Scandal Time III

By Richard John Neuhaus
First Things
August-September 2002

So, will there be further installments of this running commentary, Scandal Time IV through XIV, ad infinitum? Maybe not. After the Dallas meeting of bishops, some believe that while the fire is not extinguished, it appears to be contained. Dallas was about many things--there were moving, even inspiring, moments, and occasional hints of something like renewal--but the meeting was chiefly about damage control. By that measure it may be judged a limited success. If that turns out to the case, it is no little achievement. Although, as we shall see, it might have been purchased at the price of things more important than damage control.

The fire that prompted the bishops to action was a conflagration of ugly publicity, a media blitz of unprecedented intensity in American religious history and with few parallels in other aspects of our national life. Back in April, during Holy Week and at the height of the firestorm, a reporter with a national paper asked me in obviously innocent puzzlement, "We did Watergate and Nixon fell, we did Enron and it fell, how come the Church is still standing?" The question reflects the touching self-importance of the media, and their not so touching ignorance of the nature of the Church. Let it be said, though, that many bishops were as terrified by the media as the media thought they should be. And maybe it is just as well that they were. Otherwise, Dallas would not have happened, and, all in all, it was necessary that Dallas happen.

It was humiliating, of course, to see the solemn assembly of bishops, archbishops, and cardinals jumping through the hoops and slithering under the bars held by the media ringmasters. Dallas was a classic instance of what social scientists call the rituals of self-denigration. Almost three hundred bishops sat in mandatory docility as they were sternly reproached by knowing psychologists, angry spokespersons for millions of presumably angrier lay people, and, above all, by those whom the bishops learned to call, with almost cringing deference, the "victim/survivors." At times the meeting took on the appearance of a self-criticism session in a Maoist reeducation camp. But it was all in the good cause of finding a way to "move on," as it is said, from an undoubted catastrophe. It would be cynical to deny that there were signs of deep remorse, contrition, and penitence. There were. Even if it was a bit much to have reporters counting how many bishops shed tears as they listened to the victim/survivors. Tears earned a gold star and welling eyes an honorable mention from the media masters of the rites of self-denigration. Like schoolboys, the bishops anxiously awaited the evening news to find out their grades.

Some bishops chafed under the reproaches and prescribed responses. It is not the way bishops are accustomed to being treated. Some still complain, although privately, that the entire crisis, the Long Lent of 2002, was manufactured by the media and motivated by anti-Catholicism. There is only some truth in that. Without the media there would have been no felt crisis. There is a generous measure of anti-Catholicism in the media, as elsewhere, but without the deeper crisis of the infidelity and negligence of bishops, the media could not have produced the public and, consequently, episcopal sense of crisis. The scandal was in the chanceries, parishes, and seminaries before it was on the front page or television news. Whatever their motivations--and their chief motivation is to attract a paying audience, followed by the winning of journalistic honors--editors and reporters served a higher purpose. It is hardly without precedent that God uses even their enemies to discipline His wayward people. There is Isaiah 10, for instance. "Assyria is the rod of my anger, the staff of my fury," says the Lord. And so, with Psalm 23 in mind, the bishops should say of the media assault, "Your rod and your staff, they discomfort me."

It has been said that the aim of good preaching is to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. Bishops have been anything but comfortable since the scandals went big time with the Boston exposures back in January. The day following the one-sided vote in Dallas on the "Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People" (there were only thirteen nays), the New York Times expressed satisfaction in an editorial titled "Seeking Atonement in Dallas." The editors opined that the action shows that "the leaders of the American Church are at last ready to confront the extraordinary moral and managerial carelessness that allowed so many abusive priests to flourish for so long at such great cost." So the bishops earned provisional absolution from the Times.

Of course the vote was the top front-page story for the Times, as for other papers. The Times headline--or, more precisely, subhead--is a classic. "Bishops Set Policy to Remove Priests in Sex Abuse Cases: No Vatican Reply." The Dallas vote was taken late afternoon when it was early morning in Rome. The first edition of the Times goes to press a little before midnight in New York. "No Vatican Reply." Presumably the Pope should have been up at two a.m., prepared with an immediate statement upon the Dallas vote. Or maybe the Times was upset that he was not awakened to return their reporter’s phone call. Just who does he think he is? It used to be said that Rome thinks and acts in terms of centuries. Now it is thought to be news when it does not respond in a New York minute. "No Vatican Reply." File that one for ready reference when the subject turns to media delusions about how history must jump through their hoops.

