The emergent #MeToo clerical movement

Priests too frequently live in fear of the power of their bishop over their lives. It’s time that bishops understand that they cannot afford to abuse their own power without consequences.

Cardinal Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, listens during a Nov. 12 presentation in Baltimore on the centenary of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, held the day before the bishops opened their Nov. 13-14 fall general assembly. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)

Sounding the alarm

In Catholic circles, the news cycle has been dominated by recent news of several high profile bishops, Cardinal McCarrick and Bishop Pineda foremost among them, who are being publically and forcibly called out for their abuse, sexually and otherwise, of seminarians and others in their charge throughout the years.  In the case of Cardinal McCarrick especially, the abuse was an open secret among both clergy and lay faithful.  Unfortunately, no one in the clergy felt they were capable of resisting and calling out these powerful figures.  They were the first victims of these powerful men, and their nascent revolt continues to emerge.  Cardinal McCarrick’s case is specifically egregious because of his predation on minors, which is what began the deluge of accusations against him, which cover virtually his entire priestly ministry.

These accusations have laid bare simultaneously the corruption of morals, along with what I would call a general “nepotism of vice,” that is, promotion within the institution of people who share the same evil character traits as their superior, whether that be avarice, lust, gluttony, careerism, etc.  This sort of practice in all organizations is as old as Adam and Eve, but it is especially jarring in Catholic ones, where currently prelates have virtually absolute power over their priests.  These prelates frequently and routinely violate both civil and canon law in order to punish good priests, and promote compromised ones.  We simply cannot understand the current crisis (a word that is frequently overused in today’s sensationalistic media, yet I think applies here), without understanding the near total breakdown of the relationship of trust between priests and their bishops.

For almost two decades since the abuse scandal hit Boston and started the worldwide reforms, commentators have frequently remarked that the cure of the problem will not come as long as bishops continue to be exempt from the rules they have crafted (with the help of lawyers) for their priests.  Now finally, the seed sown two decades ago is starting to reap its bitter fruit, and priests everywhere may yet awaken and rediscover their strength.

Punishing the innocent, sparing the guilty

Priests of the past fifty years are very aware of the near universal problem of trying to maintain a modicum of sanity, spirituality and leadership in an age of dissolving public morals and increasing litigiousness (the two phenomena are related).  Very many priests are familiar with the “problem” of a priest who wants to evangelize, promote a reverent celebration of Holy Mass and the other liturgies of the Church, and support their faithful in these difficult times, yet face constant suspicion and even direct persecution from their bishops and other officials in their diocesan curiae.  All too often, it appears that the norm is that fidelity is punished, while bishops, even good ones, are fearful of making necessary reforms in the intellectual, spiritual, moral and human dimensions of their clerical culture.

The irony of all this is that the average “good priest,” who lives out the promises of sacred ordination, also tends to have a strong sacramental vision, and so along with it a firm grasp of the potestas sacra, or “sacred power” which priests possess, which includes, especially in the case of a bishop, the power of governing.  And because these priests take such power seriously, they are the least likely to be disobedient, and more likely to doubt their own judgment on matters.  They are thus the most likely to be abused, since, in the words of the old proverb, the willing horse gets beaten the most.  On the opposite side, a priest who habitually lives a worldly, sinful and egocentric life, rarely feels any need to show his bishop any respect or obedience except when it strictly benefits him to do so: hence, these priests often tend to be either sycophants or libertines.  They either become careerists seeking promotion and advancement, or rogue actors who run their affairs unmoored from Church doctrine or discipline.

This causes a double problem then: good priests, because of their very goodness, are the least likely to fight the very powers that oppress them, while the worst priests, because of their very corruption, are the least likely to care about authority in general, and on the contrary, will try to ingratiate themselves to those authorities, and ensure that the status quo be maintained.

Is there a need for a priestly ombudsman?

