Given that church ministers, catechists, and Catholic adults in the world are looked up to for answers about the Church, including its inner working, it is imperative that anyone in a church leadership role [say, as an adult education teacher] have accurate information at the ready, not hearsay. Every national dinner hour television news ran the McCarrick Report alongside the national Covid-19 spread and the election vote-counting on Tuesday evening. To get caught flatfooted by a fellow parishioner who is angry, distraught, or looking for information is unprofessional for a Catholic minister. On the other hand, as I review dozens of Catholic blogsites nearly daily to get the grass roots pulse, I see more posters upset about the election returns than the serious revelations of Pope John Paul II’s mismanagement of abusive bishops, though I have come across pockets of communities which advocate removing the name of the canonized pope from church entities.
How does a local catechist or pastor awaken and explain this current crisis in the Church? And trust me, it needs to be addressed. Too many good folks have left the institutional practice of Catholicism already because of an absence of transparency and honesty on the part of Church leaders. Some former brethren, sadly, are victims themselves of clerical perpetrators and the bishops who failed to address the problem. Many more are angry and perceive [often rightly] that portions of their offertory funds are being diverted from ministry to pay damages and lawyers, much of this information hidden in non-disclosure settlements. Before any meaningful ministry of evangelization can get off the ground, there must be a clearing of the air as well as institutional/attitudinal reform of the exercise of Church ministry.
First, how has your parish responded to the clergy abuse scandal since the story burst on to the American scene in 2002 with the Boston Globe’s investigative reporting, portrayed recently in the film “Spotlight?” My impression is that if abuse occurred in a parish [or in widespread numbers in a diocese], there is a much greater psychological and spiritual impact, and heightened publicity of abusive events such as new revelations about Cardinal McCarrick can trigger relapses and emotional discomfort. Parish staffs may want to keep an ear to the ground for distressed members in the current flurry of publicity.
Parishes such as mine, which have had no reported clerical abuse cases in its thirty-year history, may possess a blissfully ignorant congregation which has little grasp of the scope or the damage suffered by Catholics around the country and around the world. The risk of complacence, “that type of thing happens in Boston or Buffalo but not here,” sometimes needs a pastoral reminder or jolt that bad things can happen anywhere.
Second, Catholics need reminding that the narrative of clerical abuse has evolved over the years. In 2002 the Church was reeling from the sheer numbers of clergy and victims. Over the next decade the complicity of many bishops in cover-up became the focus, and a few were arrested and sent to jail. In 2017-2018 the tentacles of cover-up were discovered to reach higher than local bishops, into the highest ranks of the Church. In very recent years the influence of money for protection, promotion, and other favors came into general focus, such as the case of Bishop Bransfield of West Virginia  and of course McCarrick.
For some years now just about every diocese in the United States has developed strict protocols on the protection of minors and, in my own diocese, the handling of money at every level. While these painstaking steps should be applauded, it is painfully evident that no protocols exist for bishops, some of whom use cash gifts, promotion, and intimidation to buy favor and, evidently, protection if that was needed.
Third, clericalism at the very least hindered internal church discipline and gave many priests and bishops a false sense of security. I have read several hundred individual abuse investigation reports over the past two decades. One of the most common features of clerical-lay interactions in an abuse allegation is the contempt of clerics for lay persons seeking help. [There are several such examples in the McCarrick Report.] A common theme is a complaint made by the parents of a minor abuse victim to a local pastor or officer of the diocese about a specific priest. Often local dioceses use the old philosophical medieval maxim of “Ockham’s Razor,” which roughly translated means “the simplest answer is usually the right one.”
Thus, the local priest or chancery official consoles the parents/victims that “there must be a misunderstanding and I’ll have a good talk with Father X. You don’t need to worry about this anymore.” If the parents are not so easily dismissed, the pastor may appeal to their standing in the Church with reminders that “rumors like this can destroy the Body of Christ,” or in my classmate’s favorite phrase, “pious drivel.” If the parents or adult victims are adamant and litigious, they may get an interview with a diocesan official with promises of follow-up, and in a few cases, funds for counseling. Often, their complaints were buried. The grip of clericalism in hiding abuse was only broken when the clerical structure finally faced an immutable force, civil law enforcement.
Clericalism’s central pillar is an interpretation of Catholic theology that an ordained priest is, by nature of the Sacrament of Orders, a superior man. Sacramentally speaking, a priest is unique in the Church in the way he serves it, as leader and gatherer around the Eucharistic banquet and the other sacraments of life in the Apostolic tradition. Clericalism holds that a priest is better than a layman, period, in the natural order of things. Seminaries and certain devotional trends promote the idea that a priest as priest is superior to lay persons, the thinking goes, and the need to protect his elevated status in all circumstances supersedes any other considerations even when criminal activity is involved. The optic of the Church becomes the Roman collar, not the pouring of baptismal water which raises all the faithful to the priesthood of Christ.