The No-Mercy Route

On the other hand, there was a curious story in the Times, also on the front page, only two days later. Written by Laurie Goodstein, it worried that the bishops may have been too responsive, that by caving so completely to media pressure they had lost even more of the little moral authority they had left. It used to be, she writes, that the bishops could prophetically challenge popular opinion on questions such as abortion, welfare reform, capital punishment, and foreign policy, but now they are on the run. More important, by caving to demands for "one strike" and "zero tolerance" policies that will remove from ministry faithful priests who did one bad thing thirty years ago and have since had an impeccable record and are clearly no threat to anybody, Dallas may have changed the very self-understanding of the Church.

Goodstein writes: "Ultimately, [the bishops] opted for the no-mercy route despite arguments from some bishops that they should adopt an approach that acknowledges that each case is different, and that some abusers can with therapy be rehabilitated and continue to be of service. They took this step despite dreading that they must now return to their dioceses and tell seventy-year-old Father X that he will have to pack up and leave his parish in shame." Some bishops have already done that and she notes that in recent months there have been instances when parishioners have rebelled against the removal of beloved pastors. The shaming has had other consequences. "Two priests have committed suicide," she observes. "There could be more." Where there is no mercy, there is no hope. I expect Goodstein is not alone among reporters who are surprised and disappointed by the spinelessness of the bishops. After all, they as reporters were just doing their job in applying the pressure. They expected bishops of the Catholic Church to do their job, to respond as bishops. Instead, as Goodstein puts it, there is the perception that they "behaved more like Senators or CEO’s engaged in damage control than as moral teachers engaged in the gospel."

At least in large part, damage control was achieved, but at an unconscionable price. Bishop Howard J. Hubbard of Albany, New York, usually thought to be solidly in the liberal camp of the episcopal conference, spoke up against "zero tolerance." He pointed out that just last year the bishops issued a statement calling for the rehabilitation of prisoners and advocating "restorative justice." "Do we advocate this biblical concept for the community at large, but not for our own priests?" he asked. The hall fell silent when the revered Avery Cardinal Dulles moved to the microphone. The proposed charter, he said, "puts a very adversarial relationship between the bishop and the priest. The priest can no longer go to his bishop in confidence with a problem that he has. He has to be very careful what he says to the bishop because the bishop can throw him out of the ministry for his entire life." The bishops listened respectfully, and rejected his counsel.

Two orthodox stalwarts, Cardinals George of Chicago and Bevilacqua of Philadelphia urged support of the charter, but with heavy hearts. Cardinal Bevilacqua said, "It hurts to say I support zero tolerance. I wish I didn’t have to do that. I wish our circumstances were different. But, at the same time, in our present crisis we must place the common good of our Church first." With respect, isn’t that the way of thinking that produced the crisis in the first place? The good of the Church was defined in terms of avoiding scandal; thus the pattern of evasion, denial, hush money, and cover-up. It was necessary, it was said, to do some shady things to avoid scandal, all of which resulted in monumental scandal. Now, morally dubious measures are necessary for the good of the Church, in order to put that scandal behind us. The result may be a greater scandal; not, to be sure, in the eyes of the media but in the understanding of those whose chief concern is for the integrity of the Church’s faith and life.

The Word is Scapegoating

Now that the bishops have chosen what Goodstein aptly calls the "no-mercy route," consider the aforementioned Fr. X. In his opening address at Dallas, Bishop Wilton Gregory said that priests who had ever had even one abusive incident with a minor, even if it was many years past, should tell their bishops. Right. So that the bishop can boot them out of ministry forever. No matter that it was thirty years ago, that he had repented, that by the grace of God his life was put back in order, that he has been for decades a faithful, effective, and beloved priest. Zero tolerance! Out! How many Fr. Xs are there? Now we will almost certainly never know. And that because few will be inclined to volunteer themselves for clerical execution, and that with good reason. They may well tell themselves that they cannot in good conscience be complicit in destroying the ministry they have been given by God and the Church. The bishops have not the authority, they have not the right, to demand that as a price for the public relations advantage of making themselves look tough on sex abuse. Another name for the zero tolerance policy adopted at Dallas is scapegoating.

