The abuse of secrecy and the secrecy of abuse

Clerical elitism did not cause sex abuse, nor did sex abuse cause clerical elitism, but the link between the two things is certainly very real.

Left: Photo of Theodore E. McCarrick, retired archbishop of Washington, at Holy Comforter-St. Cyprian Catholic Church in Washington Nov. 1, 2017. (Illustration by CWR/Photo by Tyler Orsburn)

Several years ago, responding to something that I’d written about secrecy in the Church, an elderly, retired bishop (now deceased) sent me a letter that could have been written today about the scandal swirling around former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick.

Here in part is what he said:

As a priest formed in the cauldron of the Second Vatican Council, I don’t have any reluctance to proclaim truth, even in circumstances that seem difficult. More scandals come from attempting to control access to truth than ever came from honesty and openness.

The very worst scandal of our times in the Church has been the sexual predation of some priests. The attempt to keep such matters secret on grounds of protecting reputations through the years simply allowed the evil to fester and grow. And when the dam of secrecy finally broke—as it always will—the whole Church suffered for its lack of candor.

Of course the bishop wasn’t thinking of Archbishop McCarrick when he wrote that, nor did he have in mind the torrent of allegations and accusations lately spilling out in Pennsylvania. But his words nevertheless can stand as a painfully accurate summary of the harm done by the practice of secrecy working hand-in-glove with clericalism to the objects of the ex-cardinal’s “predation” and to the victims of abuse by clerics generally.

Numerous bishops, including Cardinal Daniel DiNardo, president of the U.S. bishops’ conference, have promised that we’ll see a serious investigation to dig out the facts in the McCarrick affair. One of the few encouraging aspects of this otherwise deeply discouraging episode is the fact that the USCCB president and many of the other bishops who’ve spoken out about it give every indication of being genuinely shocked and angry about what happened. Good for them. Shock and anger are healthy first steps toward remedial action.

If the investigation that bishops have demanded and promised is carried out rigorously, with direct participation by competent lay people as well as clerics and religious, and if its findings are publicized fully and without pulling any punches or sparing any reputations, it could be a highly useful exercise by providing us with the facts we need in order to design and implement the reforms that are needed to prevent anything like this from ever happening again.

Pending that, at least the general outlines of what happened in the McCarrick case are already reasonably clear. Here was a classic instance of how secrecy and clericalism work in tandem to produce the kind of disaster of which my friend the elderly bishop spoke—and which I analyze in my book Nothing To Hide: Secrecy, Communication, and Communion in the Catholic Church (Ignatius 2008).

To be sure, secrecy is sometimes necessary and good in the religious sphere as it is in other areas of life. In the Church, the imperative of secrecy is especially clear in regard to the seal of confession—the grave obligation of absolute confidentiality on the part of priests concerning anything disclosed to them in the sacrament of penance. (The ‘seal’ is currently under serious attack in several places in Australia—which is still another of the ugly results of clergy sex abuse for which the Church continues to pay a terribly high price.)

But secrecy in the Church is often not necessary and not good—it is an abuse. And the abuse of secrecy was operative in regard to two distinct aspects of what occurred in the McCarrick case.

First, secrecy veiled the gross misconduct of a high-ranking churchman who over a number of years imposed outrageously upon an unknown number of boys and young men, many of them seminarians and priests.

Second, secrecy cloaked the process by which this same offending churchman rose through the ranks of the clerical hierarchy—from secretary to a cardinal all the way to becoming a cardinal himself—even though it now seems that many of the high-ranking Church officials who were  involved in aiding and approving his ascent had heard reports of his scandalous behavior.

How could such things happen? Secrecy in combination with clerical elitism holds the key to answering that.

Granted, in the McCarrick case the erring individual was something more than just one more abusive priest. But the same two agents—clerical elitism and the abuse of secrecy—were involved here as they are in cases of clergy sex abuse generally.

It works like this.

