‘What do you want to know?’ The Catholic reaction to bishops and sexual abuse

by JD Flynn

"What Do You Want to Know? A Pastor's Response to the Most Challenging Questions about the Catholic Faith" (Ave Maria Press) is an upcoming book by Cardinal Donald Wuerl, pictured here in a file photo. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Washington D.C., Aug 16, 2018 / 12:08 pm (CNA).- Among the sexual abusers mentioned in the Aug. 14 Pennsylvania grand jury report, one priest merits particular attention.

Rev. David Szatkowski, SCJ, is mentioned in the section of the report concerning the Diocese of Allentown. In 2011, he was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting a child.

In August of that year, Szatkowski, a seminary professor, attended an academic conference in Wisconsin. The priest, drunk late one night of the conference, approached a group of teenage girls outside his hotel, talked with them for a while, telling them that he was a lawyer and acting, in the words of one witness, “touchy.” Eventually, witness accounts and police reports say, Szatkowski forcibly embraced a 15-year-old girl and groped her breasts.

Several months later, prosecutors announced in a statement that they had dropped the charges, in “consultation with the victim about her wishes regarding the outcome of the case.”

Szatkowski, charged with sexually assaulting a child but not convicted, serves now on the “formation team” of his religious community, working with young aspirants to priesthood.

The priest does not stand out in the grand jury report because of the gravity of his case. Indeed, allegations against Szatkowski are not mentioned in the report at all. Instead, Szatkowski is mentioned because, three years after facing criminal charges for sexually assaulting a child, he was permitted by the Bishop of Allentown to serve as the canon lawyer- the procurator and advocate, in technical terms- for Fr. Michael Lawrence, a priest accused of sexually assaulting two adolescent boys.

In fact, Bishop John Barres, then Bishop of Allentown, relied heavily on Szatkowski’s canonical advocacy in a 2014 letter written to oppose a Vatican plan to laicize Lawrence.

This extraordinary turn of events bears repeating. In 2014, a bishop allowed a priest who had been charged with criminal sexual abuse of a child to serve as the canon lawyer for another priest charged with criminal sexual abuse of a child. Apparently no one in Szatkowski’s religious community, the Diocese of Allentown, or the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith questioned the wisdom of that plan.

Anyone who finds it difficult to understand the anger and resentment of Catholics toward their bishops in recent weeks need look no further than that story.


It is not breaking news that priests have committed unspeakable acts of sexual abuse. Nor is it new news that bishops have acted negligently, failing to use their authority responsibly. Since at least 2002, sexual abuse committed by priests in the United States has been catalogued and made publicly available in media reports, depositions, lawsuits, and police reports. And in that same time period, the negligence of bishops has been well-documented.

But the grand jury report released Aug. 14 is unique- unparalleled, really- in scope, magnitude, and in the level of detail it provides. And the report was released as the Catholic Church in the United States was already in the midst of the serious crisis that began when credible sex abuse allegations against then-Cardinal Theodore McCarrick were announced June 20.

Unlike the 2002 reports of clerical sexual abuse, the Pennsylvania report was also released in the wake of the #MeToo movement, and after revelations emerged of sexually abusive and coercive behaviors among figures in positions of power in other professional, political, and cultural contexts. The #MeToo movement has led to a more outspoken cultural opposition to coercive sexual behaviors and the abuse of power. That movement is the lens through which many Catholics are now viewing sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Church.

As a consequence of those things, the report has led to expressions of outrage, confusion, hurt, and mistrust from priests and deacons, religious sisters and brothers, Catholic and secular media outlets, ordinary lay Catholics, and from other Christians.

Commentators have condemned the alleged and suspected acts of abuse themselves, and the documented responses of bishops to that abuse. But they have mostly focused their anger on the apologies, statements of regret and contrition, and explanations that bishops have offered in recent weeks.

The response seems to exceed even the anger during the “Long Lent of 2002,” which could also be attributed, at least partially, to the fact that Catholics have already gone through this experience, and many expected that the crisis had been abated, and that bishops were not tolerating coercive sexual immorality in the Church. The McCarrick revelations dashed those expectations. The grand jury report has been like acid poured into the newly opened wound.

Cardinal Donald Wuerl of Washington, formerly Bishop of Pittsburgh, has received some of the most serious criticism. Wuerl, already facing questions about his knowledge, negligence, or complicity in allegations against McCarrick, now faces the charge that he negligently permitted at least one sexual abuser to remain in priestly ministry after allegations were known to his diocese.