In setting themselves against their priests, the bishops have turned themselves into assistant district attorneys determined to prove themselves tougher than their bosses. Note what counts as an offense for which a priest is removed from ministry for life. A sexual offense, the charter says, is not "necessarily to be equated with the definitions of sexual abuse or other crimes in civil law." You think civil law is rigorous? Just wait until you see the gospel at work. Here is the definition of sexual abuse adopted by the bishops: "Sexual abuse includes contacts or interactions between a child and an adult when the child is being used as an object of sexual gratification for the adult. A child is abused whether or not this activity involves explicit force, whether or not it involves genital or physical contact, whether or not it is initiated by the child, and whether or not there is discernible harmful outcome."

There need be no fondling, no pinch, no touch, no words, no discernible harm. Indeed, it would seem that the "victim" need not even be aware that he or she was the object of abuse. The priest falls into erotic musing as an attractive sixteen-year-old passes by, and receives a measure of sexual gratification. Jesus called it committing adultery in the heart, a sin Jimmy Carter famously confessed in a Playboy interview many years ago. A good thing Mr. Carter did not want to be a priest. After the vote some bishops said that everything was so rushed and they did not know the definition of abuse was so loose and potentially abusive of priests. You voted for it, sir. You voted to make it mandatory, with absolutely no exceptions, that a priest be excluded forever from ministry for anything that might fall within the above definition of a sexual offense. This is not for "the good of the Church." This has nothing to do with "the protection of children and young people." This is panic, and panic results in recklessness.

This is also among the things that canon law, developed over the centuries, is designed to prevent. Astonishingly, many of the bishops are trained in canon law. Canon lawyers who were not at the epicenter of the panic in Dallas point out that, for all the tough talk, the charter adopted has no juridical force whatever. A priest who is booted under the Dallas dictates could presumably appeal for due process under canon law. In any event, it is confidently asserted, Rome will never give its approval to the charter. The problem is that Rome may take months to respond to Dallas, and meanwhile hundreds of priests may be publicly shamed and exiled from the Church’s ministry. Ah, well, when you’re into scapegoating, you accept that sacrifices must be made. Wasn’t it John F. Kennedy, that fine Catholic, who observed that life is unfair?

Not, of course, that the bishops let themselves off entirely. In the same speech, Bishop Gregory says that any bishop who is guilty of even one offense, no matter how long ago or what his life and ministry have been since, should tell the papal nuncio so that he can report it to Rome. Right. Maybe some bishops will do that, but we will likely never know. Rome, however, is not patient with ploys such as zero tolerance, and will probably tell any such bishop to go back to work and clean up any messes he has made. Having been told by Rome to stay on, it is doubtful that bishops will step down.

But it is objected that a draconian, no mercy, zero tolerance rule is necessary to "protect the children." That is another untruth added to all the other untruths in this sordid crisis. Let us stipulate that reprehensible things have been done to children and young people. That is heartbreakingly evident to anyone equipped with common sense and a conscience. My point here is that there is not a scintilla of evidence that a person who did a stupidly wicked thing many years ago and is repentant and has rendered decades of faithful service without a hint of suspicion poses any threat whatever to children or anyone else. We used to call that redemption. Such a person is not to be thrown out as an abuser but welcomed as a forgiven sinner to the company of forgiven sinners that is the Church. The bishops are paying a high price for making themselves look good in the eyes of a media that is largely indifferent to the gospel that bishops are to serve. Pity the priests who are on the receiving end of this punitive policy, and their people. But the bishops, too, bear a burden. For instance, wrestling with their consciences about how to square "one strike and you’re out" with the teachings of the One who spoke about forgiving seventy times seven. He did not say to the one who denied him three times, "Sorry, Peter, one strike and you’re out." The morning after the Dallas vote, all the bishops celebrated Mass. I wonder how many noticed how often the words of the Mass appeal for mercy, declaring our utter dependence upon forgiveness. And if they did, I wonder if they thought about their vote the day before. I hope that at least some of them were worrying that, just maybe, they had tried to save their public relations skins at the price of betraying the gospel.

Sins Against Justice and Mercy

Among the most elementary of elementary rules in every recognized system of justice is that you cannot make laws that apply retroactively. That is precisely what the bishops did in adopting zero tolerance and draconian punishment for vaguely defined incidents not only of the present and future but also of the past. Priests who for years have been thanking God that they are forgiven, healed, and restored to faithful ministry are now told to take back their gratitude. They are instructed that the good of the Church, meaning the public image of the bishops, is not compatible with the gift of redemption. Another elementary rule of justice is the presumption of innocence. Now, it would seem, an accused priest is guilty until proven innocent. The bishops quote the words of the Pope in their April meeting: "There is no place in the priesthood or religious life for those who would harm the young." That is certainly true, but is there any credible evidence that this priest would harm the young?

