Whatever else 2018 was, it was the year in which the crisis of clerical sexual abuse and coverup revealed itself to be a cancer within the leadership culture of the Catholic Church. Protracted, persistent, and systemic, the rot in the hierarchy reaches all the way up, and could reach all the way through the Roman Curia and more than one national conference of bishops.
The first major event of the year was also the one during which the global crisis of clerical sex abuse and coverup became permanently attached to Pope Francis.
While on a fence-mending visit to Chile—the first stop on a trip that would have its Peruvian leg almost completely overshadowed by the Chilean fallout—Pope Francis accused victims of the man who was then Chile’s most notorious abuser-priest (Pope Francis would defrock him in September) of calumny against Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno. The victims—Juan Carlos Cruz, James Hamilton, and José Andres Murillo—said Barros turned a blind eye to the predations of Father Fernando Karadima.
Francis eventually apologized, ordered an investigation into the matter, summoned the entire Chilean hierarchy to Rome for an unprecedented emergency meeting, obtained their resignations, and then sat on the lion’s share of them (he has accepted seven of thirty-four resignations, and dismissed two retired Chilean bishops from the clerical state), while Chilean prosecutors began raiding chanceries and offices of the Chilean bishops’ conference.
There were hopes that what appeared to be a genuine falling of the scales and change of heart on the part of the Holy Father—who reportedly said he was “part of the problem” when he met with Karadima’s victims in May—would lead to concrete and sustained efforts to address the crisis. Instead, there was a good deal more talk, and very little action.
As spring turned into summer, l’Affaire McCarrick exploded, opening a gruesome new chapter in the crisis that would dwarf anything that’s touched the Church in the age of modern communication.
By August, it was clear that the hierarchical leadership of the Church in the United States was thoroughly compromised, panicked, and almost totally paralyzed. The release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report proved beyond doubt that the US bishops’ Apalachin moment had arrived.
That was before the former apostolic nuncio to the United States, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, released the first of his “testimonies”: a spectacular, 11-page J’Accuse! that deepened existing divisions and opened new rifts in the hierarchy, the professional Catholic chattering class, and the body of the faithful in the US and around the world.
If Viganò had limited himself to exposing the rot, his publications might have been more effective. His original brief was powerful, and could have been stronger, but lacked a measure of discipline. As it happened, he called for Pope Francis’ resignation, exposing himself to accusations he is part of a coup d’eglise and turning the discussion away from the right means of remedy for a situation that had become untenable, and transforming it into a referendum on Pope Francis—who has his share of the blame for letting things come to that.
As summer gave way to autumn, unforced errors committed by Church leaders at every level continued to pile up, while the crisis deepened and the scandal intensified. Stories broke in other countries, until every inhabited continent was dealing with some part of it. In September, Pope Francis called a meeting of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences to discuss the crisis—to take place over three days in February 2019.
The misrule revealed in Buffalo dominated Church news in the United States for a few weeks, but largely gave way to the run-up to the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ annual fall plenary in Baltimore. Prepared to vote on reform measures designed to achieve a measure of accountability and stanch the hemorrhage of public confidence, the bishops found themselves hamstrung by an order from Pope Francis—couched as a “request” from the Congregation for Bishops—to delay their vote until after the February meeting.
As autumn turned to winter, a series of stories broke, while others took ugly—if predictable—turns. A rehearsal of them all would run to significant length and quickly become a grotesque litany, though it would include the Vatican’s campaign to lower expectations for the February meeting after it raised the stakes on the same exponentially. It would also include the news that the Vatican allowed an auxiliary bishop of Los Angeles accused of sexual misconduct to continue to serve—with restrictions on his ministry secretly imposed by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith—for 13 years, and that the archbishop of New York apparently allowed a man with multiple abuse allegations settled on his account by the New York Archdiocesan Reconciliation and Compensation Program to continue in ministry (and even sent a letter of suitability for the priest to a California Catholic college as recently as December 4).
The main reason we do not know how deep the rot runs or how wide it has spread, is the Pope’s refusal to order the necessary investigations. At the turning of the year, civil authorities in several countries are poised to solve that problem in a way that cannot fail to devastate the Church’s institutions.
