It was only a year ago that the Pennsylvania grand jury released its report on sexual abuse by priests. It was only a year ago that allegations broke about Theodore McCarrick and the network of sexual abusers who have infiltrated the highest levels of the Church. It was only a year ago that Archbishop Viganò’s explosive accusations of negligence on the part of Pope Francis seemed poised to shake the Vatican itself.
It’s hard to believe. One year out, and we hardly seem closer to any real solutions.
New revelations of abuse continue to trickle in—though sometimes, as with Bishop Michael Bransfield, it’s more of a deluge. All in all, things have unfolded roughly the way many faithful Catholics feared they would. There were tears; there were vague statements of regret; and there were synods and meetings at the Vatican. Donald Cardinal Wuerl stepped down as Archbishop of Washington, though he remains comfortably ensconced in the powerful Congregation for Bishops. After months of discussion, McCarrick was quietly defrocked and lives now in a friary in Kansas, where he continues to insist on his innocence. Any sense that significant changes were at last on the horizon has dissipated.
This is not acceptable.
Our most pressing questions have not been answered. Why did Pope Francis not act when he first heard the charges against McCarrick? Why were predatory priests simply moved from parish to parish in so many dioceses with no accountability? How did it become acceptable within the hierarchy to suppress, ignore, downplay, and outright deny clerical sex abuse?
Perhaps most haunting of all, why are civil authorities at the forefront of investigating abuse within the Church, and not our bishops?
To lay Catholics who are struggling to remain faithful in the midst of the crisis, getting answers to these questions is more than cathartic: it is essential. A scandal of this magnitude demands a response of equal scope, and we haven’t seen that response from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. A crisis of this magnitude merits deep questioning as to why and how this happened, but a far too common response from leaders in the church has been a frenzied attempt to distance themselves from the crisis.
That response will not work forever, though, because civil authorities are still investigating accusations of abuse in various dioceses across the country. Last week in Missouri, the state attorney general referred twelve priests for prosecution after a months-long investigation into hundreds of claims of abuse within Missouri’s four dioceses. His report pointed out that more claims of abuse met the standards for prosecution except that the statute of limitations had passed, meaning that there have possibly been other predatory priests in Missouri. Without such civil investigations, many of these priests would not be held accountable.
The report from Missouri is particularly disturbing because it documents the actions of the archdiocese alongside the actions of abusive priests. In far too many instances it finds that the archdiocese was actively trying to clear priests of abuse charges at the same time that other credible charges of abuse were filed against them.
In one example, defense attorneys hired by the archdiocese were able to reverse a conviction against a certain priest, but even as the trial unfolded the archdiocese fielded five new accusations against him. The archdiocese didn’t even open an internal review of the accusations until the year after the priest’s conviction was reversed, and it didn’t implement an accountability plan until four years after that. They never even took the time to review whether the accusations were credible.
Obviously, it’s important that Catholics not slip into the frenzy that consumed the #MeToo movement and led people to reject due process in favor of mob justice. But neither can we afford to pretend that abuse doesn’t happen.
The abuse crisis has—to put it bluntly—wrecked the American Church. Over a quarter of former Catholics who now describe themselves as non-religious say that the clergy sexual abuse scandal was a major part of their decision, and more than 20 percent of former Catholics who now identify as Protestant say the same thing. The Church’s credibility is in tatters. Faithful priests live under the shadow of suspicion, not to mention dealing with anger and feelings of betrayal. And it’s all because our leaders have, for decades, refused to take the responsibility that is rightfully theirs.
There have been indications in the past year that some dioceses are making changes. The Diocese of Wyoming has been hard at work investigating accusations against priests and has substantiated six allegations thus far. The Diocese of Greensburg in Pennsylvania referred at least 78 complaints to the county district attorney. Other dioceses formed investigatory committees and populated them with retired judges, abuse survivors, and non-Catholics for maximum transparency.
But this doesn’t mean the clergy sex abuse crisis is over. As long as archbishops, bishops, seminary rectors, and priests refuse to take up their God-given responsibility as shepherds of the Church, it never will be.
Shepherds don’t make excuses when a predator attacks their sheep. They don’t move the predator to another flock and hope things improve. No: they give their last breath destroying the threat to their sheep.
One year out and we’re still waiting for our shepherds to step up. How long, O Lord…?
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