It should be noted that Wuerl has disputed many assertions contained in the grand jury report, as has Donald Trautman, the former Bishop of Erie. It should also be noted that the report contains allegations that have not been subject to a trial, and that serious objections have been raised about whether the due process rights of those named in the report have been respected. Eventually, sources tell CNA, questions will also be asked about Pennsylvania’s attorney general, whose office drafted the text of the grand jury report, and about his political motivations.

It should also be mentioned that the grand jury reported predominantly on crimes that took place decades ago. The report recognized that “much has changed over the last fifteen years,” affirmed much about contemporary child protection policies, and noted the efforts of Pennsylvania’s current bishops to be transparent and forthcoming.

But at the moment, most Catholics are uninterested in explanations, or in discussions of the report’s finer points. The statements issued by Pennsylvania’s bishops, by Wuerl, and by the leadership of the USCCB have seemed only to fuel anger.

In fact, Wuerl and his staff have faced especially sharp criticism for launching a website, “thewuerlrecord.com,” that purported to “provide additional content not included in the [grand jury] report on Cardinal Wuerl’s work as longtime advocate and voice on this issue.” The site lasted fewer than two days before being taken down, amid calls from several prominent commentators for Wuerl’s immediate resignation.

It is worth asking what, exactly, Catholics now want from their leaders, what has prevented some bishops from satisfactorily addressing sexual abuse and the fallout from recent revelations, and how the Church can now respond to an obviously significant point of crisis.


The grand jury report’s introduction says that in the face of sexual abuse allegations, bishops seemed preoccupied with managing “scandal,” rather than addressing problems. The report lists a series of actions it calls a “playbook for concealing truth,” among them the use of euphemisms like “boundary violation” in place of words like “rape,” the unwillingness to conduct investigations professionally, and the unwillingness to inform parishioners when a priest has been accused of sexual abuse.

In short, the report depicted a culture in which appearances are more important than reality. That culture seems at the root of the anger Catholics have expressed in recent weeks, over the McCarrick scandal, and over the grand jury’s investigation.

In commentaries, comments to CNA, and on social media, many Catholics have characterized episcopal responses to recent revelations and allegations as bureaucratic, robotic, and self-serving.

The hierarchy’s response to the grand jury report, and to the McCarrick scandal which preceded it, has also been criticized as “corporate,” more concerned with spin, damage control, and personal reputations than with the victims of sexual abuse, or with the Catholics who feel betrayed by bishops who promised, in 2002, “never again.”

Where, many Catholics have asked, is a bishop willing to take responsibility for what has happened, and willing to make amends?

Where, many Catholics have asked, is a bishop willing to change the culture of the Church? Where, they have asked, is honesty?


Concretely, Catholics seem to be calling for three things.

The first is genuine expression of authentic contrition, sorrow, and regret. This is what many Catholics say has most been lacking in recent months.

We live in the age of the image- of the cultural and visual meme- and bishops seem to be expected to understand this. This means that expressions of contrition are expected to be more than words offered between explanations and calls for new policy. Catholics- especially young Catholics- say they are looking for simple, direct, and straightforward apologies, followed by signs of repentance.

Sackcloth and ashes may not prove necessary, but humility and authenticity will. Some have suggested Masses celebrated solemnly and penitentially with victims. Others have suggested public and personal pilgrimages and acts of repentance. The form matters. But what seems to matter most to many Catholics is hearing, and seeing, that bishops are genuinely horrified by things that have happened among their own brothers, and on their watch, and that they perceive, and admit, a sense of personal responsibility.

The second thing Catholics seem to be calling for is open disclosure of the Church’s problems, and consistent lay involvement in the adjudication of clerical personnel issues. This call is for a broad culture change. A call for transparency, openness, and direct lay involvement in handling priest personnel issues is, in short, a call for a rejection of the clericalism that, by many accounts, is endemic among bishops, without ideological or generational discrimination.

In short, many Catholics have told CNA in recent weeks they hope that their bishops will invest in a renewed sense of collaborative and missionary leadership, and that they believe that will require eschewing a common perception that bishops must be primarily overseers of diocesan business and administrative affairs.

But meaningful lay involvement in personnel matters is a difficult thing for the Church to mandate, beyond the existing requirement for diocesan review boards, because of the Church’s theological understanding of the governance ministry of bishops, and because lay professional Church administrators can become as institutionalized as clerical collaborators, and can be, for reasons of job security, reticent to blow the whistle when bishops act negligently.