Although the Church has journeyed through many different processes for the selection and/or deposition of bishops, one cannot help but think that today, as bishops continue to remain unaccountable and structurally immune from challenges to their authority, priests and even lay faithful need some sort of canonical mechanism by which bishops can be held accountable for their malfeasance, especially if that malfeasance is habitual and public.  In theory, priests and lay faithful can have recourse to the Holy See and the pope for their problems, but in practice, Rome has very little coercive power to make bishops obey canon law.

I doubt likewise that the diocesan curia, which is often stacked with people who are tied directly to the bishop’s leadership, much like an ecclesiastical ‘deep state’, possesses the necessary power to act against a bishop who acts immorally or illegally.  Anecdotes abound of vicars for clergy, judicial vicars, and vicars general who routinely have abused their power in ‘obedience’ (which isn’t truly obedience because it is immoral and illegal) to their superior.

I wonder whether a solution may be a sort of “constitutional convention” of clergy in times of public crisis, at which priests have the ability to declare a sort of “no confidence” vote in their superior.  I think this may be justified theologically for several reasons.

Theological reasons for clerical defiance

Firstly, clergy frequently forget that their promises of obedience are conditioned by both the moral law, as well as ecclesiastical law.  If their superior does or commands something immoral or illegal, a cleric is obliged in conscience to resist, like any good Christian in a like situation. Secondly, theologians and historians believe that in the Latin Rite especially, the body language and terminology of the Ordination Rite itself is one taken from vassalage arrangements in the Middle Ages, by which both the liege and the vassal contract obligations and receive rights by mutual agreement.  This can also be seen in the Oaths of Fidelity and petitions for Orders.  Thirdly, priests have a “sacerdotal genealogy” in that they are spiritually linked to their bishop in a filial relationship.  It is expected that children be obedient to their parents as a lawful authority, yet this does not stop us from unequivocally condemning abusive parenting.  Finally and practically, bishops need to remember that they need their priests to carry out their initiatives and help their respective dioceses run.  Priests, if they only understood their power in numbers, could easily oppose and even paralyze their bishop, especially if they galvanized the lay faithful.

What could this look like in a possible reform of canon law?  Perhaps the pope as Supreme Legislator could introduce the possibility that, when a critical mass of priests complain about their bishop, that he be ipso facto suspended until he be investigated by the apostolic nuncio and the Holy See.  Perhaps if something like 40 percent of priests declare a non placet in regard to the leadership of the bishop, said bishop is suspended pending canonical trial.  Perhaps if something like 80-90 percent of priests declare their bishop unfit for office, such a bishop is ipso facto deposed as bishop of their diocese.  Each public vote would have a stated reason for it, and only convened for violations of faith, morals, or the discipline of the Church as stipulated in the Canons.

Moving from “jus” to “munus”

Priests too frequently live in fear of the power of their bishop over their lives.  It’s time that bishops understand that they cannot afford to abuse their own power without like consequences.  At the same time, many of these crises, which are homegrown and contagious in nature, could easily be nipped in the bud on a local level, way before complaints reach the ears of the Pope, often because of journalistic scandal or public outrage. No faithful Catholic will deny that a bishop has potestas sacra and the right to govern his own diocese.  Yet we must remember that the munus gubernandi is not a jus gubernandi.  The power of governance is a munus, which in the rich and multivalent Latin means both “gift” and “burden.”  The power of governance is not called, like in the language of civil government, a jus or “right.”  Thus, implicit in our own theological and canonical language, is the idea that the bishop cannot and must not rule as a Persian prince or Byzantine emperor, but as a man who acts humbly and lovingly as Servus Servorum Dei, most principally as father and servant of his priests, who in turn offer him loving and integral obedience.

Doing this in my opinion will promote more of a relationship of trust and respect, because the rights of both priests and bishops will be respected, and their mutual obligations reinforced.  Although I admit in some dioceses this may initially cause discontent between the clergy and their bishops, and that ‘toxic’ presbyterates do exist, I do think the alternative we have now, with record low morale among the clergy, cannot stand for long.  Clergy who are depressed, unjustly persecuted and unhappy are in spiritual danger, and their parishes, schools and other ministries will be impacted, as they are right now.  It is thus a spiritual and moral imperative to see to the welfare of priests, because they set the tone for much of the reality of the local Church, down to the parish level.