As I explain in Nothing To Hide, clerical elitism—the notion that the clergy are a privileged caste, with special privileges and exemptions not granted to the rest of us—did not cause sex abuse, nor did sex abuse cause clerical elitism. But the link between the two things is certainly very real. Simply put, the attitudes and behavior patterns of clerical elitism came into play time and again when erring priests’ superiors, learning that the priests were guilty of deviant sexual behavior, either with minors or adults, simply looked the other way or else swept the mess under the rug.

“Bishops who acted like this,” I write, “were acting reasonably by the standards of the clericalist culture to which they belonged. Wishing to be good servants of the Church, they served the clericalist system. And in the end this system of concealment and illusion betrayed them and the rest of the Church.”

The cover-up—concealing what had happened—was a typical part of the response. And although the Church in the United States has made considerable progress in eliminating this coverup mentality in the last 15 years, we are still very far from rooting it out it entirely.

As recent disclosures of sex abuse from the worlds of entertainment, media, and politics illustrate, the Church is hardly alone in having such problems. Indeed, what we are seeing now is a pattern of deeply flawed reaction in Church circles to temptations resembling those that threaten to corrupt every profession and trade.

These are tendencies to distort and pervert the solidarity and mutual loyalty that rightly bond members of a particular profession or group (ethical doctors covering up for incompetent ones, honest attorneys closing their eyes to the failing of dishonest lawyers), and a related failure to practice accountability in regard to professional responsibility. Secrecy obviously lends powerful support to both.

In the Church as everywhere else, the solution also seems clear. Bishops, priests, and all others in positions of pastoral responsibility need to take the requirements of openness and honesty much more seriously than many of them have been accustomed to do up to now. This is fundamental if the exercise of pastoral authority is not to degenerate into a kind of paternalistic authoritarianism with a smiling “pastoral” face.

The first step now is the kind of honest, searching investigation that Cardinal DiNardo and others have promised, with lay people present as full partners in its design and implementation. The credibility of the bishops themselves requires no less.

Beyond that, lay women and men should also be involved to a far greater extent than is now the case in the process by which bishops are appointed and promoted. As matters stand, lay people can be consulted, but this can be done only individually and in strict secrecy. By way of reform, commissions or boards of consultation made up of competent laity should be established for this purpose. And while confidentiality should still be part of it, serious thought should be given to meaningful ways of opening up the process to accountability to the Church at large.

Would this require changing canon law? Very likely it would. But canon law is not carved in stone, and when a time comes for making changes, it can be changed. This clearly is such a time.

The values at stake here are profoundly serious ones that pertain to the very nature of the Church as a communion. I concluded Nothing To Hide with a passage that I think still sums it all up reasonably well:

Communication is difficult, even in the Church, but the consequences of not communicating, to say nothing of lies, equivocation, self-serving and manipulative secrecy, non-accountability—the sad litany of communication faults—are worse: loss of trust, anger, alienation, unraveling of lived communion. Failures of communication must be overcome, not multiplied by concealment and dissimulation.

“In this way we express the reality of the Church, which at one and the same time is the spotless bride of Christ and a band of sinners. The Church’s failings are our failings. When we speak of reforming the Church by honest, open communication and accountability, we are speaking of reforming ourselves.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Russell Shaw 270 Articles
Russell Shaw was secretary for public affairs of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops/United States Catholic Conference from 1969 to 1987. He is the author of 20 books, including Nothing to Hide, American Church: The Remarkable Rise, Meteoric Fall, and Uncertain Future of Catholicism in America, Eight Popes and the Crisis of Modernity, and, most recently, The Life of Jesus Christ (Our Sunday Visitor, 2021).


  1. As Shaw astutely notes in passing, the seal of confession is now endangered in Australia. And what then, in the years ahead, if the secular power decides it has such a role in the United States?

