‘What Do You Want to Know?’ The Catholic Reaction to Bishops and Sex Abuse
ANALYSIS: Anyone who finds it difficult to understand the anger and resentment of Catholics toward their bishops in recent weeks need look no further than a 2011 story involving the bishop of Allentown.
WASHINGTON — Among the sexual abusers mentioned in the Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report, one priest merits particular attention.
Father David Szatkowski of the Priests of the Sacred Heart of Jesus is mentioned in the section of the report concerning the Diocese of Allentown. In 2011, he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a child.
In August of that year, Father Szatkowski, then professor at Sacred Heart School of Theology in Franklin, Wisconsin, attended an academic conference in La Crosse. The priest, drunk late one night of the conference, approached a group of teenage girls outside his hotel, talked with them for a while, telling them that he was a lawyer and acting, in the words of one witness, “touchy.” Eventually, witness accounts and police reports say, Szatkowski forcibly embraced a 15-year-old girl and groped her breasts.
Several months later, prosecutors announced in a statement that they had dropped the charges, in “consultation with the victim about her wishes regarding the outcome of the case.”
Father Szatkowski, charged with sexually assaulting a child but not convicted, serves now on the “formation team” of his religious community, working with young aspirants to priesthood.
The priest does not stand out in the grand jury report because of the gravity of his case. Indeed, allegations against Father Szatkowski are not mentioned in the report at all. Instead, he is mentioned because, three years after facing criminal charges for sexually assaulting a child, he was permitted by then-Bishop John Barres of Allentown to serve as the canon lawyer — the procurator and advocate, in technical terms — for Father Michael Lawrence, a diocesan priest accused of sexually assaulting two adolescent boys.
In fact, Bishop Barres frequently referenced Father Szatkowski’s canonical advocacy in a 2014 letter written to stave off the possibility that the Vatican might laicize Father Lawrence. In that letter, the bishop said the priest should “live a permanent life of prayer and penance” under a “supervised way of life.”
The Diocese of Rockville Centre, where Bishop Barres presently serves, told CNA that the bishop "did not know of the allegations against Father Szatkowski." The priest's arrest, charges and dismissal were reported by the media and acknowledged publicly in 2011 by his religious superior.
The diocese also told CNA that "a person in a canonical proceeding has the right to choose his own counsel." In fact, the Code of Canon Law says that a canonical advocate must be approved by the diocesan bishop and "be of good reputation."
This extraordinary turn of events bears repeating. In 2014, a bishop allowed a priest who had been charged with criminal sexual abuse of a child to serve as the canon lawyer for another priest charged with criminal sexual abuse of a child. The Diocese of Rockville Centre told CNA that Szatkowski "fulfilled the requirements to serve in that capacity."
Anyone who finds it difficult to understand the anger and resentment of Catholics toward their bishops in recent weeks need look no further than that story.
It is not breaking news that priests have committed unspeakable acts of sexual abuse. Nor is it news that bishops have acted negligently, failing to use their authority responsibly.
Since at least 2002, sexual abuse committed by priests in the United States has been catalogued and made publicly available in media reports, depositions, lawsuits and police reports. And in that same time period, the negligence of bishops has been well-documented.
But the grand jury report released Aug. 14 is unparalleled in scope, magnitude, and in the level of detail it provides. And the report was released as the Catholic Church in the United States was already in the midst of the serious crisis that began when credible sex abuse allegations against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were announced June 20.
Unlike the 2002 reports of clerical sexual abuse, the Pennsylvania report was also released in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and after revelations emerged of sexually abusive and coercive behaviors among figures in positions of power in other professional, political and cultural contexts. The #MeToo movement has led to a more outspoken cultural opposition to coercive sexual behaviors and the abuse of power. That movement is the lens through which many Catholics are now viewing sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Church.
As a consequence of those things, the report has led to expressions of outrage, confusion, hurt, and mistrust from priests and deacons, religious sisters and brothers, Catholic and secular media outlets, ordinary lay Catholics and from other Christians.
Commentators have condemned the alleged and suspected acts of abuse themselves, and the documented responses of bishops to that abuse. But they have mostly focused their anger on the apologies, statements of regret and contrition, and explanations that bishops have offered in recent weeks.
The response seems to exceed even the anger on display during the “Long Lent of 2002,” which could also be attributed, at least partially, to the fact that Catholics have already gone through this experience, and many expected that the crisis had been abated, and that bishops were not tolerating coercive sexual immorality in the Church. The Archbishop McCarrick revelations dashed those expectations. The grand jury report has been like acid poured into the newly opened wound.
Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, formerly the bishop of Pittsburgh, has received some of the most serious criticism. Cardinal Wuerl, already facing questions about his knowledge, negligence or complicity in allegations against Archbishop McCarrick, now faces the accusation that he negligently permitted at least one sexual abuser to remain in priestly ministry after allegations were known to his diocese.