In closing, I want to state that none of my thoughts are absolutely complete or absolutely necessary, but I do think something must be done, because the whirlwind is coming for the world’s bishops, and they must rise to the same standards which they expect of their spiritual sons, or else be swept away by revolt, not born of principle directed toward reform, but of spite, directed toward schism and dissolution.

[This essay originally appeared on the Scutum et Lorica site and is reprinted here by kind permission of the author.)

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About Aquae Regiae 11 Articles
Aquae Regiae is the Nom de plume of Fr. Michael, a Catholic priest in the United States. He is the founder and main editor of Scutum et Lorica. He has two earned Masters Degrees in Divinity and Arts.


  1. Having spoken in nearly 100 dioceses of the United States, I can confirm that the morale of priests is abysmal — in their estimation, due to the princely attitude of their bishops or of their bishops’ permitting diocesan bureaucrats to control the lives of priests. Ironically, this is not usually directed toward left-leaning priests but toward “conservatives,” on the Irish principle, I suppose, that “the willing horse gets flogged the most.”

    • Fr., think of the “morale” of those who have been and continue to be abused. Think of the faithful Catholics who are subjected daily to the blasphemy, sacrileges, and mocking of Christ that is the norm in every diocese in the entire world.

      The entire edifice, the institutional Church, is a cesspool of corruption and vice from the top down. Unless the majority of the clergy, from the false prophet at the top is not thrown out, “the problem” is never going to be resolved. But how do you expect the corrupt to be virtuous? The criminals are in control and they aren’t going to give up their power willingly.

  2. This priest’s excellent essay gives voice to what I’ve been thinking for many years. Having been a priest for almost 30 years and watching the crisis unfold I’ve been struck by the arrogance of many of the successors of the Apostles when it comes to how they deal with the priests of their dioceses. The scandal, the Dallas Charter, the malfeasance of some of the Ordinaries have all contributed to the distrust which exists so deeply between the bishops and the priests.
    Long before the scandal broke a retired priest once said to me: “Once they become bishops they are no longer one of us.” The good Father’s observation had nothing to do with the ontological change which occurred in the soul of the newly consecrated bishop. Rather, it had everything to do with the “attitudinal change” which occurred in the man.
    Many bishops will give lip service concerning their love and care for their presbyterates, I simply do not believe it anymore. I have witnessed too many occasions of episcopal abuse of power. May the Lord raise up again bishops like Francis de Sales, Charles Borromeo, Anthony Claret and Fulton Sheen. Maybe then the episcopacy will once again be filled with the light of God’s grace and fulfill the purpose for which Christ established this degree of Orders.

  3. It should be axiomatic that abuse of authority cannot be remedied by adding more procedures (= pouring fuel on the fire). The “40% rule” would be an unmitigated disaster. Suppose a priest with the reverential, sacramental view of episcopal authority were appointed bishop of a diocese full of lavender-mafia priests. They could suspend him in his first year in office for his views alone, then fabricate canonical charges afterward. Some German-speaking local Churches have been honing a similar technique for years (curial sabotage). It would create a new mechanism for getting rid of a pesky traditional priest: “kick him upstairs” into episcopal ministry, and then impeach him.
    Canon law already exists, with definite channels for filing complaints, deadlines for responses, procedures for appeal, and ultimately penalties for those found guilty. It’s not as though these procedures have been tried and found wanting.

    • Thank you for your comment. While I readily admit that no procedure in itself has the power to change an institution if all the actors are vicious, we are still a Church of laws. I do not deny that there are in fact Canonical Procedures for filing complaints. I state as such in my article. The Roman courts have been very favorable to Priests in recent years as well. Yet that is not the issue. The issue is that Priests in many places feel profoundly disenfranchised, and I think the question must be raised: why?

      Finally, my 40% figure was only a schema, not a hard or fast rule. As I admitted at the end of the article, there are toxic presbyterates and surely bad actors who would use these sorts of processes to unjustly harm their bishop or undermine his legitimate authority. Whatever the solution is, the rights and dignity of Priests and Bishops must be protected. Yet all too often, the Bishops get away with a heck of a lot, and the Priests are left out to dry. This cannot continue.

