Reasonable Doubt

By Grant Gallicho
December 11, 2008

Today the Boston Globe published a curious op-ed by the head of the U.S. Catholic bishops' National Review Board, Judge Michael Merz. The occasion for the piece is the release of the film Doubt, adapted from John Patrick Shanley's Tony- and Pulitzer Prize-winning 2004 play about an accused priest, set in 1964 (I reviewed it here).

The movie's plot is largely fictional. Sadly, too many stories that surfaced since 2002 were not fictional. The clergy sexual abuse crisis is the greatest crisis in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States, something that caused the downfall of one of the most powerful bishops in this country, Bernard Cardinal Law; moved hundreds of abuse victims to step forward; and resulted in the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in legal settlements by various dioceses, prompted apologies from the highest levels in the church, and led to an extraordinary meeting between Pope Benedict XVI and abuse victims from Boston just last April.

Merz is right. The abuse crisis is the greatest scandal in the history of the Catholic Church in the United States. But note the strange construction of the last sentence in that paragraph. The scandal, Merz writes, "caused" Cardinal Law's "downfall." It also "caused" victims to come forward. It "resulted in" financial settlements for victims ($1 billion and counting, not "hundreds of millions of dollars"). It "prompted apologies from the highest levels in the church." And it "led to" an unprecedented meeting between Pope Benedict and victims from Boston. When you put it that way, the sexual-abuse crisis almost sounds like a positive thing.

Of course, that is absurd. Merz has it entirely backward. The scandal did not cause Law's downfall. Law was responsible for a large part of the scandal. That is why he resigned (twice, apparently–the first time John Paul II refused). Likewise, it is bizarre to speak of the scandal as having caused financial settlements for victims. According to the John Jay report, about 4 percent of U.S. Catholic priests (4,392) were credibly accused of molesting more then ten thousand minors. Presumably Merz would acknowledge that the courage of victims may have had something to do with "causing" the settlements. And what really "prompted" apologies from bishops? The media's unsparing reports? The staggering costs? Sheer embarrassment? Finally, yes, Pope Benedict's meeting with victims was impressive. It's too bad his predecessor had not done the same.

Merz writes to reassure Catholics and the wider public of "the intention of the nation's bishops to address this problem forcefully."

These intentions have been translated into strong actions by the bishops. For example, any priest or member of a religious order against whom a credible accusation has ever been made is no longer working with children; many have been removed from the priesthood.

Merz helpfully details the significant progress made by the bishops' conference: nearly 2 million clergy and laypeople trained in safe-environment programs; nearly 6 million trained to recognize predators; backround checks on more than 1.5 million church voluneers, workers, educators, clergy, and seminarians. Such achievements should not be minimized.

But neither must the failures of bishops–even "the bishops." The way Merz uses the term reminded me of the many times I've seen it in articles submitted to Commonweal. Editors have to be mindful of nuance; the term "the bishops" can be accurately used in some instances. And many defenders of "the bishops" rushed to point that out as the Globe and other news outlets churned out story after story on priest-abusers and their enablers. They had a point. One shouldn't judge the entirety of the bishops' conference by the actions of an individual bishop, even Cardinal Law.

Yet Catholics have good reasons to remain vigilant. Last year the Archdiocese of Los Angeles agreed to a $660 million settlement, yet the public is still waiting for the clergy records the archdiocese promised it would release as part of that settlement. In April, during the pope's visit to the United States, the cardinal prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith seemed to minimize the actions of bishops who failed to protect children from abusers. Then in August, a deposition of Cardinal Francis George of Chicago revealed his serious failures and confusions with respect to the case of a priest-abuser who molested children as recently as 2005. The cardinal is now president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Merz acknowledges that "many Catholics expect more," and that they wonder why more bishops haven't resigned. Not Merz, apparently. "I, on the other hand, believe it is better for bishops to take responsibility for fixing the problem. This may not satisfy everyone." In his op-ed, Merz offers no explanation for why he arrived at that conclusion. More troubling is that this way of thinking echoes Cardinal Law's own response to calls for his resignation in early 2002. Obviously Catholics expect their bishops to take responsibility for their tragic failures. They know that sometimes accepting responsibility means going away.

There can be no doubt that the institutional church has made major progress in dealing with clergy abuse–those successes can't be ignored. By the same token, no one should have any illusions about the nature, extent, and present status of the scandal. Least of all the chairman of the National Review Board.


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