particular problem.

Furthermore, as I tried to suggest in the book, I think that while the abuse of secrecy exists everywhere in our society today — it’s a problem for government, it’s a problem for military, it’s a problem in the private sector, for public schools, everywhere you look in large institutions and organizations, you find the same thing repeated over and over again, this abuse of secrecy, to protect the interests, basically, of the people in charge — it does take on a particular coloration in the Church, and the coloration is clericalism.

Am I correct in understanding that you would like to see more lay involvement in choosing bishops? What would your vision be of that?

As I think more about the subject I’d attach the adjective “qualified” to laymen there.

I think there ought to be consultations with qualified laypeople. You could set up quite a lengthy debate and argument about “qualified in relation to what?” The terms and attributes … what constitutes qualification in this context needs to be established clearly, and obviously that would be debated at great length.

But at the very least I think that a qualified layman is a layman who accepts the teaching of the Church and accepts the discipline of the Church. … By the way … that’s the sort of qualification that canon law itself set for people to serve on consultative bodies.

Also, I’m not sure consultation with qualified laypeople should be “consult everybody in sight” — a big broad come-one, come-all sort of process.

I’d rather see consultation for bishops and pastors in the Church done in conjunction with revivifying the pastoral councils which canon law and Vatican II specify for parishes and dioceses.

If we had lively, engaged, relevant pastoral councils in our parishes, in our dioceses, and if the laypeople who served on those bodies were qualified laymen in a realistic sense, then it seems to me that in many cases at least your consultation about the choice of bishops and the choice of pastors could be conducted with these pastoral councils at the diocesan and parish levels.

At least, they’re the bodies immediately at hand, and it would make eminently good sense to use them for consultative purposes in this context, if they were up to speed, and it appears to me that at the present time, over and over again, when you look at parish councils and diocesan pastoral councils, you find that that they are not up to speed, that the hopes and expectations at the time of Vatican II have not been realized, and these bodies may exist on paper but they are not functioning the way it was hoped they could function 40 years ago.