(ROME – February 22nd, 2019) The participants in the Vatican’s meeting on child protection are serious and determined. Just what it is, about which they are serious and determined is a different question, with objects sometimes more difficult to identify and not always entirely encouraging when one is able to pin them down. On Friday — the second of three days of working sessions — the focus was supposed to be on accountability.
The focus was on accountability: primarily — not to say, almost exclusively — on bishops’ accountability to each other. “As we take up our collegial and collective sense of accountability and responsibility,” the Archbishop of Mumbai, Cardinal Oswald Gracias, said in the Friday morning address that introduced the theme for the day, “we will inevitably encounter a certain dialectic. For our collegiality does indeed express the variety and universality of the People of God, but also the unity of the flock of Christ.”
“It cannot be disregarded that dealing with the topic of abuse in the right way has been difficult for us in the Church,” said Cardinal Gracias, “for various reasons,” though he left largely unexplored the differences in the ways in which the abuse crisis has been difficult for bishops, whose failures enable abusers, and for victims, who are gravely and irreparably harmed and injured by the abuse the bishops have enabled by their failures of governance.
“We as bishops also bear responsibility for this,” Cardinal Gracias went on to say. “For me, this raises the question: do we really engage in an open conversation and point out honestly to our brother bishops or priests when we notice problematic behavior in them?” he asked. “We should cultivate a culture of correctio fraterna, which enables this without offending each other, and at the same time recognize criticism from a brother as an opportunity to better fulfill our tasks.”
A bishop offend another bishop? Heaven forfend.
“Closely related to this point is willingness to personally admit mistakes to each other, and to ask for help, without feeling the need to maintain the pretense of our own perfection,” Cardinal Gracias continued. “Do we really have the kind of fraternal relationship, where in such cases we don’t have to worry about damaging ourselves, simply because we show weakness?”
In an anecdotal parenthesis to his main speech, Cardinal Gracias shared a couple of encounters with victims he has had during the course of his own ministry, beginning with his recollection of one man he had met some years ago.
“He was very bitter, [he] could not forgive,” Cardinal Gracias said. “Thinking he required counseling for healing, I spent quite some time discussing the matter with him rationally.” I made no headway. Only much later, I realized — as I do now — the very long-lasting, sometimes lifelong damage this abuse does to the person — to the psyche of the person.”
If Cardinal Gracias ever made any attempt to secure a measure or semblance of justice for that man, whose inability to forgive his abuser was apparently so perplexing and consternating to him, he made no mention of it during his remarks.
Cardinal Gracias also spoke of some young victims he has met, noting, “It shocked me, how this changed the personality of the person.” That’s what shocked him.
“I realize we can hardly ever get it right,” Cardinal Gracias went on to say. “We must have the humility to admit we make mistakes. “We learn, from our mistakes, how to do better the next time,” he continued, raising the question — unanswered and unaddressed — of how many mistakes a bishop can or ought to be allowed to make before he is faced with real consequences.
Cardinal Gracias is himself accused of seriously mishandling an abuse case in 2015, and other cases.
When this gathering of the heads of the world’s bishops’ conferences opened on Thursday here in Rome, Pope Francis surprised participants and journalists, alike: first, with a call for “effective, concrete measures” to combat the scourge and scandal — in the technical, theological sense of the term — of the sexual abuse of minors in the Church; then, he issued a list of twenty-one “reflection points” that Archbishop Charles Scicluna — adjunct secretary to the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with a special portfolio for combatting sexual abuse and one of the meeting’s chief architects — described as a “roadmap for our discussion” and “very, very concrete.”
“It’s an understatement to say they have to be taken seriously,” Archbishop Scicluna said. “That’s an utter understatement — and even if there are things that haven’t been discussed enough, they are going to be part of the follow-up to the meeting,” Archbishop Scicluna continued on Thursday.
On Friday morning, Archbishop Blasé Cupich of Chicago offered one model of reform: the so-called “Metropolitan” model, which would put metropolitan archbishops in charge of investigating and disciplining wayward bishops within their ecclesiastical provinces. Reminded during the Friday briefing that both Theodore McCarrick and Cardinal Bernard Law were metropolitan archbishops, Cardinal Cupich responded, “You have to read the footnotes.”
Cardinal Bernard Law was the Archbishop of Boston, who resigned in disgrace in 2002 in the wake of the Boston Globe’s Spotlight investigations revealed systemic coverup and enabling of abuse in his archdiocese. Theodore McCarrick was once the Archbishop of Washington, DC. He was punitively dismissed from the clerical state a week ago, after being found guilty of sexually abusing both minors and adults.