For Pope Francis, whose oft-delayed and much belated reform agenda was already on the rocks, 2018 was going to be a critical year:
2018 is likely to be the year in which Pope Francis will have to decide whether he will use his immense talents, charisma, and strength of personality to harness and direct the energies of the Curia and the Church in a manner consistent with the best angels of her tradition, or whether he will continue to channel his efforts into a project that appears to have as its only overarching vision the remaking of Rome into a sort of Buenos Aires-on-Tiber.
In a sense, Pope Francis never got to make that decision. Circumstance decided it for him, with the effective disintegration of his principal reform organ, the “C9” Council of Cardinal Advisers, which became the “C6” in October after Francis relieved three members and apparently chose not to replace them.
To hear the Vatican tell it, the work of the C9 C6 is essentially complete—their draft Apostolic Constitution, Praedicate evangelium, was apparently ready for Pope Francis in June—so there is no need for fresh blood. Practically speaking, the reform is dead in the water.
Even if Francis does mark up the draft and send it for fine tuning, then get the fine copy back, promulgate it, and begin to roll it out, the reform will take years to implement. Bureaucracies are resistant to change, and the Roman Curia is well practiced in the Fabian arts. Plus, institutional reforms are nothing without personnel changes, and there are too many curial officials with too much skin in the game to go quietly.
Two of the three members Pope Francis “thanked for their service”—Cardinals Francisco Errázuriz and George Pell—are embroiled in major sex abuse and coverup scandals in their home countries. Francis dismissed the three senior churchmen in October, but only announced the change in December, after the embattled Cardinal Errázuriz let slip that he was no longer serving on the body. In a year characterized by a widening credibility gap, in which transparency has been declared the order of the day, the delay in the announcement was perplexing, to say the least.
That Cardinal Errázuriz stayed as long as he did was surprising on its own. He skipped the meeting of the Chilean bishops in May, already under intense scrutiny and facing heavy criticism that included calls for his imprisonment from Chilean victims of the man for whom Errázuriz allegedly covered. Francis promised those victims and the whole Church a hard line, but in Errázuriz’s case went with a half-measure.
The scandal and the crisis. The crisis and the scandal.
The two are no longer separable, but they are distinguishable: the crisis is of very long standing, rooted in the mysterium iniquitatis, and at its most basic level a disease of the spirit, a sickness caused by lust for power, which perverts everything it reaches even as it make use of every perversion it encounters on the march through souls; the scandal is an effect, rather than a cause of the crisis, and may yet be harnessed to the good.
“The crisis of clerical sexual abuse [and coverup] is a crisis of clerical culture, and more specifically, a crisis of episcopal leadership,” I wrote in July:
The bishops have lost their way, and they have brought the whole Church with them into a quagmire. The only way out is through, and the only way through the filthy muck and slime of half-truth more devilish than outright mendacity, is veracity. The bishops—all of them and every one of them—must tell the whole, unvarnished truth.
All throughout the year, we have learned details of specific abuse cases, which the bishops kept hidden as long as they could. Some of the details regarded run-of-the-mill perversion. Other details bore the unmistakable mark of the Satanic. Others were in between. All of them were sickening—overwhelming at times, and permanently scarring to anyone who has become familiar with them—truly and in the strict sense of the word, wretched.
As 2018 turns into 2019, we realize that we are at the beginning of a generational struggle for the soul of the Church. Institutional reforms are needed at every level of ecclesial life. Likewise necessary is a renewal of basic Christian devotion to both charity and piety.
There are more sickening, maddening, heartbreaking revelations to come. Individual bishops from whom we hope and deserve better will disappoint. The hierarchy will fail us again. This is going to get worse before it gets better. We need to be prepared for that. We also need not to lose sight of the good.
It seems paradoxical, but in spiritual warfare, the tiniest act of charity is a greater blow to hell than the most sweeping reform, and the surrender of the tiniest smidgen of bitterness in one human soul a mightier victory for heaven than a thousand searching exposés.
Exposure of rot and sweeping reform are both necessary and urgent, and we all have a part to play in both. Nevertheless, the work of the Christian in fear and trembling for his soul’s salvation is the first and perennial task, before which all must give way. It is work that requires community, though its working is often secret, even and especially to the one in which it is worked, and the principal worker is Christ. The real challenge in 2019 will be to keep Paul’s charge: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances.”
The opinions expressed in this essay are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of the CWR editors or of Ignatius Press.
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