Janet Smith to Bishops: ‘Save the Church — Tell Everything’

The professor of moral theology says the scandal surrounding Archbishop Theodore McCarrick’s predations on children, seminarians and priests, has exposed a toxic problem in the Church that laity must help bishops to root out.

U.S. bishops gather in St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015, during the visit of Pope Francis.
U.S. bishops gather in St. Matthew's Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23, 2015, during the visit of Pope Francis. (photo: Alan Holdren/CNA)

The new phase of the sexual abuse scandal in the Church, both in the U.S. and around the world, reveals how predatory behavior not only robbed children, men, and women of their innocence but also the joy of their faith, and, in many cases, their vocations. Janet Smith, noted professor of moral theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary, told the Register that bishops must not delay, at the diocesan and national levels, to empower independent panels of laity to full investigate the issue and take steps to insure this doesn’t happen again. 

What do you think needs to be done about Archbishop McCarrick?

Just as everyone else, I am appalled not only at what Archbishop McCarrick did but at the failure of those who “knew” about his heinous activities to do anything to prevent him from continuing to abuse boys and seminarians and thus, consequently, to prevent his advancement in the Church.

I think we likely already know the answer to some of the questions that everyone is asking: Who knew, what did they know, and what did they do or not do about it?

The answers: It is likely that many bishops have “heard” something, and certainly those who moved in his circles heard a lot. They heard the beach house stories, and likely few of them did anything at all about it beside express horror. Likely a few spoke to those in a position to advance him about what they heard but, obviously, their reports went unheeded.

They went unheeded because he was powerful and good at fundraising and the claim could be made that all that was offered was “rumors” — no real proof was at hand. Most will say, “I heard rumors but I didn’t have proof.” Or, “I heard rumors but it was not my responsibility to do something.” 

Some will rightly say they personally were without power or influence. They might say, “I heard rumors but there is no mechanism for reporting.” Or “I heard from others who tried to do something and they failed and perhaps were retaliated against. There is no point to my wasting my energy and ruining my chances for promotion, too.”

One thing to remember is that these men have come up together. They were in seminary together, have done a thousand things together, and they don’t want to point the finger at their friends. A lot of what goes on here is, “I don’t want to believe that of my friend.” 

They’ve got to realize that their responsibilities are much, much larger than to not embarrass or expose a fellow classmate from years ago. They have to love the Lord and love the Church more than they love their friends. 

The fact is that just about all of them had heard — do you notice how few denials there have been of “knowledge”? Sadly, some of the few who have denied it can hardly be believed.

But there is one group that likely has no excuse. That would be the bishops who sent their seminarians to the seminaries where McCarrick did his dirty work. Is it possible that they had not heard anything, that there were no complaints made to the seminary staff by seminarians about McCarrick? Did the seminary staff share this information with bishops who sent their candidates there? 

Staff who did not report, bishops who did nothing, certainly deserve to lose their positions if not much, much more. 

Let me add something to this picture: As noted, bishops upon hearing about abuse, nearly always say, “All I have are rumors; I have no proof.” I ask, “Why, if there is a bishop who is highly placed who has enormous influence, and the rumors are persistent and credible, why don’t you hire investigators? Instead of just shrugging your shoulders and saying ‘We have no proof'’’

Proof can be found. When spouses believe their spouses are cheating, often they hire an investigator. To just say, “Well, no one offered me any proof,” I find that lame and incredibly irresponsible. And of course, investigators should be hired for reports of abuse by any priest of any person.

Sadly, in this day and age, there should be really deep background checks of men being proposed to be bishops. What has been done up to now is clearly not sufficient. 


Do you think that U.S. seminarians in general are adequately protected from bishops, rectors, or other people in authority that could prey upon them sexually?

I strongly doubt that they are adequately warned about what they might face in the presbyterates into which they are entering. I have heard and read horror stories of young priests being preyed upon by homosexual priests and who have reported the abuse to their bishop and other diocesan personnel. Rather than being protected, the young priests have been told to keep quiet about it — that the predator could ruin their lives.


What do you think should be done about the #MeToo sex abuse in seminaries? 

I hope I am not being naïve (sadly, I am constantly learning that I am) but I don’t think there will be a significant #MeToo abuse movement in respect to current seminaries (though ANY abuse is outrageously wrong). But there really should be a #MeToo movement about homosexual abuse in seminaries in the past and in the priesthood both in the past and currently. 

It won’t be easy for men to come forward — they are likely mortified that they submitted to the vile approaches made to them. We will need some mechanism for reporting that does not endanger their privacy and protects them from retaliation.


How seriously do you take reports of the presence of “lavender mafias” in the priesthood?

I am convinced that they are present in nearly every diocese. And that they control some dioceses.


Why haven’t the bishops done anything about these “lavender mafias”?

I think there are a lot of good bishops who don’t want to tolerate this, but they have inherited many messes as well as the mess of a homosexual network. I don’t want to make excuses for bishops but understanding their situation is a necessary part of any solution. Dealing with sex abuse crises, closing schools and churches and trying to foster orthodoxy and build vocations consumes enormous amounts of time and energy. They have also inherited a culture that holds that if a priest has not done something criminal his private life is his private life. 

Certainly, rightly and very sadly, they fear that they will lose too many priests if the active homosexuals leave, perhaps 5%-50%. Parishes will close; services will be limited; many laity will be furious (though, others, of course, are willing to pay the price to have things cleaned up). And how could they not fear being labeled as homophobic? Finally, they also may fear what kind of “outing” of others the dismissed active homosexuals may engage in. 