The bishops do not trust themselves to make that judgment because they believe, with reason, that they are not trusted to make that judgment, especially by the media. There was much talk in Dallas about the need to restore trust in the bishops. Abandoning one’s responsibility to make judgments is an odd way of restoring trust in one’s ability to make judgments. The accused are to be peremptorily removed from ministry, with all the public shame attendant upon such removal. The charter considerately adds: "When the accusation has proved to be unfounded, every step possible will be taken to restore the good name of the priest or deacon." Right. The bishops had a historic opportunity to show, with the whole world watching, how Christians deal with sin and grace, mercy and justice. Sadly, the opportunity was missed. Life provides many occasions when we must deal with offenses and alleged offenses of various kinds, and then we pray that we will sin neither against mercy nor against justice. The bishops in Dallas managed to sin against both.

In an op-ed article in the Times before the Dallas meeting, Cardinal Dulles expressed his hope that Rome would correct mistakes the bishops might make in the "panic" of their reaction to the crisis. It is no secret that some bishops not only share his hope but count on Rome to reject or revise the policies they voted for. The cynical view, unfortunately not entirely without warrant, is that Rome will once again have to take the heat for reining in the American bishops. The bishops can then say that they tried to be tough, determined, and uncompromising, but Rome wouldn’t let them. This line plays to the amusing proposition that the American bishops can and should govern the Church in America without the restraints imposed by Rome, a proposition wondrously vindicated, the jaded might observe, by the current scandals.

The bishops in Dallas called for an end to paying hush money to accusers. Hush money is the somewhat unfair term for out of court settlements that include a confidentiality agreement. In the business, medical, and other worlds, out of court settlements, with or without confidentiality agreements, are a daily routine of American life, and there is a great deal to be said for settling disputes out of court. But now the bishops say there will be no confidentiality agreements, unless the accuser insists upon it. The big losers here are the lawyers who have been "bundling" accusations. Even if they had but the flimsiest evidence, their threat of creating public scandal induced dioceses to pay big money to keep the accusations secret. The bright side, so to speak, of the bishops’ public humiliation may be that the threat will no longer work. A diocese can challenge lawyers to prove their case in court. As for the scandal when the accusation is made public, if you’re already covered with mud one more splattering hardly matters.

Despite elements of evasion, panic, scapegoating, and other desperate efforts to wriggle out of their bad fix, the bishops will not get off scot free. Far from it. They have already suffered severely, and the Church with them. They are not trusted, and they have exacerbated the distrust by making it painfully clear that they do not trust themselves to do the job that bishops are ordained to do, which is to be episcopoi, meaning overseers. They have set up a national, and presumably independent, body to oversee the overseers. The body is headed by Frank Keating, the Catholic governor of Oklahoma. It includes also Robert Bennett, who defended Bill Clinton in the Monica Lewinsky affair. He knows about sleaze. The board of overseers does not include his brother Bill, perhaps because Bill has publicly called on at least two-thirds of the bishops to resign their offices.

In the second installment of these scandal reflections, I mentioned that I had been told that, before all this is over, there will be bishops in jail. At the time I thought that pretty far out, but I wrote that it seemed ever more possible. Now it seems to be edging up toward probability. It appears that Governor Keating may agree. He writes in an op-ed piece that "where a bishop is found to have provable knowledge of illegal activities committed by a priest under his charge, and where that bishop knowingly covered up such activities, he should also be held legally accountable as an accessory to the crimes involved." From published accounts and from confidential reports, it would seem that quite a few bishops meet that description. Four bishops have already resigned in scandals involving homosexual activity, and a fifth, my friend James McCarthy, auxiliary bishop of New York, resigned over affairs with women. ("It’s a relief to know that he’s orthodox," a colleague quipped.) Two-thirds of the 194 ordinaries, or heads of dioceses, are charged in the press with having engaged in some kind of cover-up or complicity in criminal activity. But most of these do not meet the description of miscreance offered by Keating. I would not be surprised if we see more episcopal resignations in the months ahead, with bishops in the dock and a few in jail. It is not a pretty prospect.