Without clear guidelines and some protections for employees, “lay involvement” can easily become a kind of Potemkin consultation, where lay people are around, but decisions are mostly made after they leave the room.

To encourage broader and more meaningful lay involvement in episcopal decision-making, the Church would likely need to develop a means of listening to existing lay ecclesial administrators, considering their concerns, and training bishops for meaningful engagement with lay collaborators.

But more than any particular model, combatting clericalism seems to require bishops who are allergic to clerical insularity, and intolerant of it among their priests.

There are bishops in the United States who, by many accounts, embody and exhibit that approach to episcopal leadership. It remains to be seen whether they will emerge as leaders in the months to come.

Finally, Catholics seem to be calling for a plan to address sexual immorality among the episcopate, in seminaries, and among priests. Across ideological perspectives, there seems in recent weeks to be a recognition that predatory sexual behavior of any kinds is enabled by environments in which priests are not formed for chastity, and in which clerical obligations of continence and chastity are not taken seriously. Proposals for new episcopal oversight committees, for new review boards or charters have largely been panned.

What bishops will have to determine is how they can express a profound and serious commitment to sexual morality among clerics without seeming to abdicate their responsibilities, focus unduly on response rather than prevention, or pay only lip service to the development of healthy and chaste sexuality.

The challenge is going to prove incredibly difficult.


There are several things that could derail the bishop’s efforts to restore trust in the Church, and to move forward from the crisis point the Church has reached.

The first is the threat of litigation. The effect of the fear of litigation on some parts of the Church can not be overstated, and there are actually some good reasons for this.

Bishops who genuinely want to do right by victims, and are genuinely incensed over clerical sexual abuse, still have reasons- good and bad- to fear the prospect of litigation.

Bishops are responsible to be the stewards of the resources their dioceses have accumulated for the work of the Church- for sacred worship, for education and formation, and for works of charity and mercy. They are eager to see that Catholic apostolates not be shuttered or sold, even when they are genuinely sympathetic to the suffering of victims, and especially because they recognize that a significant portion of money extracted from the Church will go not to victims, but to attorneys. And, even in Pennsylvania, bishops who face litigation today usually are asked to be responsible for bad decisions made by their predecessors.

Bishops have also pointed out that the Church sometimes faces inequitable laws with regard to litigation, that laws which protect public institutions but not the Church have made it a particularly attractive target for plaintiff’s attorney. There is legitimacy to that claim.

The Pennsylvania grand jury has called for a tort claims window that would allow alleged victims whose claims are impeded by the statute of limitations a period of time in which to file lawsuits. The Pennsylvania legislature is likely to take up that cause, and other state legislatures will likely follow suit. Bishops have argued in the past that statutes of limitations exist for good reason; that claims exceeding those statutes can not be seriously investigated or defended against. This, some have argued, means that cases exceeding statutes of limitation invariably lead to settlements, even when facts are scant. In many states, those arguments have kept tort claim window legislation at bay.

In Pennsylvania at least, the momentum from the grand jury report may make it difficult for the Church to oppose, or to even to be seen to oppose, such legislation.

How that will impact the bishops’ response to this crisis remains to be seen. Concern for litigation has, in the past, tempered expressions of episcopal contrition, sometimes even beyond recognition. That fear colored and characterized a great deal of the Church’s response to the sexual abuse crisis of 2002, and, as several dioceses have since gone into bankruptcy, closing ministry centers, parishes, and charitable works, the fear has likely been heightened for some bishops since then.

The second factor that could impact the bishops’ response to the current crisis is overreaction to criticism that they are not acting quickly or rigorously enough. In the months to come, bishops will face serious pressure within their own dioceses to give evidence of their zero-tolerance with regard to abuse of any kind. Several priests have told CNA that they are concerned that fear could lead bishops to “scapegoat” priests- to single out priests accused even of non-criminal moral failures, to publicly disclose the private lives of priests, or to otherwise violate the canonical rights of priests, including their rights to due process, in order to be appear to be tough on abuse. Some priests have noted the experience of this kind of practice in their own dioceses in 2002 and 2003, and suggested it was an impediment, rather than an aid, to real reform.

A third thing that could derail serious ecclesial reform has to do with the call for episcopal resignations. Wuerl, in particular, has been the subject of ongoing calls for resignation, along with other bishops. While the Holy See might judge those moves to be justified, they could have the unintended effect of stalling more systematic and cultural change, if they are not managed carefully. If individuals bishops resign, and are then cast as the cause of the problems, the pressure for broader reforms could deflate. The Vatican must ensure that if it accepts the resignation of some bishops, the remaining members of the episcopate remain under pressure to enact the reform efforts the USCCB has said it would like to facilitate.