Eradicating the presence of the homosexual networks in their dioceses has to be of the highest priority for bishops. If it hasn’t been before, it has to be now.

I don’t think we should attempt to force out negligent bishops — few will not have been negligent. First, who will replace them? Second, if they do what needs to be done now – and it won’t be without a price (see previous paragraph) — they will have done a great deal. A sign of their true colors will be their willingness to do public penance of some serious kind.


Do you think there is a connection between the sexual abuse of seminarians and priests, and the widespread child sex abuse crisis that exploded to the forefront little more than a decade ago?

Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that the priesthood became for some time a haven for men whose sexuality was not healthy. The previous crisis dealt largely with pedophiles and homosexual predators of young men. 

Now we need to deal with the active homosexuals in the priesthood, for they are engaged in seriously immoral behavior, which has a corrosive effect all efforts to teach, live and promote the gospel. 

Let it be said that there are certainly priests who experience same-sex attraction who are leading chaste lives — if we could we would give them awards for what has to be an heroic effort in such an environment.


How much do you think this is related to the sexual revolution? 

Hugely. And, as everyone knows by now, I think the pill was the major element that fueled the sexual revolution. When people became convinced that having sex did not need to be an act of “making love and making life,” sex became “just sex” — just a momentary intense physical pleasure that could be engaged in by any consenting person, no matter what their sex. And so men who had a homosexual inclination in the priesthood concluded that there was no reason for them not to enjoy sexual pleasures. They reasoned (even if unconsciously), “Spouses are using contraception and rendering their acts nonprocreative, so how do our acts differ from theirs?” 


What happens when seminarians and young priests are coerced or pressured into sex acts by their superiors?

It’s horrendous. It’s corrupting a young man who wants to dedicate his life to the Lord. And then you’ve not only gravely harmed that young man, which is horrible, but you deny the Church a vocation. 

An abused young man might leave or he might stay and decide that he, too, is a homosexual, and he becomes part of the network. What kind of an effective witness can he be to the hard truths that the Church expects us to live? He can’t be. It is ruination of so many things.


If the Church hierarchy is going to show they are serious about this issue, what steps do they need to take immediately?

It grieves me that we cannot trust the bishops to take care of this internally. Surely there are trustworthy bishops but unfortunately now all of them live under the same cloud. It seems very likely that they will set up a lay commission to look into the McCarrick case. I am afraid, though, that once that investigation is over, too many bishops will think the crisis is behind them and they can move on. 

We can’t let that happen. I fear too few bishops realize that a powerful group of laity is outraged at the control that the lavender mafias have over dioceses and the damage they have done to the priesthood and the Church. I know many who are brainstorming about how we can help move the bishops to “clean up” the priesthood, even though — let me never tire of saying it — it is going to be terribly costly. Some dioceses will lose so many priests that parishes may have to close and Masses will need be said in the local stadium, or so many people will leave the Church, Masses will be able to be said in a closet. 

Those of us who are in a position to do something are not going to “go after” the bishops. We want to find ways to help the good bishops clean up their diocese and to expose bad bishops who won’t cooperate. We love the Church, and we believe that telling the truth serves the Church.

There needs to be a “place” where priests, seminarians, and lay people can report instances of abuse without fear of reprisal. Every bishop needs to tell the priests, the seminarians in his diocese (diocesan and religious), and the lay people, “Tell everything. Everything.” 

A trusted group of laypeople with the help of law enforcement experts will determine which accusations seem credible and do what investigations need to be done to ensure that they are. And then some procedure will be developed for working with the local bishop to clean up the mess. If a bishop won’t cooperate, methods need to be devised for dealing with that scandalous reality.

And, of course, it is not just the lavender mafia that is a scandalous and toxic problem in the priesthood. There is no place in the priesthood for adulterers, substance abuses, power-hungry narcissists and the ever-present problem of clericalism. 

In the long run we hope to help bishops see the need to foster a more Christian, more ascetic, spiritual life among their priests — modelling all this themselves. And we need to help the seminaries form men who seek holiness and retain their backbones.


What can the laity do right now?

We should certainly pray and fast and try to keep our faith strong and that of others.

We also need to help other Catholics see how seriously bad the presence of homosexual networks in the Church is. We should write letters to our bishop. We should 1) commend our bishop for the good works he has done 2) demand a clean-up of whatever homosexual network exists in the diocese. Carefully give evidence if we have some prefaced by “I have heard; I don’t know if it is true but I have heard it enough to think queries if not an investigation should be made.” Demand that if there are credible accusations against priests and more evidence is needed, that private investigators need to be hired 3) tell him that if cleaning up the homosexual network means that there will be such a priest shortage that parishes will close and services will be curtailed, say that we will stand by him and support his actions 4) that a lay board be set up to which priests and others can make charges of sexual harassment by the bishop himself and priests and the particularly priests can report any mistreatment from the bishop without fear of reprisals; 5) send the bishop copies of the best articles published expressing lay outrage; 6) promise to pray and fast for him 7) send copies of your letter to DiNardo and the nuncio; 8) get signatures of others who may not be inclined to write; 9) ask for a reply. Be polite but firm. And write again every month until something is done. If we don’t get a satisfactory reply, we need to consider writing to the public newspaper.

Peter Jesserer Smith is a Register staff writer.