A Story That Will Not Die

Yet Dallas was a limited success as an exercise in damage control. One way of understanding what has happened is that the media firestorm was contained. It will continue to smolder, flickering upon each new exposure of clerical abuse, and breaking momentarily into flames if a cardinal archbishop resigns or a bishop goes to jail. But, in this view, there is a natural life cycle of even big stories. The dramatic script or story line of this one has played itself out, or so some believe. It began with scandals in Louisiana in the mid-eighties; it gained momentum, reaching for national play, but then it was aborted, or at least derailed for a time, by the false charges against Cardinal Bernardin of Chicago. It returned in fury with the exposures in Boston last January, reached a crescendo around Holy Week, and resolved into closure, as they say, with the capitulation of the bishops in Dallas. That’s one way of understanding the drama. For obvious reasons, most of the bishops hope it turns out that way.

I expect they will be disappointed. From the media perspective, this story is just too good to let it die. Having the Catholic Church--the oldest and most venerable, the most loved and hated, institution in the world--on the defensive is a journalist’s dream. The opportunity to probe its previously secret inner workings, and to bring into disrepute its moral authority (now portrayed as hypocritical moral pretensions), is simply irresistible. Every issue in the culture wars--most of them tied in one way or another to sex, sex, and sex--is deliciously engaged. In addition, the Catholic Church--unlike other institutions, religious or otherwise--is so very "colorful," what with popes and miters, saints and incense, exorcisms and miracles, Inquisitions and Crusades, not to mention the enticingly mysterious worlds of monastic vows and the confessional seal. This story has everything--power struggles, conspiracy, holiness, corruption, victims, victimizers, and, of course, sex, sex, and sex. I do not say that all journalists are anti-Catholic. Many of them are not; some of them are deeply devoted to the Church. But all of them are journalists, and journalists love a good story. This is a great, maybe even a historic, story. It is irresistible. They will not let it die.

One angle with rich possibilities is what will be depicted as the conflict between Rome and the American bishops. Admittedly, that’s an old story, but now with the different dimension of a more cautious and even compassionate Rome pitted against bishops determined to prove their toughness by casting priests into the outer darkness. That different way of staging a familiar conflict may be confusing at first and could go in unpredictable directions, but it will be greatly enlivened by the prospect of a conclave and the election of a new pope in the offing. For Americans whose view of the universal Church is a little like that famous New Yorker map of a world dominated by Manhattan, everything happening in Rome will be about scandals here.

The story will be given additional legs as the Dallas charter is implemented and good and beloved priests are removed from ministry. There may be hundreds of such dramas. In many cases, priests will not have to turn themselves in. Their offenses from the distant past are already in the bishop’s files. These dramas are even now being enacted in the press. The depiction of good guy/bad guy pits faithful and popular priest against vindictive and unforgiving bishop. Parishes may rise in rebellion, and some priests will not go gently into the night of banishment. The perception of the Catholic Church might be substantively changed. No longer will the Church be understood as, in James Joyce’s marvelous phrase, "Here comes everybody." It may come to be seen as a community for people who do not have some awful secret in their past. People burdened with a past may begin to seek out some other church community that, following a venerable precedent, "welcomes sinners and eats with them" (Luke 15:2).

As I say, the possible twists and turns of this story are unpredictable, but the story is not going to go away. In Dallas, following the advice of their hired public relations experts, the bishops capitulated in order to avoid further embarrassment, and the consequence will be greater embarrassment and demands for further capitulation. (Have I mentioned that many bishops are good, devoted, and honorable men? Let the record so show. Although it is rather beside the point.) The bishops assiduously avoided any mention of the H-word, and that may have been prudent. There may be oblique reference to the problem in the charter’s words on seminaries and priestly formation, but the bishops knew that the H-word is a media H-bomb, and they cringed at the thought of the almost certain headline if they had used it: "Bishops Mandate Witch-hunt Against Gays." Undoubtedly, they are all keenly aware that homosexuality in the priesthood is, as Mary Eberstadt put it in her much-discussed Weekly Standard article, "the elephant in the sacristy." Most reporters don’t want to mention it. Others almost dare the bishops to mention it and thereby detonate the charge of homophobia. But it seems the policy at present is to tiptoe around the elephant in the hope that it will go away. One may be permitted to doubt that the elephant will be so accommodating.

I have said it so often on television, radio, and in print that I begin to sound like a broken record, to myself if not to others: this crisis is about three things--fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity. The simple and irrefutable fact is that if bishops and priests had been faithful to the Church’s teaching and their sacred vows, there would be no crisis. That is the fact quite totally evaded at Dallas.

