Year of Scandal Brings Glimmers of Hope Amid Bleak Revelations

Until the corruption is eradicated, the Church cannot be the force for saving souls that it is meant to be.

“Feed my sheep.”
“Feed my sheep.” (photo: Raphael, “Christ’s Charge to Peter,” 1515)

For many devout Catholics in the U.S., the months since the disclosures of the predation of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick on seminarians and a man in his youth, and the fact that so many “high up” knew, have been the bleakest in our lives in respect to our Catholic faith.

Daily we have been assaulted with stories about the ineptitude, and often much worse behavior, of some of our bishops in respect to the sexual misconduct of clergy — not only of those who abuse minors, but also of sexual misconduct among priests and within their own ranks.

To call these stories disheartening is a gross understatement. Several of the bishops for whom I have had the highest regard have been greatly diminished in my eyes as I learn how they have mismanaged cases of sexual misconduct of their priests in respect to dealing with the victims, the predators and laity and how reluctant they are to do a cleanup of their dioceses. Moreover, there is too little transparency about the nature and number of “indiscretions.”

In the midst of this bleak reality, there are some signs of improvement.

Bishop Joseph Strickland of Tyler, Texas, prayed with the laity in Baltimore who were there to express their distress at what has been happening to their Church. Admirably, he did the pastoral and fatherly thing. But why was he the only one?

At the Baltimore meeting of the USCCB, he was refreshingly candid in his regret that the Vatican may never fully investigate Archbishop Carlo Viganò’s charges against McCarrick and several cardinals. He has followed his own plea that bishops should focus on the salvation of souls in their own diocese by communicating his concerns about the scandal with the laity and asking his priests to do a daily holy hour. One of the few willing to engage in fraternal correction of his fellow bishops, he called upon them to exclude speakers who undermine Church teaching on homosexuality from speaking in their diocese — a clear reference to Jesuit Father James Martin, who is regularly invited to speak at diocesan events in Los Angeles and throughout the U.S.

Archbishop Bernard Hebda of Saint Paul and Minneapolis released all victims bound by confidentiality agreements from strictures about speaking out about their abuse. That is a tremendously helpful act, since it no longer puts the reputation of the Church or predators above the necessity of having the full truth known.

Why haven’t all the other bishops followed his example? He also has forbidden his predecessor, Archbishop John Nienstedt, from exercising his priestly faculties in the archdiocese until a full investigation is done of accusations against Archbishop Nienstedt, and he has called for independent lay-run mechanisms for investigating accusations against bishops.

Some bishops have made it known that they do everything they can, not only to address accusations of clergy sexual abuse against minors but also against homosexual predation.

Bishop Michael Olson from Fort Worth, Texas, is taking a lot of heat from parishioners who disapprove of some of his decisions, to the point of petitioning the USCCB and the nuncio to do an investigation into his decisions. Bishop Olson has addressed the accusations against himself in a pastoral way and with documentation that seems to me to show that he has acted very responsibly — perhaps there may be some form of mediation that would clear up the matter.

Pope Francis’ statement that it is best that active homosexuals should leave the priesthood rather than live double lives is extremely welcome. It should give the bishops any prodding they need to invite those having sex with males to leave the priesthood.

What we need to note here is that, unfortunately, bishops can expect to meet enormous resistance from many, if not most, laity when they remove unworthy priests from ministry. After all, laity love their priests and are rightly tremendously grateful for the sacraments made available only through priests.

Sadly, a large number of laity would rather have priests who do not teach the fullness of the faith than those who challenge them, for instance, to stop using contraception, and to lead more generous, apostolic lives. They will not be happy when they lose a popular priest, when priests need to be shifted around and when parishes may need to be closed because of a shortage of priests.

Basilian Father Douglas Mosey, the president and rector of Holy Apostles Seminary in Cromwell, Connecticut. may win the prize for the bravest action, an action reported in a blockbuster story in the Register. Not only did he act swiftly and effectively to address a problem of sexual misconduct at his own seminary in 2012, he and his chief investigator have released the (redacted) report done on the investigation and revealed that there had been tampering of the files on seminarians by their home dioceses to hide important background information on the seminarians.

He names dioceses that facilitated networks of homosexual seminarians and priests — Paterson, Newark, Hartford and Buffalo. Father Mosey’s action qualifies as the bravest because he has done what no other seminary director known to me has done — jeopardized his relationship with bishops (the bread and butter of seminaries) in order to make the truth known.

So many seminaries have appalling histories, especially in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s. Bishops must acknowledge that seminaries in the not so distant past (and some even now) have been breeding grounds for sexual misconduct.

Some dioceses had vocation directors who recruited males who have sex with males into the seminaries, seminaries governed by priests who had sex with males and who tolerated if not participated in a culture of sexual depravity. It is for this reason that some priests who have sex with males have risen to the episcopacy and that others have great influence on the operations of dioceses.

Until these scandalous truths are acknowledged, and until the corruption still present in some seminaries and possibly the majority of dioceses is eradicated, the trust of the laity will not be restored and the Church will not be able to be the force for saving souls that it is meant to be.

The U.S. bishops are going on a retreat in early January, at the behest of Pope Francis, to pray about the crisis. What an opportunity for blessings and reform! We the laity need to fast and pray for the bishops and communicate to them our ardent desire that they take up their responsibilities and reform their own dioceses. They need to comb their priest files and attend to any unattended accusations against priests — accusations ignored by their predecessors or themselves, often with the claim that there is not enough evidence (investigate!) or that a man’s private life is his private life, or because of fears of “outing” a friend or popular priest or good fundraiser. They need to be guided in their decisions only by a concern for the truth and for the salvation of souls — their own souls, the souls of the priests and laity in their care, and the souls of all those who should be evangelized.

We should all write to our bishops and assure them of our prayers. I recommend sending along the reader “What We, the Laity, are Reading that has Shaken Us to the Core?” or send an article or two from that reader or elsewhere that we believe will help them understand our point of view. We need to implore them to take brave measures and to assure them we will forgive them for past inaction if they move forward boldly now and that those of us who want them to purify the clergy even if that means a seriously reduced presbyterate, will defend them to laity who are not so receptive to reform.

Recently I recommended sending to bishops a copy of In Sinu Jesu, a book recounting the locutions a Benedictine priest received from Jesus conveying his request that priests do Holy Hours of reparation for the corruption in the clergy. How I wish that before the retreat every bishop would receive and read that book, as well as Hurting in the Church: A Way Forward for Wounded Catholics, by Father Thomas Berg.

In this book Father Berg recounts his own experience of being a Legionary priest for more than 20 years, in an order known for its zealous orthodoxy but which had a pedophile for a founder and a culture of extreme secrecy. Speaking out of that wound he acknowledges with great sympathy the many kind of wounds that priests and the Church have inflicted on people, much of it resulting from the failure of priests to seek holiness.

Seeking holiness. Whatever does not advance the pursuit of holiness needs to be purged from our lives. Please, bishops, respond to the graces of your office and be the leader Christ begs you to be.

Janet E. Smith holds the Father Michael J. McGivney Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit.