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Transparency and accountability, but above all truth

The expressions of concern by Church leaders are welcome. But talk is one thing, action another.

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Statements by Pope Francis and American bishops reacting to the Church’s sex abuse scandal suggest they are serious about getting to the roots of what happened and doing something meaningful about it. That includes the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick as well as a thousand old—but for the most part previously unreported—abuse cases in six Pennsylvania dioceses.

The expressions of concern by Church leaders are welcome. But talk is one thing, action another. And action is what this spiraling crisis now requires.

A lot attention focuses on the possibility of an “apostolic visitation”—a form of Church investigation—as proposed by Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, president of the U.S. Catholic bishops’ conference.

But whether it takes that form or some other, an in-depth investigation is needed, now more than ever, in light of the claim by Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano, former Apostolic Nuncio in the United States, that top people in the Vatican knew of the complaints about ex-Cardinal McCarrick as early as 2000 and he personally told Pope Francis five years ago. Yet McCarrick continued as an influential advisor of the Pope until last June, when the New York archdiocese said it had found credible a complaint that he groped an altar boy nearly half a century ago.

These charges are part of a lengthy document by Archbishop Vigano containing enough derogatory allegations about top-level Church figures in the United States and Rome to keep investigators busy a long time.

And leaving the Vigano allegations aside, any serious investigation must examine the charge by Bishop Robert Morlino of Madison, Wis. that a “homosexual subculture within the hierarchy” is the source of many of the problems now vexing the Church.

In tackling these sensitive matters, the investigation must refrain from scapegoating or profiling gays. But it also needs to steer clear of the head-in-the-sand political correctness, already emanating from some sources, that would deny the very possibility of a serious gay problem.

Several specific conditions must be met in structuring the investigation.

One is that laity be involved at every stage and in all aspects of its planning and execution. When Cardinal DiNardo speaks of the “expertise” of lay people in “investigation, law enforcement, psychology, and other relevant disciplines” his point is well taken. If, however, this means involving lay people only as expert consultants and no more, that won’t wash. Lay people should be full members of the investigating body itself.

This shouldn’t be a project of, by, and for bishops. The whole Church has been hurt by what has happened in recent weeks, and the whole Church should have a say in what is done to set things right. That requires a fundamental reorientation of the bishops’ customary way of thinking—a shift from seeing the laity as “our people” to accepting them as “our partners.” If bishops are hesitant to partner with the laity in an undertaking of utmost importance to the welfare of the Church, they need to put aside their hesitation and make the great leap.

It hardly needs saying that transparency and accountability should be integral elements of this exercise in truth-telling. Old habits of self-serving secrecy in the conduct of Church affairs are part of the explanation of how we got into the present mess, and more secrecy now would simply not be acceptable. Self-serving secrecy is always an obstacle to the truthfulness and accountability essential to building and sustaining community in the Church. And above all in this time of scandal and crisis, we need the truth.

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About Russell Shaw 262 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. Given the recent testimony that has come forth and the pope’s response, your opening premise “Statements by Pope Francis and American bishops reacting to the Church’s sex abuse scandal suggest they are serious about getting to the roots of what happened and doing something meaningful about it. That includes the case of Archbishop Theodore McCarrick as well as a thousand old—but for the most part previously unreported—abuse cases in six Pennsylvania dioceses.” is laughable at best.

    There is very little to suggest they are serious about anything other than their own protection and continuing to lead souls to hell behind them.

  2. The action that is demanded here will not come from a Vatican visitation or a USCCB-controlled “lay” committee. The lesson of American clerical homosexual abuse is simple fact that cannot be dismissed or ignored or explained away: neither in 1985 nor in 1995 nor in 2004 did the Church do anything before being sued by civil state and private attorneys on behalf of the victims. The only real and effective remedy remains today as it has been for the past 30 years: investigation and prosecution by civil authorities. In this instance, given the massive national scale of the abuse, a U.S Department of Justice RICO prosecution joined by all 50 State Attorney Generals would be in order. Today it is reported that Pope Frankenstein and his Secretary of State Parolin are “serene” in the face of Archbishop Vigano’s stunning allegations and insist that “not a word” will be their response. Their contemptuous serenity would dissipate quickly once they have received civil and criminal subpoenas requiring them to account for their morally corrupt and legally criminal actions to United States courts.

  3. Involving the laity — except, perhaps, as experts — is an egregious error. It will bring down on the Church the evils of Americanism and lay trusteeism, from which the Church struggled so hard to free itself. The problem is homosexuality and Modernism which the bishops and the Pope must condemn. That would provide the “solution”. We already have way too many laity involved in the governance of the Church.