Where We Have Been

Since this is probably not the last installment of "Scandal Time," it is worth recalling where we have been and then bring it back to the present. The first installment in April set forth why this really is a crisis, and why it is both false and self-defeating to blame it on the media or anti-Catholicism, or a combination of both. This is our crisis. It cannot be understood apart from the cultural milieu of the sixties when, in a confused concatenation of events, the aggiornamento proposed by the Second Vatican Council was hijacked to mean that the Church should conform itself to the culture, just at the time when the culture was being radically deformed. A critical turning point was the organized and public defiance by Catholic theologians and some bishops of Paul VI’s encyclical on human sexuality, including contraception, Humanae Vitae. The failure of the bishops to respond to that defiance and to vigorously communicate the message of the encyclical constitutes the moment at which the American bishops ceased to be teachers. (Bishops are ordained to "teach, sanctify, and govern," and the first of these is to teach.) In a very real way, they stopped being bishops and became business managers and practitioners of group dynamics in an amorphous and increasingly fractious constituency, their chief job being to keep all factions on board and to avoid "divisiveness." Truth and fidelity can sometimes divide. So much for truth and fidelity.

The 1968 recognition that the Church’s teaching on faith and morals could be defied with impunity ushered in a period of "wink and nudge" also with respect to sexuality, in its sundry expressions. After being hit with scandals, lawsuits, and multimillion-dollar settlements, the bishops, in the early 1990s, tried to bring the situation under control, especially in the seminaries. This met with a measure of success, and it is notable that almost all the known instances of abuse date from the seventies and eighties. When the dam of past episcopal miscreance broke in Boston last January, district attorneys began to be more assertive about the possible complicity of bishops in criminal acts, and bishops felt forced to compromise traditional and legal prerogatives related to the Church’s right to govern itself. I observed that the compromising of the right of ecclesial self-governance (libertas ecclesiae) may have deeply troubling consequences for the future of the free exercise of religion, and not only for Catholics.

In the second installment (June/July), I noted that what was at first called a "pedophilia" crisis was now recognized by almost everyone as a crisis created by adult men having sex of various sorts with adolescent and older teenage boys. The H-word is unavoidable, although many strive mightily to avoid it or to complexify it into oblivion. I surveyed the rapidly accumulating literature in support of the significance of the homosexuality factor, and criticized those who try to change the subject by advocating the relaxation of the discipline of celibacy. I described the role of the Catholic Theological Society of America in promoting deviance from Catholic teaching and the trumping of the doctrinal by the therapeutic. This invited an extended reflection on Philip Rieff’s classic work The Triumph of the Therapeutic, and its prescient analysis of what would happen if, after Vatican II, Catholic leaders replaced the spiritual with the psychological (or equated the two), turning therapy into something very much like a new religion. I concluded by saying that Dallas would be a debacle if the bishops did not address in a straightforward manner the three causes of the crisis--infidelity, infidelity, and infidelity.

Meanwhile in Milwaukee

That brought us up to the April meeting with cardinals and bishops convened by the Pope in Rome. But before getting to that, there was another development deserving of at least brief notice, the resignation of Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee. Actually, he had resigned a little earlier at the mandatory age of seventy-five, but his resignation was swiftly accepted when it was revealed that he had paid $450,000 of archdiocesan funds to a blackmailer with whom he had an affair almost twenty years earlier, when the young creep was in his early thirties. Many conservatives indulged the sin of Schadenfreude (what in older moral manuals is known by the delightful phrase "morose delectation") upon Weakland’s downfall, for he was the most conspicuous of the decreasing minority of unabashedly liberal bishops. It was a sleazy affair, with the newspapers publishing Weakland’s long and maudlin love letter to the young man--a letter not untouched by poignant moments of contrition. Here was a man in his mid-fifties, once abbot of a prestigious monastery, then world leader of the Benedictine order, and for years head of a major archdiocese, a man of cultured achievement and exquisitely correct opinions who was long accustomed to being lionized by the liberal media, now exposed as besottedly in love with a hustler whom he begs to believe that he has no more money with which to buy him off. But, as it turned out, the archdiocese did have money. It was not an edifying spectacle.