    Things morph…

    So, in addition to (1) the individual McCarrick scandal, and in addition to (2) more widespread seduction and future blackmail, also to be weighed is (3) a possible secularist assault on the sacraments. Another consideration is (4) how many of the Lavender Mafia over the years and decades surely have manipulated/ silenced those of whom we now demand transparent honesty? Then,too, what is to prevent the needed lay involvement (in some form?) from following the familiar (Congressional investigations) pattern of mission-creep, in this case toward (5) Trusteeism in possibly related financial issues? (A new cycle of payouts and even selloffs—accelerated parish closures—to cover litigation costs.)

    Because one thing leads to another, the specific wisdom of Christ applies: “Be ye [both] wise as serpents and simple as doves” (Mt 10:16).

    “He clearly shows that they must never be separated from one another, nor should one be used as a pretext for failing in the other. Prudence should never lack simplicity—and here is meant the exclusion of all those means based on untruthfulness—but at the same time, simplicity should never lack prudence” (Fr. Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen, OCD, “Divine Intimacy: Meditations on the Interior Life for Every Day of the Liturgical Year,” 1964/1996).

    So, speed, yes, but all very deliberate speed.

  2. God gave us Faith and Reason. For the sake of the souls of our clergy and our children, we in the Laity need to step our involvement in the Church. No one should continue to operate in secret.
    Whenever there is an aircraft accident, a thorough investigation is made by people outside the unit and the results published because lives are at stake. How much more important souls?
    As a military pilot, I was completely responsible for safe operation of the aircraft but I also knew that my crew had the duty to report my behavior should it have been found lacking. We can respect the authority of the Bishop and take responsibility for how our Church manages itself.
    The Bishops have had 16 years to develop a solution alone.

    • DCP:

      An apt contrast btw a culture of self-correction and a culture of corruption.

      Naturally, it is much harder to do this in a Church, especially in places like LA and Newark and Washington and Chicago, where there are most likely a culture of corruption throughout the diocesan chancery, and staffs of lay people and clergy are in place to perpetuate the corrupt culture.

  3. Rod Dreher just relayed that PA Report shows in 1991, Bishop Donald Wuerl of Pittsburgh knowingly transferred a sex predator priest to the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, which together with Wuerl, apparently allowed predator full priestly duties for 11 years.

    Only after sex abuse story broke nationally in 2002 did Wuerl strip predator of priestly faculties.

    Serpent Bishops in Pittsburgh and Los Angeles.

    • Correction to my 2:57 pm.

      Wuerl transferred the predator to diocese in Las Vegas, NV.

      And report indicates Wuerl lied to them in a 1994 letter, after a woman reported same predator had molested her brother 30 years earlier. Wuerl tried to cover his tracks asserting falsely he had no knowledge of predator’s crimes.

      • No wonder Wuerl is proposing that the bishops investigate the bishops :-).

        Only a lay committee NOT appointed by the Bishops can do the work whether or not they have the power to compel the Bishops to resign so long as they have the power to compel the release of whatever records they need.

        Once all these bishops are exposed, whether they are forced to resign or not will not matter because they will have been exposed.If there is data supporting the findings, then I think the general population of the laity can then act and the other bishops who are not guilty will perhaps find the guts to finally speak out and do something. Perhaps when the Pope is confronted with incontrovertible evidence of the filth of each bishop, he will then do the honest thing and remove them.

  4. “Simply put, the attitudes and behavior patterns of clerical elitism came into play time and again when erring priests’ superiors, learning that the priests were guilty of deviant sexual behavior, either with minors or adults, simply looked the other way or else swept the mess under the rug.

    “Bishops who acted like this,” I write, “were acting reasonably by the standards of the clericalist culture to which they belonged. Wishing to be good servants of the Church, they served the clericalist system. And in the end this system of concealment and illusion betrayed them and the rest of the Church.””

    I don’t doubt that is true. But I would say that another reason for the cover-up was that they knew that revealing the evil would have brought about gleeful jeers at the Church. I don’t know how they could have been so evil or so stupid as not to realize that you don’t dab a bit of Cover Up makeup on a massive abscess and pretend it isn’t there. Draining it may be ugly and sickening, but it’s the only thing that works.

