Episcopal accountability and the ‘spirituality of reparation’

The Pillar [Washington DC]

May 8, 2023

By Ed. Condon

Pope Francis last week addressed the plenary gathering of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, declaring that “now is the time to repair the damage done to previous generations.”

Speaking to the commission’s members in the Vatican on May 5, Pope Francis said that clerical sexual abuse “and its poor handling by Church leaders” has been one of the “greatest challenges for the Church in our time.”

But, while the pope called for a “spirituality of reparation” as the Church continues to reckon with past “sins of omission,” efforts to move on from the crisis of abuse have to reckon with the fact that decades of scandals are not all the fault of “previous generations.” Rhetorically, many Church leaders remain some distance away from the pope’s vision of personal sacrifice for atonement, preferring the language of institutional responsibility and apology by proxy.

“Mending the torn fabric of past experience is a redemptive act, the act of the suffering Servant, who did not avoid pain, but took upon himself the iniquity of us all,” the pope said.

But are there signs that Church leaders are adopting Francis’ “spirituality of reparation,” or that bishops are prepared to “take upon themselves” the iniquities of previous decades?

The day after Francis’ address to the PCPM in Rome, the Baltimore Sun published a lengthy feature on the record of local archdiocesan officials in dealing with clergy facing multiple accusations of abuse. 

The Sun identified five officials of the Archdiocese of Baltimore whose names had been redacted from a recent report from the Maryland Attorney General’s Office on clerical sexual abuse in the archdiocese. The officials — all clerics — included former chancellors of the archdiocese, as well as Bishop William Francis Malooly, a former auxiliary bishop of Baltimore who served as head of the Diocese of Wilmington, DE, from 2008 until 2021.

In one case, Malooly negotiated with prosecutors to secure immunity for an abuser in exchange for providing a full list of his victims. In another, he drafted a statement to parishioners telling them a priest removed from ministry after abuse allegations was on “temporary sick leave because of stress,” the Sun found.

In another case, in the 1980s, after being informed by an assistant state AG that an allegation of abuse against a priest could warrant charges of assault, battery, and attempted rape, officials including Malooly sent the cleric for four days of “psycho-theological evaluation” before reassigning him back into ministry. 

In fact, Malooly later wrote to congratulate that priest on completing 25 years of ministerial service in the archdiocese, and the priest’s alleged crimes were not disclosed to authorities until 2002, a year before he died.

But despite Pope Francis’ call for a “spirituality of reparation” over sins of omission and the taking of personal responsibility by Church leaders, the Archdiocese of Baltimore instead funded legal bids by the officials to have their names redacted from the AG’s report by court order. 

And, according to the Sun, while declining to comment on the substance of the officials’ actions as detailed in the AG’s report, the archdiocese instead sparred with the newspaper over its role in securing a judicial order to black out the names of archdiocesan personnel from the published version.

On the other hand, Baltimore’s Archbishop William Lori, who also serves as vice president of the USCCB, offered a fulsome apology to victims when the AG’s report was first released last month. 

“To all survivors, I offer my most earnest apology on behalf of the archdiocese,” Lori said in April, calling the report “shocking and soul searing.”

“The report details a reprehensible time in the history of this Archdiocese, a time that will not be covered up, ignored or forgotten,” Lori said. “Acknowledgment, I know, is of utmost importance.”

But many abuse survivors and their advocates have questioned the archbishop’s pledge not to cover up, ignore, or forget, when set against the archdiocese’s financial support for the bid to prevent former officials like Malooly being named.

Some have and will continue to argue that it is hard for the Church to embrace the kind of “redemptive acts” called for by the pope, or instill confidence among the faithful, so long as apologies for crimes of omission are couched in institutional or vicarious terms.

What does it mean for an archdiocese to apologize, some ask. And how sincere is an “earnest apology” when it comes from Lori on behalf of former officials like Malooly, who has himself declined to speak publicly on the report or the Sun’s coverage?

Those questions take on an added sharpness when you consider that in 2002, Malooly addressed the release of a list of names of accused clergy in the Baltimore archdiocese while still an auxiliary bishop in the archdiocese.

At that time, the bishop offered his own apologies to Catholics who had had their faith shaken by the reality of clerical abuse, and defended the release of names of accused clergy, saying that it would be “a major move forward” if it encouraged other victims to come forward and helped to spur Church reform. 