Reacting to the exposure, Margaret Steinfels, editor of the liberal Commonweal, complained about a "witch-hunt" and spoke glowingly of Weakland’s leadership in favored liberal causes. The public exposure of a long-past affair, and the publication of the painfully personal letter, would seem to violate journalistic boundaries, were they not unavoidably related to what is undeniably a story of legitimate public interest, namely, the Archbishop of Milwaukee was for eighteen years under the threat of blackmail, and paid off with $450,000 of archdiocesan funds. His humiliating exit was made the more humiliating by his claim that he had over the years given his income from honoraria and royalties to the archdiocese, and that amounted to more than the money paid in blackmail. It turned out that his gifts to the archdiocese were less than half the payout, but the more troubling thing is that he seemed to believe that what he had given was still his to use for his personal purposes, which suggests that he had not really given anything at all. It appears the man is terribly confused.

With embarrassed haste, the sponsors of the annual Cardinal Bernardin Award for distinguished church leadership, an award closely associated with Commonweal, canceled the June gala at which it was to be bestowed upon Rembert Weakland. I can honestly say that I took no satisfaction from his crashing in flames. His airs of superiority and his incessant boasting that Rome viewed him as a "maverick" could be galling at times. But he was also a man of notable talents and considerable charm, to whom everything had been given. He could have been a contender for something great. It is an unspeakable sadness. I do not give up on the hope that, after some years of penance, a chastened Rembert Weakland might write a reflective memoir, having by then discovered, please God, a measure of the wisdom that was so conspicuously absent from a brilliant career built upon prideful foundations that now, through a combination of tragedy and farce, lie in ruins.

The Most Important Thing

Turn now to the April meeting convened by the Pope. Among the many important things said by the Holy Father, I believe the most important was this: "The Catholic faithful must know that bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality, a truth as essential to the renewal of the priesthood and the episcopate as it is to the renewal of marriage and family life." In other words, if bishops and priests do not keep their vows, how can lay people be expected to keep their vows of fidelity in marriage? In the official statements surrounding the Dallas meeting, and in the charter adopted, words of the Pope in the April meeting are frequently cited. The above statement is not mentioned once. At Dallas, fidelity was not on the agenda.

The Pope said something else in the April meeting that was conveniently ignored at Dallas: "We cannot forget the power of Christian conversion, that radical decision to turn away from sin and back to God, which reaches to the depths of a person’s soul and can work extraordinary change." In the public relations game plan of responding, with the whole world watching, to relentless activists possessed by an insatiable appetite for vengeance (a.k.a. closure), the bishops adopted the alien vocabulary of "zero tolerance" and "one strike," a vocabulary in which there is no place for words such as conversion, repentance, soul, and redemption. A gospel response, the experts told them, would not play, and the bishops, some of them with obvious reluctance and uneasy conscience, went along with the game plan "for the good of the Church." They supinely agreed to prove they were tough by adopting a punitive policy of unforgiving vindictiveness. The Pope was wrong: we can forget the power of Christian conversion.

In all this Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the episcopal conference, played a notable role. He had been widely viewed as a company man, a product of Bernardin’s Chicago machine of church politics, who was, at least in part, elected president, it was said sotto voce, because it would look good to have a black man in that very public post. In fact, Bishop Gregory has demonstrated that he is a man capable of vigorous leadership and not devoid of courage. Prior to the Dallas meeting he several times dared to use the H-word, expressing in public the concern that the priesthood may come to be perceived as dominantly homosexual. Presiding at Dallas, he ran a tight ship, keeping the bishops on message. Regrettably, by then it had become the wrong message.

There were some fine moments, rhetorically and substantively, in his opening address at Dallas. For instance, he told the bishops:

We are the ones, whether through ignorance or lack of vigilance, or--God forbid--with knowledge, who allowed priest abusers to remain in ministry and reassigned them to communities where they continue to abuse.

We are the ones who chose not to report the criminal actions of priests to the authorities, because the law did not require this.

We are the ones who worried more about the possibility of scandal than in bringing about the kind of openness that helps prevent abuse.

And we are the ones who, at times, responded to victims and their families as adversaries and not as suffering members of the Church.

Bracing stuff, that. But, by the end of his address and by the end of the meeting, it was obvious that the message is, "They are the ones." Zero tolerance, one strike, boot them out of ministry. Of course the victim activists are still not satisfied, and, sadly, may never be satisfied, but the bishops have succeeded in scandalizing the faithful anew by adopting a thoroughly unbiblical, untraditional, and un-Catholic approach to sin and grace. As in Shakespeare’s "strange eventful history," they end up adopting a policy that is sans repentance, sans conversion, sans forbearance, sans prudential judgment, sans forgiveness, sans almost everything one might have hoped for from bishops of the Church of Jesus Christ.

