Three years ago this month, I wrote in these pages that the US bishops’ “Apalachin moment” had arrived.
I meant to say that the then-recent revelations regarding Theodore Edgar “Uncle Ted” McCarrick (the disgraced former cardinal archbishop of Washington, DC) and the publication of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report had combined to make it impossible for anyone to deny systemic corruption in the clerical and hierarchical leadership of the Church or systemic rot in the ecclesiastical leadership culture.
There was ample evidence of the rot that summer of 2018, some of it gathered by the Catholic World Report. I think of Cardinal Wuerl’s attempt to downplay the McCarrick business.
Before that summer’s celebrity clerical whistleblower, Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, published his first spectacular J’ Accuse!, Cardinal Wuerl appeared on Salt & Light TV with Fr. Thomas Rosica, and said: “I don’t think this is some massive, massive crisis.” CWR reached Cardinal Wuerl with an offer to revise and extend his remarks, which he accepted.
“I think it’s important to take a look at, and to listen to the context,” he offered then. “The context of that whole discussion [with Salt & Light] was: The Church is facing a very grave situation. There’s an erosion of confidence — in fact, there’s a breakdown — right now, of credibility.”
“This is a very grave moment, a situation of very real crisis,” Cardinal Wuerl went on to say. “That crisis should not overwhelm us. We should be able as lay women, lay men, and bishops, to confront it and to resolve it.”
The very short version of a three-year-long story-that-is-really-a-chapter-within-a-much-bigger-story is: That hasn’t happened.
There is something poetic about the news of Theodore McCarrick’s impending rendez-vous with criminal justice, therefore, something coldly comforting but solid and substantial.
In November of 2018, when news of Bishop Holley in Memphis, Bishop Malone in Buffalo, and Bishop Jenik in New York, was all in the papers within the span of a couple of weeks, I noted – also in these pages – that the carelessness of the Vatican in these general regards was evident, as was the willingness of too many powerful bishops in the United States to toe the Vatican line and even take pages from the Vatican playbook.
There was precious little to warrant any hope for meaningful reform from within the Church, and the trajectory was then clearly toward institutional collapse.
“[T]he Catholic Church’s house will be clean,” I wrote. “The only questions are whether it shall be God’s Vicar on Earth who cleans it, or Caesar, and whether the cleansing shall come before or after the fire sale.”
With criminal charges brought against Uncle Ted, we begin to have an answer to the first of those questions, and possible indication of the answer to the second.
I wrote a little, for the Catholic Herald, about what this means for reporters on the Church beat and for senior Churchmen and their appointed mouthpieces, after the recent unpleasantness regarding Bishop Hoeppner in Crookston. If that Crookston business was an exercise in transparency, it was desultory at best.
If Church leaders are taking at least some of their cues from Rome, and if Rome is concerned with scandal, then Church leaders’ failures in transparency are the result of terrible miscalculation.
The carelessness of Churchmen high and low toward the broad public continues to be the true scandal. The faithful have a right to knowledge regarding the character and conduct of their rulers in the faith, and the world has a right to the Gospel. The failures of Churchmen to be forthright continue to hamper the effectiveness of Christian witness.
This summer, we have seen new methods of newsgathering employed in the work of discovery.
The methods arise from within the digital weave of the world in which we live. They are controversial. They are disconcerting in themselves and in their implications. They are powerful. They are dangerous.
Serious, sober discussion of the professional ethics involved in the collection and use of data is needful, and long overdue.
That journalists have deployed such methods in the search for truth regarding the state of clerical and hierarchical leadership, is itself further testament to the depth and extent of the corruption and rot. It is also at least partly owing to the recalcitrance and retrenchment of Churchmen.
Whatever one makes of the ethics of the reporters at The Pillar, who used data to gather and report evidence of the General Secretary of the US Conference of Catholic Bishops’ serial misbehavior, candid minds cannot doubt the newsworthiness of the story they reported.
“The only way out is through,” I wrote in these pages, three years ago this week, “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,” I said. “In any case, the truth will out.”
It didn’t need to happen this way. It still doesn’t.
Journalists on the Church beat need to consider together and very carefully whether and how to use available tools, now that the “digital genie” is out of the bottle. That will take time and resources. We will make mistakes. They will be costly.
The reading public must develop powerful new heuristics with which to distinguish the “good” news from the “bad” and sort it properly.
Church leaders need to realize their part in bringing us to where we are, and listen — really listen — to their comms people, who too often find themselves saddled with the unenviable task of touting a line against which they strenuously argued, or would have argued if they’d been in the room.
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