It should be noted that Cardinal Wuerl has disputed many assertions contained in the grand jury report, as has Bishop Emeritus Donald Trautman of Erie. It should also be noted that the report contains allegations that have not been subject to a trial, and that serious objections have been raised about whether the due process rights of those named in the report have been respected. Eventually, sources tell CNA, questions will also be asked about Pennsylvania's attorney general, whose office drafted the text of the grand jury report, and about his political motivations.
It should also be mentioned that the grand jury reported predominantly on crimes that took place decades ago. The report recognized that “much has changed over the last fifteen years,” affirmed much about contemporary child protection policies, and noted the efforts of Pennsylvania’s current bishops to be transparent and forthcoming.
But at the moment, most Catholics are uninterested in explanations, or in discussions of the report’s finer points. The statements issued by Pennsylvania’s bishops, by Cardinal Wuerl, and by the leadership of the USCCB have seemed only to fuel anger.
In fact, Cardinal Wuerl and his staff have faced especially sharp criticism for launching a website, “thewuerlrecord.com,” that purported to “provide additional content not included in the [grand jury] report on Cardinal Wuerl’s work as longtime advocate and voice on this issue.” The site lasted fewer than two days before being taken down, amid calls from several prominent commentators for Cardinal Wuerl’s immediate resignation.
It is worth asking what, exactly, Catholics now want from their leaders, what has prevented some bishops from satisfactorily addressing sexual abuse and the fallout from recent revelations, and how the Church can now respond to an obviously significant point of crisis.
The grand jury report’s introduction says that in the face of sexual abuse allegations, bishops seemed preoccupied with managing “scandal,” rather than addressing problems. The report lists a series of actions it calls a “playbook for concealing truth,” among them the use of euphemisms like “boundary violation” in place of words like “rape,” the unwillingness to conduct investigations professionally, and the unwillingness to inform parishioners when a priest has been accused of sexual abuse.
In short, the report depicted a culture in which appearances are more important than reality. That culture seems at the root of the anger Catholics have expressed in recent weeks, over the McCarrick scandal, and over the grand jury’s investigation.
In commentaries, comments and on social media, many Catholics have characterized bishops’ responses to recent revelations and allegations as bureaucratic, robotic and self-serving.
The hierarchy’s response to the grand jury report, and to the McCarrick scandal that preceded it, has also been criticized as “corporate,” more concerned with spin, damage control and personal reputations than with the victims of sexual abuse, or with the Catholics who feel betrayed by bishops who promised, in 2002, “never again.”
Where, many Catholics have asked, is a bishop willing to take responsibility for what has happened, and willing to make amends?
Where, many Catholics have asked, is a bishop willing to change the culture of the Church? Where, they have asked, is honesty?
Concretely, Catholics seem to be calling for three things.
The first is genuine expression of authentic contrition, sorrow and regret. This is what many Catholics say has most been lacking in recent months.
We live in the age of the cultural and visual meme, and bishops seem to be expected to understand this. This means that expressions of contrition are expected to be more than words offered between explanations and calls for new policy. Catholics, especially young Catholics, say they are looking for simple, direct and straightforward apologies, followed by signs of repentance.
Sackcloth and ashes may not prove necessary, but humility and authenticity will. Some have suggested Masses celebrated solemnly and penitentially with victims. Others have suggested public and personal pilgrimages and acts of repentance. The form matters.
But what seems to matter most to many Catholics is hearing, and seeing, that bishops are genuinely horrified by things that have happened among their own brothers, and on their watch, and that they perceive, and admit, a sense of personal responsibility.
The second thing Catholics seem to be calling for is open disclosure of the Church’s problems, and consistent lay involvement in the adjudication of clerical personnel issues. This call is for a broad culture change. A call for transparency, openness and direct lay involvement in handling priest personnel issues is, in short, a call for a rejection of the clericalism that, by many accounts, is endemic among bishops, without ideological or generational discrimination.
In short, many Catholics have told CNA in recent weeks they hope that their bishops will invest in a renewed sense of collaborative and missionary leadership, and that they believe that will require eschewing a common perception that bishops must be primarily overseers of diocesan business and administrative affairs.
But meaningful lay involvement in personnel matters is a difficult thing for the Church to mandate, beyond the existing requirement for diocesan review boards, because of the Church’s theological understanding of the governance ministry of bishops, and because lay professional Church administrators can become as institutionalized as clerical collaborators, and can be, for reasons of job security, reticent to blow the whistle when bishops act negligently.
Without clear guidelines and some protections for employees, “lay involvement” can easily become a kind of Potemkin consultation, where laypeople are around, but decisions are mostly made after they leave the room.
To encourage broader and more meaningful lay involvement in episcopal decision-making, the Church would likely need to develop a means of listening to existing lay ecclesial administrators, considering their concerns, and training bishops for meaningful engagement with lay collaborators.
But more than any particular model, combating clericalism seems to require bishops who are allergic to clerical insularity, and intolerant of it among their priests.
There are bishops in the United States who, by many accounts, embody and exhibit that approach to episcopal leadership. It remains to be seen whether they will emerge as leaders in the months to come.