In his address, Gregory said, "We need to put aside that which could distract us and set our sights solely on the task at hand: a full and recommitted effort toward the protection of our children and young people." The protection of children and young people is an imperative beyond question or qualification, and of course anyone who poses a credible threat to them must have no place in the Church’s ministry. It is not a "distraction," however, but the hard and central fact that so many children and young people have been abused because it is manifestly not the case that "bishops and priests are totally committed to the fullness of Catholic truth on matters of sexual morality." John Paul challenged the bishops to confront the hard and central fact of infidelity. The bishops at Dallas put the challenge aside, lest it distract them from the game plan.

There is no end to what might be said and should be said about the Long Lent of 2002. The books are already appearing. Most of them, to judge by what I’ve seen of them and their advance notices, are by authors who want to change the subject--to what’s wrong with church teaching on sexuality, to celibacy, to women’s ordination, to democratizing decision making, to anything but fidelity. I’m looking forward, however, to George Weigel’s book occasioned by the scandals, The Courage to be Catholic, which should be out in a few weeks from Basic Books.

Bishop Gregory had it right in the first part of his address: the bishops are the ones. They have not covered themselves with glory. There are very good, holy, competent, courageous, and devoted bishops. Others no doubt have their lists of such bishops and I have mine. Admittedly, my list is a short one, but then virtues, especially courage, are always in short supply. And if some whom I esteem failed at Dallas, I’m certainly not going to take the position of one strike and you’re off the list. We hear calls that all or most of the bishops should resign forthwith. There are at least two things wrong with that. For all their carefully choreographed image of sensitivity as good listeners, I doubt that many bishops have an open mind to the idea that they should step down. The second thing wrong with the idea is its assumption that there is a second and better team to replace what we have. There is little reason to believe that is the case. In any event, some bishops, perhaps many, will be stepping down, whether they think it a good idea or not.

In Distressing Disguise

Mother Teresa said that in the poor we are to see Christ in distressed disguise. And so in the bishops we are to see the apostles, whose successors they are, in distressing disguise. The distressing disguise is reinforced by a culture of clericalism in which bishops and priests, and especially priests who would be bishops, tacitly assume that they are the Church which it is the purpose of the laity to keep in business. Living in a clerical cocoon, they are accustomed to a deference that most of the faithful are happy to render. Peggy Noonan, reflecting on the traditionally preeminent status of the archbishop in the life of Boston, says she has over the years watched politicians and other public figures who move in a bubble of prestige surrounded by taken for granted deference. "In my experience," she writes, "the star treatment has never improved anybody’s character."

Yet we believe that this is how Our Lord has structured his Church--with bishops as successors of the apostles, with and under the successor of Peter--and we should be most reluctant to second-guess Our Lord. In short, these are the bishops we have, and there is no structural change that can make them better be the bishops that God called them to be, that they were ordained to be, and that the faithful have a right to expect them to be. Only personal conversion can do that. Respect for the bishops is probably at its lowest ebb in the history of the Church in America. Pray that their conversion may be completed.

In his memoirs of his early years, Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger writes about his village in Bavaria and how, when he was ordained priest, the people declared a festival of several days with endless processions and feasting, and he was the center of attention. It was a heady experience. Ratzinger writes that he had to tell himself again and again, "Joseph, this is not for you. This is for Christ and his Church." And so outraged and disappointed Catholics will swallow hard and continue to honor and, when put to it, even obey their bishops, all the time making clear, "This is not for you. This is for Christ and his Church." They will continue to see in their bishops the apostles whom Jesus appointed, no matter how distressing the disguise.

Do I continue to hope, as I wrote earlier, that this Long Lent will bring us to resurrection and renewal, that the time of mea culpa will be succeeded by felix culpa, the celebration of happy fault that occasioned so great a redemption? Oh yes. I do not know, mind you, but I hope, as must we all. It may be five years or fifty years from now, but I hope and I believe that the time will come when Catholics in America will look back on 2002 and thank God that He visited us with "the rod of His wrath and the staff of His anger." It will then be seen as the winter of painful purification, opening the way to a springtime of renewal. I am praying that will be the case, even as evidence accumulates that there will almost certainly have to be a "Scandal Time IV," and who knows how many after that.


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