The bishop also expressed his mystification at how priests known to be credibly accused of abuse had remained in ministry, even though it has now emerged he helped make it happen.

One common theme in both Pope Francis’ address on Friday and Archbishop Lori’s apology following the AG’s report last month is that both emphasized the real progress the Church has made in combatting clerical sexual abuse in recent decades.

At the global level, through the promulgation of laws like Francis’ 2019 Vos estis lux mundi, the national level through the Dallas Charter and USCCB Essential Norms, and the work of review boards in individual dioceses, reports of new instances of clerical abuse have fallen year on year and decade on decade.

Those policies and reforms may have been caused by new understanding and outrage over past scandals, like the 2001 Spotlight reports in Boston, or the 2018 Pennsylvania Grand Jury report and the McCarrick scandal, but all the available data does suggest that clerical abuse is — broadly if not yet universally — primarily a sin of past decades.

But much of the outrage in the early 2000s, and again following the McCarrick revelations, has been about the institutional failures to act, and the sins of omission addressed by Pope Francis last week. And while many new policies have focused on institutional and official transparency and accountability, the progress on those is less obvious.

Although papal laws like Come una madre amorevole and Vos estis have created new canonical crimes and mechanisms for investigating and punishing Church officials who mishandle abuse cases or are negligent in their duties, the application of these laws has been widely criticized as inconsistent and asymmetrical. 

And, despite other papal reforms aimed at bringing new transparency to how the Church deals with officials alleged to have been negligent in handling accusations of abuse, it remains rare for Church authorities to acknowledge investigations, or make public their findings. 

This, advocates have repeatedly said, makes it hard to assess their effectiveness, and continues to prevent public, personal accountability being taken by those found to have acted badly.

Even supposedly landmark attempts to engage with past failures have appeared to shy away from personal accountability. 

Perhaps most famously, the 2020 Vatican report on institutional knowledge and decision making regarding allegations against Theodore McCarrick managed to detail nearly 500 pages of what was known and reported when about the disgraced former cardinal, without assigning personal responsibility to any bishops, cardinals, or Church officials for facilitating McCarrick’s career.

“Now is the time to repair the damage done to previous generations and to those who continue to suffer,” Pope Francis exhorted the members of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors on Friday.

But, to many watching the Church’s reforming efforts, the pope’s exhortation raises questions about who, exactly, did the damage in the first place, and who, personally, is to take responsibility for repairing it?

The commission itself has a brief to develop and promote best practice on safeguarding for the global Church. But in the decade since Francis created the body, several of its most prominent members have resigned in public frustration with what they see as a lack of coherence to its work, authority to do its job, impact by its efforts.

While the commission’s more prominent members and leadership have repeatedly stressed the watchwords of accountability and transparency, it is hard to cite examples of bishops embracing the call to publicly account for their own missteps, or to assume personal responsibility for ensuring institutional reforms bear fruit.

Ironically, the bishop who has most notably attempted to do both is the German Bishop Franz-Josef Bode, formerly head of the Diocese of Osnabrück.

Following an independent report last year, which found the bishop responsible for the mishandling of abuse cases, Bode initially insisted that while he might have been personally responsible for  decades of negligence, he would not resign because he believed only he could repair the scandal he had caused in office.

Perception of Bode’s true motives for seeking to remain in office were clouded by his prominent role in the German synodal process, and his position as deputy chairman of the local bishops conference. But the whole affair was given the aspect of farce when the diocese initially implied that he had the backing of Fr. Hans Zollner, then the most visible member of the PCPM — which they were later obliged to clarify he did not.

Bode’s resignation was eventually “accepted” by Pope Francis in March, just days before Zollner himself announced he was “publicly disassociating” himself from the commission and its work, and offered a stinging criticism of the PCPM’s work “particularly in the areas of responsibility, compliance, accountability, and transparency.”

Since then, the commission has pressed ahead with its work. Archbishops like Lori have continued to offer apologies on behalf of the institutions they lead, and former officials like Bishop Malooly have remained silent. 

Pope Francis hailed Friday “a new springtime” of reform, “made fruitful by the work and tears we share with those who have suffered.” But, for many watching the Church’s reforming efforts, efforts to move forward remain hampered by a distinctly impersonal engagement with the past.