It is inconceivable that any bishop would stand before a congregation and give them the following instructions:
If you commit a serious sin against the community, your first obligation is to conceal it.
If an accuser comes forward, deny the offense and condemn the accuser as someone who simply wants to besmirch your name.
If that doesn’t quiet the accuser, offer payment for the person’s silence.
If that fails, hire the best lawyers in town.
And if, finally, you have no escape, go to settlement and apologize to anyone who may have been hurt by your “mistakes.”
The scenario is unthinkable, but it is also descriptive of the very behavior that Catholics have witnessed among their leaders, with slight variations, for the past 30 years.
Those of us who have reported on the scandal for the past three decades, who have read through endless pages of horrific accounts and unfathomably slippery depositions, understand the descriptive exhaustion that Dominican Fr. Tom Doyle displays in his essay. There are no words left to adequately describe the level of deceit and corruption that existed in bishops’ residences and chancery offices across this land as thousands of priests, hidden and protected by bishops, abused tens of thousands of our children.
Barbara Blaine writes powerfully of how such abuse and utterly callous treatment by church officials can derail a life. She got hers back on track and became a leading advocate for victims. It is impossible to overstate the significance of the work of abuse survivors in bringing the church to some degree of accountability. Whatever progress occurred came about only because of pressure from outside the clergy culture.
NCR was the first publication that was both national and Catholic to deal with this ugly story at a time when few, including the editors here, could imagine the dimensions of the scandal.
Over the decades, the church has made progress in addressing the issue, most notably under Pope Francis with his tribunal for bishops and the forced resignations of bishops who have failed in their handling of sex abuse cases. But all of that still must be accompanied by a serious qualification: None of it happened voluntarily. All of it was forced by public pressure.
What remains is a void little spoken about but perhaps the longest-lasting and least-attended-to effect of the scandal. The failure of the bishops was not merely strategic or an example of extreme incompetence, though that all was certainly part of the case. The deeper failure was their betrayal, at a sacramental level, of the community they were charged to serve.
In their deceptions and rationales, they put aside the God of love and justice and mercy. They put aside the God who summoned the little children. They put aside, for venal reasons, the God of life they so ardently preached.
If we believe that God infuses every aspect of our lives, that that sacramental reality is a distinctive element of Catholic life, we are left wondering how our bishops, in their worst hour, could time and again turn their backs on that reality.
Peter, we know, made no excuses, didn’t try to spin his denial. He “wept bitterly.” The community today waits, wondering what sacramental act might restore trust so deeply broken.