The grand jury report’s language is unambiguous, its analysis is direct: the report is emphatic in asserting that systematic patterns of negligence have allowed sexual abuse to take root in the Church.

“Failure to prevent abuse was a systemic failure,” the report said, “an institutional failure.” There seems to be broad Catholic agreement with that claim.

This October, Cardinal Wuerl is scheduled to publish a book entitled: “What do you want to know? A pastor’s response to the most challenging questions about the Catholic faith.”

In recent weeks, Wuerl has gotten an answer to his question: Catholics want to know what he and other bishops knew, what they’re really sorry for, and what they’re going to do about it.

It remains to be seen whether answers to those questions will be forthcoming.


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14 Comments

  1. “Sackcloth and ashes may not prove necessary”

    Why not? Are we “too sophisticated” for that? Perhaps if we ditched our modern trendiness and went back to repenting in sackcloth and ashes we’d be better off.

    And once again there’s that word that isn’t being mentioned…

    • lets all tell the truth and say the word homosexuality the church has not told us the truth and has swept the truth always under the place where we all cannot see this and haven’t for thousands of years I finally found out why Italiians and many othersdo not attend Mass Its because way back like 600 ad when there were homosexuals these poor souls where hidden into the priesthood or monosteries or other religious groups They were hidden and the church developed a culture of homosexuality which has never been discussed because this has been and is a dirty word and many Italian men knew about this problem and lost respect for the church way for hiding it No more . No more lies and deceit God have mercy and forgive us all and lets all demand ,command the truth

  2. Addressed in this article are three things that many “Catholics seem to be calling for,” but not the fourth:

    That is, who is managing the managers?—or rather, how deeply and malignantly infiltrated is the Church bureaucracy by something worse than the demonstrated mediocrity and expediency of many bishops (no, not nearly all) on the visible organization chart; that is, what should we know about the possible shadow-government that already has also maneuvered civil society into ratifying the oxymoron of gay “marriage,” and that has mainstreamed this agenda into public education from our morally-neutral(!)college campuses all the way down to unsuspecting pre-school story time (“Heather has two Mommies” 1989/2009; or “Jennifer has two Daddies”, or “Daddy’s Roommate”, or “Billie has two Daddies”)?

    True enough, homosexual tendencies are morally and categorically different from sexual abuse or even consensual actions, surely, but with the exposure of (archbishop)McCarrick as an individual, the big picture clearly is no longer about the 2002 cover story of mere priests and “pedophilia”(despite the finding of the independent Jay Report that 78 percent of those cases involved youth above the age of eleven).

    A full twenty years before the Scandal of 2002 and the Dallas Charter (2003), in 1982, Rev. Enrique T. Rueda’s published his now somewhat-dated, but densely documented report: “The Homosexual Network: Private Lives & Public Policy” (Free Congress Research & Education Foundation, 1982). Even then the Appendix list of politically-activist homosexual organizations, mostly double-columned, runs some 70 pages. Not yet given to recent and now routine ambiguities, published Church teaching in the United States still remained clear, but already marginalized by ad hoc public dialogue and worse by many bishops, who were also identified by name, date, place and event, and by other individuals and many dozens of mostly-local Catholic organizations (most of Rueda’s Chapter VII, “Relationships Between Religious Organizations and the Homosexual Movement”, 115 pages).

    So, here’s a fourth question: What is the nature and extent of the ecclesial deep-state embedded behind the pattern of clerical secrecy? We’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.

    • Aug. 17th: You are right on point Peter. “…what should we know about the possible shadow-government that already has also maneuvered civil society into ratifying the oxymoron of gay “marriage,” and that has mainstreamed this agenda into public education from our morally-neutral(!)college campuses all the way down to unsuspecting pre-school story time ” I believe that there must be a ‘shadow government’!! – all the way up to the Vatican. How is it that so many homosexual men were admitted to the seminary? Who did the screening process? And who led the formation process? During the time of formation were active homosexual men able to hide their activities? As far as the corruption of some Cardinals and Bishops occurring decades ago – so what!! It shows what kind of a character they had and have. And just the fact that Wuerl’s first reaction to all these abominations was to say dismissively that it happened long ago so it’s not relevant now makes him look deceitful and arrogant and condescending – and then he hires a Public Relations firm to make him look good??? Where did he get the money for that? He shows no remorse whatsoever – Wuerl should be defrocked just for remaining silent about McCarrick’s sexual perversions and abuse of men and boys. I don’t know how Farrell got away scott free (nobody seems to be mentioning him at all so he must have friend – powerful friends in very high places) – he was personally involved with Maciel and then he lived for years with McCarrick and he looked so arrogant when he was being questioned with a sly smile on his face saying in knew nothing about McCarricks perverted behaviors…and he’s in Rome engaged in some important events and unless he is held accountable, he will continue his deviant ways. I pray that leaders among the religious and the laity will rise up and exorcise the whole body of abusers..we can only hope, and pray.