      • “The issue is that Priests in many places feel profoundly disenfranchised, and I think the question must be raised: why?”

        I think the issue is that the wrong priests freel disenfranchised. The ones who are playing merry mayhem with the Mass, who don’t teach or believe the Church’s dogma, doctrine, or discipline (and do their best to undermine them), the ones who think that their calling is to be left-wing political activist (yes, Father Pleger, I’m talking about you)… they don’t feel “disenfranchised.” Unfortunately, since they should be.

      • I agree with him however. When creating solutions we must not only look to the present situation but also the opposite situation hypothetically…the best case scenario. Your article is well stated and I appreciate this. However to allow an action against bishops through a vote of some sort would put all holy bishops,especially reformers, in jeopardy. The successful bishop would be the glad-hander not the holy one. We could end up institutionalizing unholy bishops and eliminate ability for holy bishops to prosper. I think the proposed solution treats the symptom rather than the problem. It seems priests need a voice to the pope and the pope needs to be more directly hands on in the formation of his priests. Perhaps in this century we need revision of the pope’s role and authority.

  4. After 2,000 years of POWER over all lessers the church is finally understanding the meaning of the word “POWER”! At least if one does not care for the hierarchal structure, they can leave.

  5. In the case of Cardinal McCarrick especially, the abuse was an open secret among both clergy and lay faithful.

    So the American bishops’ response to the sex abuse scandal, including the Dallas Charter, was quite insincere, since it kept hidden the abuses of McCarrick and others instead of exposing and dealing with them.

    Imagine a thoroughly hedonistic old man, basically not accountable to anybody, with a lot of money and time on his hands, like say, Hugh Hefner in his old age, except that he is a homosexual. Put a miter on his head. Now you have an accurate picture of many of the world’s bishops.

    Could this state of affairs possibly be related to the contemporary demise of Christianity? Ya think?

  6. This is an amazing article and reminded me of a dear, priest friend who has suffered much in my archdiocese because he in fact had the courage to speak out against our radical ex-archbishop who has since written a book about his homosexuality. Unfortunately, too many of his brother priests in this archdiocese are NOT faithful, so we has suffered doubly. Let the clean up begin . . . constant prayer will be needed . . . Sincerely, IrishSkillet

  7. Once again, someone writes an article about the ucrrent crisis of homosexuality in the priesthood, but they dare not mention homosexuals. they dare not mention anything except policies, procedures, etc. Cardinal McCarrick and his network of unfaithful and degenerate priers did not cause a problem because there were insufficient mechanisms for priests to make complaints. All of the suggestions made by the author could be avoided or abused to punish faithful priests or to punish faithful bishops, for that matter. NO. Start addressing the real problem. Stop trying to fool the laity into thinking that some sort of new power system will solve the problem. Start talking about the real issues. Until you do, all efforts to veer off into other matters look like attempts to avoid the real problem

    • Thank you again for your comment. I completely agree that homosexuality is a huge issue which is at the forefront of the moral crisis we face. I allude to that in regard to what I called the “nepotism of vice”, which also includes homosexuality. That is, Bishops who promote and secretly encourage this vice by words or action.

      However, my article is broader than the problem of homosexuality. I take that as a given, a no-brainer quite frankly, that the reform of the morals of the clergy is paramount in any movement to reform the Church. However, I find that those who consistently place the problem only in the problem of homosexual clergy also tend to overlook the problem of abuse of power which is the common thread among all these cases, whether liberal or conservative, traditional or progressive. It is possible for anyone to practice a secret vice. However, the catalyst, the thing which really makes these problems entrenched, are networks of unaccountable power which engender corruption. It is that corruption which changes homosexuality and other moral evils from a vice privately lived to a modus vivendi semi-publically normalized. That, in my mind, is the true danger. Homosexual vice, like heterosexual vice, will probably be with us until the paraousia, even among the clergy. That we cannot completely control, try as we may. But we can make changes to make sure that even if it is a problem in a given diocese, it is far more likely to be uncovered, and dealt with.