Also during the briefing on Friday, Cardinal O’Malley expressed hope that the Vatican would soon release its report on how McCarrick was able to rise through the ranks and remain for so long in a position of great power and prominence within the Church’s leadership structure. The report is to detail findings from New York, Metuchen, Newark, and Washington, DC. McCarrick’s influence in both the US Church and in the Vatican, however, is widely believed to be much broader than those four jurisdictions — where he served — and very deep.
Asked how the bishops propose to hold each other accountable, and why the faithful ought to believe their promises such episodes will not repeat themselves, Cardinals Cupich and O’Malley responded in turn.
“[T]his is a matter of — first of all — accountability on my part: that I am going to live my life this way,” that is, as a moral and upright person and a disciple of Christ, “and then, to make sure that we are supportive of each other to live the Gospel.” Cardinal O’Malley broadly agreed, and then offered, “We are talking today about collegiality — about our obligation to each other — I would hope that any bishop, who is aware of this kind of misbehavior, would certainly make that known to the Holy See, and not feel that in any way we should try to cover it up or turn a blind eye to it.”
Their failures in those regards are chiefly responsible for the disastrous circumstances in which we find ourselves. The Vatican had word of McCarrick’s reputation no later than the year 2000 — eighteen years before taking any meaningful action against him. In 1994, the papal representative at the time, Archbishop (now Cardinal) Agostino Cacciavillan got a tip and asked then-Archbishop of New York, Cardinal John O’Connor, to make discreet inquiries.
In an October 2018 interview, Cacciavillan told the Catholic News Service, “It was not a formal complaint, but the expression of a concern,” and that he enlisted O’Connor, because he was closest to McCarrick geographically. “No one better than the archbishop of New York would know what was happening in the Archdiocese of Newark.” Cacciavillan also told CNS he neither confronted McCarrick directly, nor reported the matter to the Vatican.
On the subject of investigating and disciplining high-ranking bishops accused of malfeasance — of holding metropolitans, supposed to be the chief overseers according to his proposal, when they are themselves accused of wrongdoing — Cardinal Cupich also explained that he had carefully considered the matter and offered numerous alternatives, which he did not present in his spoken remarks. “I didn’t want to get into the alternates, but there’s a whole, long paragraph about what you do if the metropolitan is accused.” Cardinal Cupich briefly rehearsed some of the alternatives, which can be found in footnote 6 of his text, available — along with all the other speeches delivered during the working sessions — at www.pbc2019.org.
During the Friday briefing, Cardinal Cupich also spoke to the need for the involvement of the laity. “What is important however is to make sure that, whoever the bishop is, who handles it, that there is lay involvement as well, for transparency — because, I think, that makes it not only transparent, but it makes it ‘Church’ — where, we’re all in this together.”
Whatever the future of Cardinal Cupich’s specific proposal, the need to involve the laity, not only in consultation, but in governance of the Church, is not a consideration that can be postponed. As Adam DeVille put it in an analysis piece for these pages:
[W]hy not look at practical reforms to ecclesial structures? Why not honestly discuss power? Why not candidly admit that the current centralized papacy is an historical aberration and, I would argue, a theological disaster? What is to be lost by examining the monopoly on power that bishops have in their dioceses, and priests in their parishes, neither needing to have any formal input from the people of God in councils and synods until and unless these clerical overlords deign to “consult” the people from time to time?
If the present crisis has done anything, it is to force Catholics to realize that few, if any, should be entrusted with the kind of power clergy have in the Church today. The present system whereby bishops are in practice accountable to nobody is not traditional (or Traditional) in any sense of the word; nor is it a part of the “divine constitution” of the Church. It can and must change, and no degree of discomfort with this fact can be allowed to hold back the necessary changes—from the parish to the papacy—that the Church should now undergo.
“Although the meeting, we know, is a short one,” said the Director of the Press Office of the Holy See, Alessandro Gisotti, at the start of the briefing for journalists covering the meeting on the protection of minors in the Church on Friday, Day 2 of the gathering, “there is the conviction that the fruit will be long-lasting.”
Fr. Federico Lombardi SJ, moderator of the working sessions, told journalists at the Friday briefing he has found the atmosphere, “[V]ery serene, positive.” He went on to say, “I do not sense tensions in the assembly.” If the impression Fr. Lombardi conveyed an accurate reflection of the temper and temperature of the New Synod Hall where the meeting’s sessions are being held, there is cause for some concern. If there isn’t tension in the room, there ought to be.
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