    • “But I would say that another reason for the cover-up was that they knew that revealing the evil would have brought about gleeful jeers at the Church.”

      You are right about that. The Church hierarchy in this country are more concerned with prestige than being shepherds.

  5. “Bishops who acted like this,” I write, “were acting reasonably by the standards of the clericalist culture to which they belonged. Wishing to be good servants of the Church, they served the clericalist system. And in the end this system of concealment and illusion betrayed them and the rest of the Church.””

    That statement is true only if the clericalism culture to which those particular priests belonged denied Christ’s Teaching on sexual morality, which serves to preserve the inherent Dignity of every beloved son and daughter. We can know through both Faith and reason that there are a multitude of Priests who affirm Christ’s teaching on sexual morality and that it is not possible for a counterfeit church to exist within Christ’s One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
    Any priest that was a member of the system of concealment and illusion, was a rogue priest, a member of a counterfeit church, a church that is, in essence, anti Christ.
    As the veil is being lifted, this anti Christ church is being exposed. Pray then, that those Faithful Bishops, Priests, Deacons, Nuns, Pastoral Leaders, those that minister to Christ’s Church do not flee, but stay as members of The Church Militant, along with The Faithful Laity, to defend The Sanctity of Human Life, from the moment of conception, and The Sanctity of Marriage and The Family, for The Glory of The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity. Only Good can come from that.

  6. Mr Shaw, lets get real.
    The word “homosexual” does not appear in your article. Why not? Until you have the backbone to say the words “homosexual priest problem” you are BS-ing the reader.
    Next, pagagraph ten: “gross misconduct”, “imposed outrageously”. These words are grossly, outrageously inadequate. These are felony criminal acts. Violent homo-sexual and psychological attacks on vulnerable and unwilling victims. Most assuredly with the implied threat of retaliation if the victim ever opened his mouth.
    That’s where we are, Mr Shaw. This is not some academic wine and cheese conversation. This is going to get very ugly, very soon. Bet on it.

    • exacty,, he doesn’t mention homosexual, and he talks in the past as if it is a problem we once had. No, it’s alive and well and horrible. Glad you pointed that out

    • Except not all the clerical abuse cases were homosexual in their nature. Most people wouldn’t use the term homosexual to equate sex abuse on 13-17 year old boys. The reason you can’t plant homosexuality is the main reason for the sex abuse scandal is because it doesn’t answer the question “how that could happen?”. Plus, most claims that say homosexuality is to blame for the sex abuse scandal do not provide proof. When you have a Church culture in the hierarchy that does not promote openness and transparency, then cover-ups will happen. This happens in both liberal and traditionalist, and in-between, areas in the Church. It’s possible if communist and homosexual infiltration in the Church did happen, then all they did was take advantage of that culture of secrecy. It really boils down to an understanding of ecclesiology.

  7. The problem in my judgment is more lack of faith than clericalism. This scandal would be nowhere the size that it is if the bishops collectively were genuinely scandalized by sexually active priests such that such priests were disciplined even if they had not engaged in non-consensual sexual activity. The sad fact of the matter is that most bishops are not scandalized by sexually active priests. If they were, the wide-spread violations of the vow of celibacy would not be tolerated. Put in charge unchaste laypeople who are not scandalized by unchaste sexual acts and you will get the same result that we have gotten with the current bishops.

  8. Discussing the problem in terms of clerical elitism is like suggesting a different arrangement of the deck chairs on the Titanic will somehow remedy the damage done by the iceberg. The Barque of Peter is rapidly taking on water.

    How can the Church, on the one hand, deal with the massive damage created by homosexual clergy, and on the other hand have Fr. James Martin, whose heretical proposals of changes to Church teaching regarding homosexuality were documented in a Catholic World Report article here:

    Fr. James Martin, S.J., and accusations of heresy

    be a keynote speaker at the Church’s World Meeting of Families? See this CNA article;

    Fr. James Martin to give keynote at World Meeting of Families

    Doesn’t that legitimize his heretical views? Are we to believe the Church is serious about dealing with the gaping hole in the stern of Peter’s barque caused by an explosion of homosexual Catholic clergy in the last century? This was once carefully hidden. Now advocates of homosexual clergy are being given prestigious places of honor at international Church events.

