2018: The year the Church’s crisis was unmasked

As 2018 turns into 2019, we are at the beginning of a generational struggle for the soul of the Church.

Pope Francis leads his Christmas message and blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city and the world) delivered from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican Dec. 25. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

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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About Christopher R. Altieri 228 Articles
Christopher R. Altieri is a journalist, editor and author of three books, including Reading the News Without Losing Your Faith (Catholic Truth Society, 2021). He is contributing editor to Catholic World Report.


  1. With due respect to Christopher Altieri, I disagree that it was improper on the part of Archbishop Vigano to call for the resignation of Pope Francis. The idea that Viganos’ accusations (which have been confirmed to be substantially true) are an attempted “coup” and part of a plot to deligitimize the Pope is ludicrous, because if it is indeed true that Pope Francis not only rehabilitated McCarrick (which he did), but allowed him to play an important role in Church governance, then the Pope, with due respect, only has himself to blame for discrediting himself in the eyes of the faithful.

    We have a duty, as St. Catherine of Siena did, to ask the Holy Father to do the right thing, to fulfill his oath to be a shepherd and lead us out of this crisis, or if he cannot or will not do so, to step aside for another Vicar of Christ who will. If the Pope continues to refuse to do the former, then the laity will conclude that the latter is the only viable option for the good of the Church.

    • To add on, I thought it was also odd to lament that the constitution being drafted by the C9 is dead in the water: nothing with input from Reinhard Marx ought to be a guiding document for the Church. I shudder to think what that den of nesr heretics would have produced.

  2. I will pray more frequently and post less frequently in 2019.
    As the author implies, it’s likely we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
    But our priest has begun to say the prayer to St Michael, the Last Gospel, on Sunday.

  3. This is not a good read for someone suffering a hangover. Fortunately I’m not since I no longer celebrate Pagan holidays. Unfortunately Altieri’s depressingly accurate assessment tells us Paganism is increasingly manifest in our Church not by crashing thru the gates but rather from within. I keep reading “glimmers of hope” Altieri still grasping that necessary virtue. “It seems paradoxical, but in spiritual warfare, the tiniest act of charity is a greater blow to hell than the most sweeping reform”. We need both. Charity, jettisoning bitterness avoiding insult toward the Pontiff can work miracles. The Pontiff’s words of resolve so far have merely advanced his agenda. Although the author’s counsel has eminent support. “I promise you that by this means her beauty will be restored to her, not by knife or by cruelty, but peacefully, by humble and continued prayer, by sweat and tears shed by the fiery desire of My servants, and thus I will fulfill your desire if you, on your part endure much casting the light of your patience into the Darkness” (The Dialogue of the Seraphic Virgin Catherine of Siena, no 34 edited by Algar Thorold London: Kegan Paul 1907).

    • Dear Father, you have entered a realm of labels, (Pagans)… them against us. Could be stretched to include our disastrous and divisive national politics with so many names are used. Horse face, fat ass slob, Pocahontas, rat, brain dead, low life, sh** hole African countries, etc.

      How do you define a Pagan? Are Pagans and atheists the same? You do not list the Pagan celebrations you object to. I don’t recall seeing a Pagan parade. More importantly, how does an evangelical Catholic attempt the conversion of a Pagan. Depending on your definition it might be an impossible task.
      Thank you.

      • Morgan the Christian Holy Days were instituted to replace Pagan worship such as Ostara the goddess of Spring with Easter. Paganism refers to religion that predated Christianity and now typically non Christian animist religions [or religion other than the three monotheistic] as I experienced in Africa. New Years day marks the Beginning of the year in the Gregorian calendar. It’s become the custom to noisily celebrate, get drunk, an excuse to fall into sin. It’s similar to worship of the Golden Calf by the Israelites as pretext to engage in orgiastic celebration. And it also may simply be a more benign time to celebrate with family and friends without the empty euphoria and excess. My mission as a priest is to counter such pretext by witness to Christ. You take issue with Catholicism as you perceive it. I recall your mentioning a related grievance. My counsel is ask Christ honestly and with humility to assist. You have my prayers.

        • I couldn’t agree with you more, Father Morello. I spent my New Year’s eve with the Blessed Mother in a vigil, with our pastor and the faithful.

      • Insofar as Paganism within the Church the reference is to reversion to immoral practice that predated Christianity. For example the classic Gk idea of sex between men as a more noble expression. This is occurring today in Italy. The past controversial Vatican creche is a manifestation.

  4. A good summary of a heartbreaking year. But let’s not use cutesy/effette terms like “l’Affaire McCarrick”. The McCarrick revelations are disgusting and shocking. This is not a time to be clever. For far too long people in the Church have obscured the reality of the situation with glib language. Please don’t start with McCarrick.

  5. We should continue presevering in prayer and fasting, per the counsel of The Lord Jesus – that some spirits (in our case the spirit that obsesses Ex-Cardinal McCarrick etc) can only be driven out by prayer and fasting.

    Blessed Mary, St. Michael the Archangel, blessed John the Baptist, Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, and all the saints, pray for our Holy Church.

  6. Let’s all pray for the bishops as they gather for a week-long retreat starting today, Jan.2. I pray that the bishops will be led by the Holy Spirit and listen to Him.

  7. I scanned this ‘old news’ article twice to find even a single word about the major issue – Sodomy or Homosexuality. The term ‘child sexual abuse’ abuse has morphed into ‘sexual abuse’ and I assume Altieri means to cutely subsume Sodomy into it, but it is nothing but an evasion. C’mon now! Let’s all say it out loud: SODOMY. Lay or clerical, it’s the same thing. That’s the root problem that needs solving – now. We can’t just wait a generation or two for a newly hoped for crop of seminarians/priests. The Faith – Our Blessed Lord – is suffering from this now!!!

    • Really it is a lack of the virtue of chastity all the way around. So many in the Church do not support the truth of the teachings on human sexuality.

      • Yes, Kathleen lay and clerical. Generous families and the virtue of continence do not derive from the tools of child avoidance

    • Yes, SODOMY, PERVERSION, DISGUSTING DEGRADATION and just plain QUEER, even when people of the cloth do it. Especially when they do it. For a man to lay with a man as with a woman is an abomination because it violates the highest laws of nature and God — “Go forth and multiply.” People who dismiss same-sex coupling as innocent “Gay” behavior should be forced to watch it.

  8. From the article: “The release of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report proved beyond doubt that the US bishops’ Apalachin moment had arrived.”

    I’m sorry, but this above statement could not be more ill-informed.

    The *real* story behind the PA GJ report is how *corrupt* and *dishonest* the whole report was. PA AG Josh Shapiro outright *lied* and deceived the public.
    And the Catholic media utterly failed in its duty to uphold truth and defend the Church against this demonic and crooked attack.

    Catholic media has become cowardly in reporting the Church abuse narrative. Writers are utterly frightened of defending the Church, lest they be attacked on Twitter or some dopey blog for being “out of touch,” “in denial,” or “defending the indefensible.”

    And Satan is somewhere laughing his rear end off at all the back-biting and all the mean-spirited attacks on bishops and the Pope.

    David F. Pierre, Jr.

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