NEW ORLEANS (LA)
Crux [Denver CO]
September 13, 2023
By Chris Altieri
Two recent Church stories, which on the surface seem to have little to do with one another, actually both point to a credibility deficit plaguing the institution at virtually every level. They illustrate a major problem with Catholic hierarchical culture: A failure to recognize – or refusal to admit – that trust is a two-way street, and must be earned.
The two stories are the ongoing saga of Bishop Michael Olson of Fort Worth and a poorly led group Discalced Carmelite nuns now in open rebellion, and Archbishop Gregory Aymond of New Orleans’ reneging on assurances his archdiocese’s bankruptcy wouldn’t affect schools and other apostolates.
In the Carmelites caper, Olson pretty clearly has a hard case in the erstwhile Mother Superior – who’s been accused of sexual and other impropriety, including possible involvement with controlled substances – and her fiercely loyal community of habited and cloistered sisters, who have lawyered up and hunkered down.
Still, Olson made ham-fisted use of news media as well as a sloppily crafted paper cudgel from Rome, and made it easy to paint him as a bull in a China shop.
Just this week, the editors of the National Catholic Reporter opined that the whole affair has played as a “tawdry soap opera drama orchestrated by Olson,” fueled by his “heavy-handedness and cruel treatment of a congregation of women religious whose real transgression, it appears, is to oppose him and his supposed authority.”
Bandying a sloppily prepared Vatican document purporting to give him broad power – what he says is basically absolute authority – to dispose of the situation, Olson has declared Mother Superior Teresa Agnes Gerlach to be schismatic and a source of public scandal. Many observers believe he’s played fast and loose with canon law, criminal procedure, and the rights of the accused, threatening the sisters with excommunication and issuing strong warnings to laity supportive of them.
What he hasn’t done is explain what the fuss is really about in a manner that is fair and comprehensible to all parties, or make pretty much any gesture that a candid observer could take to indicate the slightest openness to reconciliation.
In a polarized climate, with the moral standing of Church leaders at an all-time low, the smart play is to put one’s cards on the table.
Meanwhile, Aymond in New Orleans has a bigger problem: He made promises he now finds he can’t keep.
In a letter dated September 8th, Aymond announced he’ll be asking “parishes, schools, and ministries” to chip in to pay for abuse claims – among other things – as part of the archdiocese’s bankruptcy proceedings. That’s despite assurances that the 2020 bankruptcy filing would “not affect individual church parishes, their schools, schools run by the various religious orders, or ministries of the Church.”
Whether that’s because he got bad legal advice – something that may not be entirely not his fault, if the latest story from The Guardian is right – or because he really wanted it to be the case and thought he could buy some time to figure it out, or because the game changed when Louisiana opened a “look back” window allowing old civil abuse lawsuits that were statute-barred before the window opened to proceed, Aymond now says he has to do the very thing he said he wouldn’t do.
Aymond ought not be surprised at the development. The cost in money will be high, but the cost in trust will be devastating, not least because it appears his archdiocese has been neither as complete in disclosing the extent of past abuse nor as ruthless in seeking justice and implementing best practices as Aymond had let on.
Especially when it comes to abuse and coverup – and the financial fallout of protracted failure to come to grips with the crisis of abuse and coverup in the Church – bishops literally can’t afford anything less than complete transparency. An archdiocese can emerge from bankruptcy, but how are people to trust the Church when it tells them Jesus loves them and died for their sins, when it can’t even own its own failures?
Bottom line: People will forgive a great deal, but if you are a leader and you do not trust the people you lead – or would lead – with facts they need to have, they will eventually find it very hard to continue trusting you.
Maybe it’s time for a new playbook?
Follow Chris Altieri on X: @craltieri