Finally, Catholics seem to be calling for a plan to address sexual immorality among the episcopate, in seminaries and among priests. Across ideological perspectives, there seems in recent weeks to be a recognition that predatory sexual behavior of any kinds is enabled by environments in which priests are not formed for chastity, and in which clerical obligations of continence and chastity are not taken seriously. Proposals for new episcopal oversight committees, for new review boards or charters have largely been panned.
What bishops will have to determine is how they can express a profound and serious commitment to sexual morality among clerics without seeming to abdicate their responsibilities, focus unduly on response rather than prevention, or pay only lip service to the development of healthy and chaste sexuality.
The challenge is going to prove incredibly difficult.
There are several things that could derail the bishop’s efforts to restore trust in the Church, and to move forward from the crisis point the Church has reached.
The first is the threat of litigation. The effect of the fear of litigation on some parts of the Church cannot be overstated, and there are actually some good reasons for this.
Bishops who genuinely want to do right by victims, and are genuinely incensed over clerical sexual abuse, still have reasons — good and bad — to fear the prospect of litigation.
Bishops are responsible to be the stewards of the resources their dioceses have accumulated for the work of the Church — for sacred worship, for education and formation, and for works of charity and mercy. They are eager to see that Catholic apostolates not be shuttered or sold, even when they are genuinely sympathetic to the suffering of victims, and especially because they recognize that a significant portion of money extracted from the Church will go not to victims, but to attorneys. And, even in Pennsylvania, bishops who face litigation today usually are asked to be responsible for bad decisions made by their predecessors.
Bishops have also pointed out that the Church sometimes faces inequitable laws with regard to litigation, that laws that protect public institutions but not the Church have made it a particularly attractive target for plaintiff’s attorneys. There is legitimacy to that claim.
The Pennsylvania grand jury has called for a tort claims window that would allow alleged victims whose claims are impeded by the statute of limitations a period of time in which to file lawsuits. The Pennsylvania Legislature is likely to take up that cause, and other state legislatures will likely follow suit. Bishops have argued in the past that statutes of limitations exist for good reason; that claims exceeding those statutes cannot be seriously investigated or defended against. This, some have argued, means that cases exceeding statutes of limitations invariably lead to settlements, even when facts are scant. In many states, those arguments have kept tort claim window legislation at bay.
In Pennsylvania at least, the momentum from the grand jury report may make it difficult for the Church to oppose, or to even to be seen to oppose, such legislation.
How that will impact the bishops’ response to this crisis remains to be seen. Concern for litigation has, in the past, tempered expressions of episcopal contrition, sometimes even beyond recognition. That fear colored and characterized a great deal of the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis of 2002, and, as several dioceses have since gone into bankruptcy, closing ministry centers, parishes and charitable works, the fear has likely been heightened for some bishops since then.
The second factor that could impact the bishops’ response to the current crisis is overreaction to criticism that they are not acting quickly or rigorously enough. In the months to come, bishops will face serious pressure within their own dioceses to give evidence of their zero-tolerance with regard to abuse of any kind. Several priests have told CNA that they are concerned that fear could lead bishops to “scapegoat” priests — to single out priests accused even of noncriminal moral failures, to publicly disclose the private lives of priests, or to otherwise violate the canonical rights of priests, including their rights to due process, in order to be appear to be tough on abuse.
Some priests have noted the experience of this kind of practice in their own dioceses in 2002 and 2003, and suggested it was an impediment, rather than an aid, to real reform.
A third thing that could derail serious ecclesial reform has to do with the call for episcopal resignations. Cardinal Wuerl, in particular, has been the subject of ongoing calls for resignation, along with other bishops. While the Holy See might judge those moves to be justified, they could have the unintended effect of stalling more systematic and cultural change, if they are not managed carefully.
If individual bishops resign, and are then cast as the cause of the problems, the pressure for broader reforms could deflate. The Vatican must ensure that if it accepts the resignation of some bishops, the remaining members of the episcopate remain under pressure to enact the reform efforts the USCCB has said it would like to facilitate.
The grand jury report’s language is unambiguous, its analysis is direct: The report is emphatic in asserting that systematic patterns of negligence have allowed sexual abuse to take root in the Church.
“Failure to prevent abuse was a systemic failure,” the report said, “an institutional failure.” There seems to be broad Catholic agreement with that claim.
This October, Cardinal Wuerl is scheduled to publish a book entitled, “What Do You Want to Know? A Pastor’s Response to the Most Challenging Questions About the Catholic Faith.”
In recent weeks, Cardinal Wuerl has gotten an answer to his question: Catholics want to know what he and other bishops knew, what they’re really sorry for, and what they’re going to do about it.
It remains to be seen whether answers to those questions will be forthcoming.
Editors' Note: Subsequent to the publication of this analysis, the Diocese of Rockville Centre provided CNA with a statement. The analysis was amended on Aug. 20 in light of that statement. CNA did not contact Bishop Barres for comment prior to the analysis' publication and offers an apology to the bishop for that oversight.
- jd flynn
- pennsylvania grand jury report
- cardinal donald wuerl
- bishop john barres
- bishop donald trautman