Patheos blog

June 24, 2019

By Msgr. Eric Barr

So they lawyered up. That was the first mistake the bishops made in the sex abuse crisis. Deciding to be CEOs rather than shepherds. Thinking that money would solve what pastoral care would not attempt. Then the leaders of the Church made a second mistake: the bishops broke the foundational sacramental link between a bishop and his priests. What was supposed to be a firm partnership of brothers in ministering to the People of God became a standoff between a boss and his employees. Vatican II saw the priests as the sacramental extension of a bishop’s ecclesiastical shepherding outreach. Instead, they were used as pawns to buttress the wall of defense between a bishop and his people.

The Breaking Of Trust Between Bishop And Priest
To be fair, this split had already been happening for decades in the Catholic Church of the U.S.A. But it was exacerbated by the sex abuse crisis. What should have been a cooperative united attempt to heal a Church reeling from the crisis in authority occurring because of sexual abuse, became instead a circling of the wagons by the chancery, with the priests left to fend for themselves.

Priests were supposed to trust that their bishop had their backs, that the bishop would support and lift up his priests in times of crisis. The bishops did not desert the priests out of malice; rather, they fled from their priests out of fear. The laity mistakenly believed the bishops were defending priests by hiding the predators among them. Not so. They were trying to pretend those bad priests did not exist. The bishops did this to protect themselves. Now they went to the other extreme. As the crisis grew, the bishops willingly threw away the innocent as well as the guilty. There was a presumption that an allegation against a priest was true until it was proven false.

The Problem With Zero Tolerance
The bishops imposed a zero tolerance policy, which at the time made perfect sense. Sexual abuse was a heinous offense and though it came in different guises, it was bad and had to be punished. Just like a plague would be quarantined, bishops felt the contagion of sexual abuse needed similar draconian action. It is an effective way to stop an evil, but its take no prisoners attitude caused unforseen damage. In hindsight, zero tolerance, still in effect throughout the Catholic world, did and continues to do several terrible things:

First, it brands all sexual abuse as equal. Inappropriate words, conversations, touching, sexual contact, rape, pedophilia–all these were de facto considered the same offense. Understandably so, as the Church reacted to its previous denial of any type of crime inherent in these activities. But with time, new understandings have appeared. There are different levels of sexual abuse, some much more serious than others. But the penalties remain equal–total suspension of priestly ministry.

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