John Paul II was a fierce defender of the image of the priesthood: in 1992 in Pastores Dabo Vobis [para. 20] [or “I will give you shepherds”] he wrote: “Therefore, since every priest in his own way represents the person of Christ himself, he is endowed with a special grace. By this grace the priest, through his service of the people committed to his care and all the People of God, is able the better to pursue the perfection of Christ, whose place he takes. The human weakness of his flesh is remedied by the holiness of him who became for us a high priest 'holy, innocent, undefiled, separated from sinners' (Heb. 7:26).” It is not unthinkable that Pope John Paul’s idealism regarding the image of the Church and the priesthood impacted his ability to separate the sheep from the goats, so to speak. As Cardinal Timothy Dolan wrote in 2011, we have many “John Paul II seminarians and priests” who identify with their uniqueness and do not grasp Pope Francis’ call for clerics to “smell like their sheep.”
It is also true that there is clericalism within clericalism. The crux of the McCarrick Report is John Paul’s appointment of McCarrick to the Archdiocese of Washington in November 2000 against the advice of laity, seminarians, priests, bishops and even Cardinal John O’Connor of New York. McCarrick had, by 2000, been refused three major promotions by the Vatican for his lifestyle [including the Washington, D.C., position which he ultimately attained after a second review.] While the November 10 report cites numerous examples of “bishops behaving badly” in McCarrick’s vetting, the pope elected to make the appointment by his own judgment, overriding both the brotherhood of the priesthood and the wisdom of the baptized faithful knowledgeable of the case.
Fourth, priests and parishioners need to understand the nature of their relationship, both in terms of Church Law [Canon Law] and, equally important, their day to day coexistence in parish life. A good way to start a conversation might be a parish-wide study and pulpit reflection on the nature of the parish, based upon Canon Law and a reasonably understand of what a parish is. [Over lunch yesterday with one of my old catechetical students, I complained that parishes should have been doing this kind of reflection during the Covid-19 restrictions when there was enforced time to stay home and pursue the important things in life we don’t usually address. “We’ve wasted a catechetical year,” I lamented, and worse, we have the technology to do this sort of thing and didn’t use it.]
For years I have heard the complaint that priests do not understand the challenges of the laity, and as a former pastor I will own that. But it is equally true that parish members do not understand the challenges to conscientious priests, either. There are two texts which strike me as honest descriptions of priestly parish life, a pair of studies of case histories of priests in the ministry. The National Opinion Research Center [NORC] undertook significant studies of Catholic priests in the context of Christian leadership for the new millennium. The first volume, The First Five Years of the Priesthood, was released in 2002, and Experiences of Priests Ordained Five to Nine Years arrived in 2006. Just slightly dated—the influx of international priests to pastorates in the United States has accelerated and, in some ways, compounded preexisting challenges—the works may open eyes to a healthy commiseration and trust that priests, as a rule, are disgusted with malfeasance by their bishops or the Vatican as much as their parishioners.
A good deal of local church conflict with pastors involves matters already set in stone. Parishes are bound by Canon Law to have a finance council to advise the pastor, who by the same law does have the last word on fiscal decisions. From experience I can say that a pastor is treading difficult terrain who ignores frank concerns of the parish family. While Canon Law states that Bishops may mandate parish councils throughout their dioceses, the last research, around 2010, indicates that about half of the U.S. Church operate with established pastoral or parish councils. More recent research has found that many priests, notably younger clergy, have difficulty dealing with the laity than in the earlier decades after Vatican II. Consequently, I put more hope in less structured and more personal and trusting interactions between the priests and people of any given parish.
With the demand for priests so high, some bishops are ordaining men with obvious personality disorders. These sorts of preconditions are not cured by prayer and experience. When combined with the hubris of an imperial theology of priesthood, honesty and transparency will lose every time. Congregations and, worse, individuals, can suffer significant disdain and wounds from poor pastoral interactions. We are past the time of grin and bear it. It is not a sacrilege to report first-hand poor pastoral interactions with a priest to a bishop or his delegate in the chancery. [I am assuming here that readers are already familiar with the civil obligations of reporting child abuse.] As a counselor I have advised such a course of action to a few patients who suffered from thoughtless pastoral insensitivity. The usual objection is that “they won’t take me seriously” or “nothing will be done.” The McCarrick Report is witness enough to that. But I reply that a complaint or a report makes the next complaint from another person much more believable.
This is the end of a rather long post, I will admit. I began it last Tuesday. I have added to it throughout the week while I am caring for my wife, Margaret. She was injured and somewhat incapacitated by a bicycling accident on October 24 that required surgery on November 3. She is doing well but still has significant therapy coming down the road. Keep her in your prayers. And I promise some upbeat posts coming along this week.