    That can only be happening because the “Lavender Mafia” has the hierarchy of the Church in a stranglehold. Obviously that hierarchy won’t provide the remedy to a disease a significant segment of it is intent on spreading further throughout the Body of Christ.

    The problem is even much deeper than that. If the study of Scripture is indeed “the soul of theology” then this crisis began in the mid-nineteenth century when disbelief in the supernatural events recorded in the Scriptures became rampant among Scripture scholars, and this faithless study of the Scriptures infected Catholic seminaries. Many of today’s bishops were trained to consider myths and legends what the Church Fathers unanimously considered supernatural, yet historical events recorded in the Bible. There is a reason that Trent and Vatican I dogmatically declared that Catholic theologians were forbidden to interpret the Scriptures contrary to the unanimous agreement of the Fathers. Theology, at least its practical application, suffers as a result.

    If one doesn’t believe God really supernaturally intervenes in history on behalf of His people, then it becomes much more difficult to do the right thing just because it is the right thing to do, trusting God will take care of things in the end, in spite of the obviously negative consequences doing the right thing will quickly bring down upon the Church. This disbelief makes it tempting to a bishop to just hide sexual abuse perpetrated by clergy. It makes it tempting to just not preach to the flock about the evils of contraception, gay marriage and “legal” baby killing. In short, it makes it tempting to just avoid conflict by becoming worldly.

    The fix to the sex abuse problem and many other problems in the Church begins with belief among bishops that God will honor and bless their doing the right thing eventually, in spite of the vicious backlash doing so will bring down upon the Church in the short-term. That requires belief in the supernatural events recorded in the Scriptures as historical events.

  9. Should we ask at some point whether or not what we need here is not just an investigation, but an inquisition (I know – I just said the “I” word). I imagine that there must be a few up and coming highly talented young Dominicans etc. without any factional ties to the bishops who might be let loose in the dioceses and seminaries to not only investigate (and report back to a lay committee), but to question rigorously for the purpose of (and with some power for) uprooting the sexual immorality (yes, homosexuality) pervading many of our in institutions. If we can’t put the fear of God in the abusers and sexual sophisticates then perhaps its time we put in them the fear of the Church – not fear for its own sake, but for the sake of justice. At least that is the way I imagine my unspoiled Dominicans. etc. would act in their inquiry.


    It sounds very much like the elitism, arrogance and secrecy presently exhibited by the FBI, the Dept. of Justice, the IRS, the Mueller charade and other investigative government agencies in Washington, D.C. The Ruling Party Establishment is doing so much harm at this moment to our country. Clean out the stables in Church and State!

    • I agree that I would like to see virtue instilled to a much greater degree in society. Even so, never forget that much of what we see today, especially with homosexual priest behavior, came from …society and the State. We cannot expect moral virtue when loud factions of society demand that we treat Law and Culture as secular, not sacred.

  11. “It the promised investigation . . . with direct participation by the laity as well as the clergy and religious” – Sorry, it is too late for that. From now going forward the clergy at all levels must recuse themselves, promising to abide by the recommendations of a commission of lay Catholics and law enforcement experts. I believe that our bishops are mostly good and holy men, but they have had many years to demonstrate that they can clean their own sty, and have instead shown that they are unwilling or unable to do so. At this point, they should welcome handing over this responsibility and authority. Failing to do so would indicate an inability to attend to their flocks.

  12. Enough of the ‘mea culpas’. Where IS the accountability? How about FIRING the offenders! Yes it will temporarily reduce the clergy ranks but that’s okay.

  13. I understand the author’s perspective regarding transparency; I think the value of greater lay involvement will be debatable, at best. For my experience, if bishops and priests have been lukewarm to cold about actual Catholic Truth, lay people have all too often been every bit as troubled. I do not believe most of the efforts at “cleaning house” have much concern at all for Truth or Justice. Mostly, this looks like a modern-day witch hunt to me.