      • I completely agree with the author about the nonexistence of a mechanism in Church governance to inhibit networks of corruption.

        On the flip side of the issue, it is impossible to trust that Pope Francis or his entourage can be part of the solution. Pope Francis is utterly compromised (at best) in this matter, because he is the hand-picked candidate of notorious Cardinal coverup artists and sex abusers, including Danneels, McCarrick, Maradiaga and Mahony, 3 of whom have publicly crowed about their engineering of Francis’ election – their 2nd try – after they failed in 2005.

        We all know about McCarrick now. He stated at Villanova in Oct 2013 (google it, go to minute 17…watch 5 minutes) that the purpose of electing “his friend” Cardinal Bergoglio was to “make the Church over in 5 years.”

        Danneels, who stood on the balcony with Pope Francis at his world introduction, was brought out of retirement by Pope Francis, after being retired in disgrace under Pope Benedict for a horrorible sex abuse cover, where he was caught on a recording by a victim’s family trying to coverup homosexual incest of their son/brother by his uncle, Danneels’ friend Bishop Vanderweighe (of Belgium). The story went into the Belgian press (De Standaard, etc) in summer of 2010. Police raided his apartment for evidence, but what was collected was ruled inadmissible for some legal reason.

        Mahony is probably the number 1 abuse coverup artist in the US Church, and possibly the world. Frank Keating of the lay investigation board that conducted the sex abuse review and published the 2002 Crisis Report, resigned in protest calling Mahony a leader of “the gay mafia” in the Church.

        Maradiaga is now being exposed for the coverup of his friend Archbishop Pineda of Honduras (who just resigned). Maradiaga ought to be under investigation right now, but since he is in Francis’ “magic circle of 9” and the main coordinator, that shows how serious this cancer has spread.

        And other Francis Cardinal appointments are directly connected to McCarrick, owing Jim their allegiance: Farrell and Joseph Tobin (Newark). And Archbishop “Tucho” Fernandez (ghost-writer of Amoris Laetitia) is another Francis acolyte is a “celebrity sex poet,” author of “Heal Me With Your Mouth – The Art of Kissing.” Fernandez was assigned a major diocese and kicked out his predecessor, a faithful bishop who had opposed Fernandez’ shenanigans.

        Nothing good is possible with Francis and these men surrounding him. They don’t want good change – and they are there to make sure that any change that happens strengthens the hand of those who will persist in the evil networks they have built for themselves.

        They must resign.

        • Thank you for your comment.

          I intend to address this issue, the spider web of connections, in future analyses. I wrote of the “nepotism of vice”, of Bishops who, when it comes to Priests, present themselves as reformers, but when it comes to each other, cannot summon the courage.

          In regard to the Holy Father and his intimate friends and confidants, there is enough information publically known to seriously question his commitment to true reform. Also, if the so-called St. Gallen mafia supported his election, it raises certain questions as to what sort of “reform Pope” they thought he would be.

          God Bless.

          • Someone who who teaches and preaches heresies and whose actions are clearly not in conformity to what the highest office in the Church demands, does not deserve the honor and respect of being addressed as the Holy Father. That is a mockery of both Christ and the truly holy Catholics both past and present.

      • Father, respectfully, as a laywoman who is trying her best to be faithful, it feels like we are being purposefully distracted and confused by other issues our hierarchy chooses to promote, rather than what really is attacking the Church.

        For the last few years, we have had to endure the bishops/cardinals/Pope getting media time over climate change, hobnobbing with celebrities and politicians, the disgraceful and scandalous “fashion show” featuring the disrespectful use of Catholic imagery and sacramentals reduced to parody (with the full backing of the Vatican and the Archdiocese of NY), various partisan political issues, et. al.

