When Bishops Get it Right

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The long-awaited McCarrick report came out of the Vatican recently, outlining the decades of abuse and manipulation of the now defrocked ex-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

The best and probably most holy response to it should be stunned silence. No, it’s not ok that Pope John Paul II elevated McCarrick despite hearing rumors. No, it’s not ok that Pope Benedict XVI put essentially meaningless sanctions on him that hardly stopped him at all (if at all) from globe trotting. And no, it was not ok that Pope Francis simply assumed his two predecessors had vetted and dealt with him. I don’t think any amount of spinning should keep us from hanging our heads in shame, even if it was only a matter of gross negligence or ignorance and not outright corruption that kept him where he was.

I said I’d write this post in a podcast last week, so I feel obligated to do it, but honestly, I can’t add too much here that hasn’t already been said. I found this video from Bishop Barron helpful in sorting through this mess as a Catholic person. The long and short of it is that the whole thing stinks, as you would expect.

But the larger question that always comes to mind for me whenever we revisit the sexual sins of our institution is this: what is the church doing about it? For that, I’ll tell you a story I mentioned in another post. (Forgive the repetition)

A very charismatic, conservative priest in our parish a few years ago was revitalizing our community almost singlehandedly. More families were coming, drawn to the clear Catholic teaching coming from the pulpit. Sisters were added to our community. It was wonderful.

Then, suddenly, the bishop of our diocese – his boss – pulled him out. A woman had made accusations against him of crossing ministerial lines no priest should cross with any woman, and the bishop felt these needed to be thoroughly examined before he was allowed to continue in public ministry.

The examination process dragged on not for weeks, or months, but years. Speculation circled around the community that the real reason the bishop had pulled the priest out was because the priest or those close to him had blown the whistle on homosexual clergy in the area. Many rallied to his side and protested against the bishop – some even demanding the bishop resign. While all this was going on, the priest was kept in limbo, apparently unable to defend himself or face his accuser.

The reputation of the bishop became lower and lower in the eyes of the laity. People became frustrated and more and more suspected foul play. Surely the bishop was trying to silence this conservative priest.

Finally, though, the whole truth came out. The priest had in fact taken advantage of not just one woman, but a few in our own parish and possibly elsewhere. These were emotionally vulnerable women, and he used his spiritual authority to draw them closer to himself in a disturbing way. They were scarred in ways they are still trying to recover from.

This is a tragedy, certainly. None of this should have ever happened. Priests should know better.

On the other hand, though, the story is encouraging. The priest could be held accountable not in spite of the Catholic bureaucracy but because of it. A bishop decided, despite the loud cries of the laity, to pull a charismatic, young, very talented man out of a parish because he cared more about the vulnerable than outward success. This is what a shepherd is supposed to do.

I think that kind of story, which you won’t often hear in the media, is happening, too, all over the place. About two decades ago, when the really big priest scandal broke out, Pope Benedict XVI brought real, substantial reform. This reform took root especially in the United States. You’ll notice that typically, when we talk about a “priest abuse scandal” now, it’s something that happened decades ago before these reforms were put in place.

There was protocol put in place to deal with abusing priests, but not bishops (God only knows why!). With the McCarrick scandal, though, that’s changing as well.

Now, Pope Francis has allowed, in a truly unprecedented way, the full exposition of just how bad the McCarrick situation was. The report is over four hundred pages long with countless interviews. It paints a very unflattering picture of hierarchical abuse, imprudence, and negligence. It’s incredibly transparent for the large bureaucracy of the Vatican. And transparency is exactly what we need if the church is going to be a safe space for everyone.

Am I saying all this to somehow absolve the clergy of their sins of abuse and gross negligence? No. Does any of this change the fact that the victims will spend the rest of their lives living with horrible memories and emotional scars? No, not at all.

But the only meaningful atonement the church can make for these sins – the only way it can pay back it’s debt at least in some way to those who have been abused sexually, emotionally, physically, or spiritually by those in the Catholic church – is to change how it does things. It needs to take seriously the men and women who courageously come out against abusive priests, bishops and cardinals. Actions, not words, are what real repentance is made of.

I pray that what the church has done so far to protect the sheep from the wolves in shepherd’s clothing will be added to and grow. The institution will never be perfect. But by God’s grace it can change. Unfortunately, this side of heaven, that is the best any of us can hope for.

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