  14. We hear a lot these days of “privacy” and “secrecy.” Is there a real difference between the two, or cynically-speaking, is “privacy” when you don’t want other people knowing your business and “secrecy” when other people won’t tell you their business?

  15. I don’t give a d**n about the hierarchy’s “shock and anger”!!! Don’t need that BALONEY! I don’t care one iota about your “sadness.” Go cry yourself a river!
    THE JOB NOW IS TO GET TO THE BOTTOM OF IT ALL!! No more Garbage! No more BS! No more lies! No more hedging! No more elitism! NO MORE!
    The clergy should NOT, UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES be even remotely involved in the investigation, other than as witnesses, (victims and predators alike) to give testimony either accusing or responding to credible accusations!
    No more of the Wolf guarding the Henhouse!
    IF the elite clergy-class is involved, they are fully compromised as is their investigation. It’ll be tainted beyond all credibility. (Refer to 2002 sex scandal outcomes now re-surfacing as the 2016 sex abuse scandals…)
    Any priest found guilty of predatory (sexually abusive/immoral behavior by misreporting or not reporting the facts) MUST BE DEFROCKED IMMEDIATELY and the penance should be making one’s own way in the world!
    The “Sheeple” are truly SICK of this junk! ENOUGH! The “Good ‘ol Boys” club” of the hierarchy has to be broken up!
    Everyone I’ve talked to at my local parish feels like this. Better get it together, Clergy! Tell ALL! Tell EVERYTHING!

  16. What has actually caused not only all of this corruption but has made our Church the largest single impediment to our salvation is clerical invulnerability from top to bottom to personal communion with God which is not even expected let alone pursued in our congregations. When in prayer recently, I was advised that our Church, the one so deeply loved by our Savior and His Mother is 95% impediment and only 5% encouragment to the constructs of our Salvation. There is one thing alone that will turn this tide and it is not prosecution of criminal perpetrators or our good intentions, as necessary as these are. It is our acts of intercession and supplication of the Faithful before God that will turn the tide of evil and restore Christ’s Church to Him. Few are even aware that every true member to the one true Church instituted by Jesus is and must be a participant in the Communion of Saints. Those who are members of this esteemed body who worship before God night and day are not in the least unaware of the fact and the living among them are pitifully few in number. This was never God’s intention. As we each become attendant to Him, seeking not the salvation of our Church, or even our own but selflessly to please Him alone, the works and constructs of Satan will be entirely thwarted so as to evaporate from our midst. If our congregations fail in becoming determined in Eucharistic adoration, prayer of the Rosary, and practice of sustained attendance to God from which our required vulnerability to Him arises, utterly vile corruption and sexual predation in the ranks of our clergy will continue defeating the rise of truly holy men who will lead us into communion with God and seamlessly into Heaven.

  17. Please let’s call it what it truly is, homosexuality not clerical elitism.
    If we continue to use words that make things not look so bad, then how are we to know what SIN truly is. The Church has taught for centuries that homosexual acitivity is wrong. So let’s stop calling it by another name.
    I am truly upset not only with the CRIMES committed on the youth and adolescent, but with the words those in charge choose to use, ‘clerical elitism.’ Same words Pope Francis used instead of homosexuality. We must use the words accurately without trying to hurt others, but the truth is the truth. Unless we are willing to speak the truth, then no one will understand.

3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. El abuso del secreto y el secreto del abuso | Evangelizadoras de los apóstoles
  2. VIDEO: Cardinal Wuerl Must Resign
  3. The Indissolubility of Marriage – Not for Some Dioceses – Virgin Most Powerful Radio

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

All comments posted at Catholic World Report are moderated. While vigorous debate is welcome and encouraged, please note that in the interest of maintaining a civilized and helpful level of discussion, comments containing obscene language or personal attacks—or those that are deemed by the editors to be needlessly combative or inflammatory—will not be published. Thank you.