  3. Actually, I think sackloth and ashes will send a profound message that the episcopacy are truly repentant.

    A public “sackloth and ashes” liturgy will be a powerful image to the world that yes, we are Christians – we repent when we have done wrong. We are never as humble as when we are humbled.

    I rather think that all this is being allowed by God because light is needed for cleaning. Exposure of the ills is the first step to remedy.

    • Sackcloth and ashes, not even with a carefully well-thought & planned-out solemn procession with wailing, gnashing of teeth and self flagellation, is not enough. Not for me, but perhaps that is just me.
      .
      Mass resignations (and not waiting around for the Pope to accept it) is where I’m at. They ought to return to their families and let their families take care of them (food water, housing, medical care, etc). If that is not an option (and it may not be for many of them) perhaps get a job in the private sector to sustain their physical needs. Granted, what I want is not going to happen.

  4. I think it is worth noting that many of these cases date back to a time when a young Catholic in the minor seminary who realized that he was a homosexual would also realize that there was no place in society for a homosexual life-style. This was before “gay liberation.” The temptation was then to choose a life of hypocrisy — which is no foundation for an ethical life. Thus, the regression from bad to worse, but at least in this world it provided a respectable appearance. I think it is important to realize this to understand a key element in the genesis of this situation. Of course, this is just one aspect, but it is a fundamental one.

  5. All these words, while everyone already knows the bottom line: the bishops as a whole are a big failure, and many need tp resign. Visitations, reforms, etc, are all a bit of puffery. Can we have new ‘managers’? Why if this would be a no-brainer in a corporation that was mismanaged on a gross level is it such a stretch in the Church? Especially when most of these guys are retirement age anyway? The extended conversations just underscore the problem, They even have failed the Church. They need to bow out. They need to model humility and servanthood. And repentance.

  6. Good grief. No mention here whatsoever of the H word. Really? There is still an attempt to make the issue about abuse, “non-consensual” conduct.

  7. “What Do You Want to Know?” What I want to know is this: When will people like Cardinal Wuerl go to jail, and when will Catholics purge their priesthood of homosexuals and heretics, starting with the Diocese of Rome? That’s what I would like to know. When?

  8. Honestly, the only solution, however inequitable it may be or seem, is for every bishop in Pennsylvania to resign. The current bishops, at least for the most part, may not have been in any way involved with priest reassignments, settlements, etc. However, because their dioceses did not produce the files and records under their control until the grand jury demanded them, but instead hoped they would remain buried in their archives, they have marked themselves as collaborators–perhaps unintentionally–in the “cover up”. They should have led the charge, not responded to it. Apologies now fall on deaf ears because bishops are perceived as not willing to take responsibility for their decision to allow the cases to remain hidden. Coupled with pointing the finger at errant priests or those of another generation does nothing but encouraged cynicism. Ordinary parishioners now believe the bishops just simply didn’t want them to know how bad things were. Bishops will no longer be believed, or trusted, if they do not take responsibility–not for the crimes, but for the coverup–by resigning. Otherwise, it is more of the same.

  9. What do we want to know? Here are a few things:
    1) We want to know that the Bishops recognize the problem for what it is: overwhelmingly homosexual predation of vulnerable individuals, over 80% of whom were male and of which over 90% were adolescent and young men. See the John Jay College report for details.
    2) We want to know when the homosexual subculture within the seminaries and priesthood will be rooted out.
    3) We want to know when heretical bishops and priests who celebrate homosexuality and oppose church teaching on sexuality, marriage, family, divorce, access to the sacraments, etc, will be corrected or rooted out — publicly.
    4) We want to know when bishops who knew about McCarrick and other abusers and covered for abusive priests will be held to account and laicized — publicly.

    In a nutshell, we want to know when the Church will return to the faith handed down to us by the Apostles and Fathers.

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