  4. The Holy Bible tells us “that you will know them by their fruits, and that an evil tree cannot produce good fruit, and will be cut down and cast into the fire”. If you study the history of the Roman Catholic Church, it becomes obvious that they have, and continue to be a producer of wickedly evil fruit. God has allowed this horrendous sin, of this false doctrine, to come to light in these Last Days for all of their followers, and the entire world to see. There is only one true church, that was founded in the Book of Acts. Peter was not the first Pope, he was one of the Apostils of Jesus. Peter was also married, and had children. Mary the mother of Jesus was also married, and had children after the birth of Jesus Christ. The Holy Bible also tells us that “God is not the author of confusion”. With this being God’s word, it becomes obvious that God is in no way associated with a religion that commits such wickedly sinful crimes to little children, and has been committing these vial, heinous, crimes for as long as there has been recorded history of this false religion. God hates sin, is opposed to evil, and his one true church is in now way involved in such filthy wickedness. These latest revelations against the Roman Catholic Church sends a strong message to all of their followers, and the entire world that Jesus Christ has never been involved with this satanic, false religion.

    • I am kindly asking, which kind of bible do you read? produce the evidence of all your accusations about Peter, the Virgin Mary and so on. Thereafter, I can challenge you.

  5. I agree in essence with Robert Miller. The issue here is an ecclesiological one, dealing specifically with Church parity. If this were, say, a Lutheran, Methodist or Presbyterian situation–even an Episcopal one–active lay engagement throughout such a process would be a given. However, in the Catholic tradition, the bishops are fathers, pastors and heads of the particular churches. By virtue of their office, confirmed by the tradition of the Church through the ages, they do not and cannot be subject canonically to their subjects. (And the laity, as much as we might as Americans be uncomfortable with the term, are subjects, along with priests, deacons and religious.) Allowing lay people to act as de facto (and de jure) judges of the hierarchy as Carl suggests in this essay would create not only a dangerous and unprecedented situation for the Church, but could indeed lead to a type of power sharing attempted in the US during the lay trustee controversies of the 19th century, as already mentioned. This was also the lamentable situation in many Orthodox churches in North America where, in order to secure financial stability, adopted a modified form of Protestant polity. In the Catholic tradition, the laity do not sit in judgement over clergy and especially over prelates, except with regard to the powers of State courts and law enforcement, recognizing the interaction of the two quasi-independent spheres of human governance. We also know from early Church history what happened when the laity (specifically sovereigns) usurped prerogatives that rightly and exclusively belonged to the Church. (For example, the convocation of ecumenical and provincial councils, erecting and dissolving dioceses, imprisonment and banishment of bishops from their sees, mandating missions, etc.) No, as logical and reasonable as it may appear, a power-sharing arrangement, even a limited one as is suggested here, would allow the laity to illicitly exceed their role within the Mystical Body. Ecclesiologically, bishops are not and cannot be judged, and are ultimately subject to their peers. (That is why Cardinal Wuerl was sort-of correct about in-house policing, but his mistake was to limit it to the conference level. This was a fatal error, on his part.) Bishops (the pope included) have the exclusive right to judge their own.

    Perhaps the Counter-Reformation could prove instructive here. When similar problems to our current ones (and many others) were for centuries plaguing the Western Church, Trent was convoked to take on the issues, whether it was clerical concubinage, abuse of benefices and indulgence grants, checking the excessive interference of the State into Church affairs and absentee bishops. It required a monumental effort, in some cases taking the better part of a century after the council before universal reform took root. But it worked and yielded fruit that endures to this day. Perhaps something similar could be established today. While convocation of a reform ecumenical council would be impracticable today (indeed, with around five thousand bishops, it seems that the era of the ecumenical council has passed into history as being too unwieldy), perhaps an “extraordinary” Synod of Bishops could be called, instead. This type includes all presidents of the world’s episcopal conferences, the hierarchs representing Eastern synods and assemblies, and heads of the Roman Curia. Such a synod could also be granted deliberative or legislative authority by the pope to deal with episcopal wrongdoing, just as Trent did. It would be “in-house,” but given the wide and varied global representation of the hierarchy, it could be powerfully effective in creating structures and other practical solutions that would be brought to bear on the problems. Certainly, there could and should be lay periti from the various disciplines and sectors of society that would advise and guide the assembled episcopal leaders. Beyond that, again, a dangerous and illegitimate ecclesiastical system could be set into motion that would become a Leviathan, creating a polity contrary to that which was intended by the Lord, himself.

    • Given your conclusions, the only action that the laity may take in their lifetimes is to leave the Catholic Church for a church that is not so constrained. They are.

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