Overcoming a Credibility Crisis

REGISTER SYMPOSIUM: Ours is a wounded and humiliated Church, one in desperate need of healing.

Gustav Doré (1832-1883), “The Crown of Thorns”
Gustav Doré (1832-1883), “The Crown of Thorns” (photo: Public Domain)
What to Expect From the Vatican Summit?
Love, Care and Justice Must Be Paramount
Plea for Commitment and Transparency
The Rotten Fruit of Secularization
Overcoming a Credibility Crisis
Mix Appropriate Anger With Confidence
Create Space for Bishops to Take Action
The Lord Will Never Abandon His Church
Renewing Spiritual Fatherhood
Stay With Us, Lord, For It Is Nearly Evening

This Register Symposium is not a physical conference, but a written collection of shared reflections from independent contributors with specialized knowledge regarding the clergy sexual abuse crisis. The nine experts have been asked to reflect on the root causes of the problem, and the most effective path forward for the Church.


In a letter to the U.S. bishops on retreat, Pope Francis spoke of a “crisis of credibility.” This crisis is in full swing — not only in the U.S., but around the world and even in respect to the highest levels of the Church.

Ours is a deeply wounded Church, one in desperate need of healing. Catholics are leaving the Church; those who stay are withholding donations; parents who have long hoped for a son to become a priest are dissuading their sons from going into seminary.

The Catholic laity are in a state of shock in respect to the extent of the depravity we are discovering in the clergy, low and high. Our default position is now one of a lack of trust.

What has brought us to this state? So many things. Certainly the daily barrage of news of scandalous priestly behavior exhausts us, as do reports of the grossly inadequate response of some bishops. Reports of corruption in seminaries during the time these men were formed, of seminaries that recruited homosexuals and persecuted heterosexuals, have become dishearteningly plausible to us. Thinkers from opposite sides of the spectrum testify to the presence of “lavender mafias” (networks of active homosexuals) in dioceses, who virtually run the diocese and sideline strong chaste heterosexuals.

The Pope, his advisers and many bishops seem to think that the crisis has been provoked solely by unresolved issues from the first crisis of 2002 that involved priests who abused minors and the widespread practice of cover-up of these crimes by the episcopacy.

Some Church-watchers are warning that if the February meeting limits its focus and range to only the problem of minors and associated cover-ups, the wounds will get worse and the credibility crisis will take stronger hold.

That is true, but it is not just a question of focus that is problematic; the problem is that those in charge are very much a part of the problem.

The Boston Globe reports that 130 living bishops have been accused of covering up priestly sexual abuse of minors. No steps have been taken to discipline them. So far, all we have seen our episcopal leaders do is take measures to ensure that priest abusers who are not part of the episcopacy are reported to civil authorities, although The Boston Globe states that 50 living bishops have been accused of cover-up since the Dallas Charter of 2002. The hierarchy has done nothing to ensure that bishops accused of such are reported.

Laity are appalled that some cardinals and bishops tolerate priests who openly live a double life and who advance “LGBT” causes; indeed, some even promoted such priests to significant positions, Archbishop Theodore McCarrick himself being a prime example. Laity are outraged that Jesuit Father James Martin is permitted to visit diocese after diocese, misleading people about the Church’s teaching on sexuality.

Can we reasonably expect anything to happen at the February meeting in Rome that would be a step forward in dealing with the crisis? Sadly, the most likely outcome is that it will confirm what we already know: The hierarchy of the Church in its present configuration will resist solutions rather than seek them. Or perhaps worse? Could it be that some are trying to use the crisis to advance such causes as dropping the requirement for priestly celibacy?

Pope Francis has stated that priests who are living double lives should leave the priesthood, but there has been no episcopal corporate response to that declaration. Reportedly, a few bishops have made quiet attempts to remove priests living double lives from their own dioceses.

Thank God for them! May their tribe increase! While what they are doing is laudable, they need to come forward, band together and call upon their brother bishops to do the same. Yet it is doubtful that their efforts will do much in the short run to purge the larger Church of the filth; it is too pervasive and protected by the powerful. Still, even a small corporate effort may perform the invaluable service of establishing new diocesan cultures — to be a model for others — where priestly fidelity is fostered and expected.

Nonetheless, we doubt that there is much that mere mortals can do to clean up the filth.

Thankfully our God is omnipotent and can do the impossible. We need to pray and pray and pray to ensure that what we do is guided by the Holy Spirit. We need to stand faithfully at the foot of the cross and believe that when all seems darkest, the dawn is on the horizon.

Janet Smith is a moral theologian and the

Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Detroit’s Sacred Heart Major Seminary.