        To me, what they should be fighting is issues such as this, the spiritual and physical abuse of laity, seminarians, and clergy by the clergymen of all levels in the name of the Church. Our *own* fellow Catholics are having their souls endangered and their lives threatened. This, in particular, should have been addressed, resolved, and gotten past 20 years ago, when we in the laity and faithful clergy were asked to pay millions of dollars, keep our Faith, and continue to respect our leadership. After all this, is it any wonder that we suffer from a lack of priests – who in their right mind would want to send a beloved son to a seminary to face this abuse? We were humiliated and disgraced, and saw our beloved parishes and schools closed to pay for the sinful behavior of certain evil priests, who were often shielded and rewarded. It should *never* have happened again.

        There are many other instances of our fellow Catholics being mortally endangered, spiritually and physically, such as the persecution in Nicaragua, the Middle East, Asia, and other parts of the world, as well as abortion and human trafficking. It is evils such as these that I feel our Pope and hierarchy should be focusing on, as well as ensuring that our clergy are faithful to their vows.

        There is no doubt about it – the Church and its faithful are under attack. I was horrified when I had to live through the scandals of 15-20 years ago. It is beginning again, and now I am not only horrified, but very angry. I will pray for our Church with all my heart, as always. But it must stop – now. Not put on the back burner to be faced 10 years from now. *NOW*

  8. Here is a link to an April, 2012 article by Fr. F. Dariusz Oko, priest of the diocese of Krakow, regarding the “huge homosexual underground in the Church.”

    With the Pope Against Homoheresy

    I would sincerely appreciate reading an assessment of it by the CWR editors and by Aquae Regiae.

    • Thank you for your comment, Harry.

      Quite frankly, I find the phrase “homoheresy” to be somewhat unhelpful, because the problem we are witnessing is far deeper than simply homosexuals who espouse heresy. Corruption is a deeper, more troubling reality than simply private vice. People, even Priests, can commit all sort of sexual sins. They repent and arise, if they are good Christians. What makes this far more troubling is that they celebrate, protect, and abet the practice of vices, sexual and otherwise. That is the true problem. To see it as simply a homosexual problem, although not inaccurate, in my mind is far too narrow.

      On a practical level, we will never get the sort of popular support against corrupt hierarchy if terms like “homoheresy” continue to get thrown around. For good or for ill, no one will want to cover such language except news outlets which already have a dedicated, agreeable reader base. Homosexuality is just one head of the hydra. If we cut it off, we will find that another vice has just taken its place.

      Thank you again for your consideration.

      • His phraseology apparently distracted you from his quite accurate characterization of the depth of the problem and the grave danger it presents to the Church.

  9. I do not see how this will be cleared until we have a new Pope. The present Vatican set up is suspect. Elect a new Pope and bring back those fired for no good reason then set up a synod in Poland or Hungary so we can trust the outcome.

  10. Thank you Father for the article and, especially for replying to so many of the comments. Many thanks also to all who participated. Everyone contributed and, I thought with a sense of mutual concern for the Church we all love. You have given me a lot to think about with regards to my own country. All in all very informative reading.
    Stephen in Australia.

  11. “…commentators have frequently remarked that the cure of the problem will not come as long as bishops continue to be exempt from the rules they have crafted (with the help of lawyers) for their priests. Now finally, the seed sown two decades ago is starting to reap its bitter fruit, and priests everywhere may yet awaken and rediscover their strength.”

    This sounds like a comment from the secular press where naturalist’s believe that the laws of man outside of God can solve the problems of man.

    The cure of the problem will not come as long as the so-called bishops and priests who are sodomites and pedophiles and those who protect them are considered to be shepherds rather than wolves which is what they really are. Unless God’s wrath does not reign down upon them prior to their deaths, their cure is a conversion of heart, mind and soul to the love of God rather than being the servants of Satan which is what they are. Let us pray daily for their conversion so they don’t continue to destroy their own souls and the souls of those they abuse.

    • Thanks Father for this article. As a former priest myself (and totally committed to the ministry of the Church)it rings so many bells. Good responses too, some I totally agreed with , others..? It’s important that we all remember that THE LORD is Lord of the Church, NOT US!. Cheers. Gordon Carter. Adelaide. South Australia.

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