Catholic Church's "Zero Tolerance" Doesn't Apply to Bishops Who Left Abusers in Ministry

By Rachel Zoll
Metro News
May 10, 2010

In the latest Roman Catholic sex abuse scandals in Europe and beyond, more bishops already have resigned for failing to protect children than ever stepped down during the U.S. abuse crisis.

American bishops point to their repeated apologies to victims and millions of dollars spent on child protection since 2002, when they enacted a stricter discipline policy. Yet critics say the focus of those reforms remains on reining in guilty clergy, ignoring the role of leaders who enabled the abuse.

Only a tiny number of prelates overall have stepped down for keeping predators in ministry. Experts say the push for resignation must come from the Vatican itself.

"A bishop would never resign unless it would be seen as in the service of the church," said R. Scott Appleby, a University of Notre Dame historian and expert on American Catholicism. "If he doesn't get signals from his superior in Rome that this is the appropriate thing to do, then he would not consider it the appropriate thing to do."

Four bishops in Ireland have resigned since the results of a government-ordered inquiry into the Archdiocese of Dublin were published last year, although the Vatican has only accepted two of the resignations so far. The investigation found church leaders had shielded more than 170 sexually abusive priests from the law. A fifth Irish bishop resigned in March after a separate inquiry found he was continuing to hide abuse claims from civil authorities.

While some bishops in the U.S. and elsewhere have resigned over their own sexual misconduct, only one U.S. prelate, Boston Cardinal Bernard Law, has ever stepped down for mishandling cases of guilty priests. This, despite national studies commissioned by the U.S. bishops that found priests accused of abuse were moved from parish to parish without warnings to parents or police.

Helen Hull Hitchcock, founder of Women for Faith & Family, which represents tradition-minded Catholic women, said the scandals in Europe seem to be drawing more attention to the missteps of bishops than they ever did in the U.S.

"Cardinal Law seemed to have taken the hit for everybody," she said. "There are others involved (in the U.S.) who are still bishops or who retired who didn't suffer any particular reprimands or consequences from the lack of ability to handle the situation."

Among them is current New Hampshire Bishop John McCormack, who had served Law for a decade as secretary of ministerial personnel and was involved with some of the most notorious cases in the Boston archdiocese. The 2003 Massachusetts attorney general's report on abuse in the archdiocese said McCormack's failed supervision allowed known molesters to abuse more children.

At the peak of pressure on McCormack to quit, McCormack said he felt a duty to stay and restore trust in the church. He apologized for his failures and said that he didn't always know about claims against Boston-area priests because of poor record keeping in the archdiocese.

"There are bishops who are bishops and cardinals today who were well aware of those transfers, and they were well aware that it was wrong," said Illinois Supreme Court Justice Anne Burke, former chairwoman of the National Review Board, the lay panel the U.S. bishops formed to study the roots of the abuse crisis and monitor child protection.

Burke believes these men should resign.

Under church governance, priests answer to bishops, but bishops answer only to the pope. In 2002, at the peak of the U.S. abuse crisis, American bishops briefly discussed using a system of "fraternal correction," under which bishops would monitor each others' response to abuse cases and speak out if they felt a fellow church leader wasn't properly following the discipline plan.

The proposal went nowhere.

One bishop, the Most Rev. Fabian Bruskewitz of Lincoln, Nebraska, has refused to participate in the ongoing national audits of child protection programs in dioceses, which are part of the bishops' reforms, yet he has suffered no consequences within the church.

Bruskewitz participated in the first audit, but said the National Review Board, which oversees the evaluations, has no authority over the bishops. The bishop said his diocese runs background checks on staff and volunteers who work with young people and instructs the adults to contact civil authorities with any concerns about abuse or other wrongdoing.

Beyond Nebraska, there have been new cases elsewhere that raise question about compliance with the reforms.

The Archdiocese of Chicago waited months to remove an accused parish priest in Chicago, the Rev. Daniel McCormack, who pleaded guilty in 2007 to molesting five boys ages 8 to 12.

Chicago Cardinal Francis George, who played a key role in developing the bishops' new discipline policy, acknowledged he failed to act soon enough in the Rev. McCormack's case. Four months after the Chicago priest was sent to prison, the cardinal was elected president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The situation in Ireland has been far different.

Dublin Archbishop Diarmuid Martin has openly sought to root out those responsible for the abuses detailed in what is known as the Murphy Report, which covered cases from 1975 to 2004. Martin, a reform-minded Vatican diplomat, was appointed Dublin archbishop in 2004.

One of the Irish bishops who resigned, Bishop James Moriarty of Kildare, acknowledged failing to challenge a Dublin Archdiocese policy of concealing abuse claims from police. He said he was stepping down because "renewal must begin with accepting responsibility for the past."

"It's hard not to think that in Ireland what happened was that Martin was so determined and the Murphy Report was so excoriating that it wound up being a special case," said Terry McKiernan, president of, which collects data on clergy abuse cases and advocates the resignation of bishops who transferred guilty priests among parishes.

"In the U.S., nothing comparable occurred," McKiernan said.

The National Review Board has overseen two reports so far that strongly criticized the bishops for showing more sympathy for accused priests than victims. But the U.S. studies were more general than Ireland's Murphy Report, using U.S. bishops' names and identifying American dioceses only in a tiny number of already well-known cases.

According to the board's 2004 study on the roots of the abuse crisis, some of the 85 church leaders and experts interviewed for the report "stated that the Vatican had not sufficiently criticized or pressured recalcitrant bishops in the United States."

Law was believed to have tried more than once to resign over his track record on abuse cases, but Pope John Paul II did not agree until December 2002. Later, Law was named archpriest of a Rome basilica, while retaining membership in a powerful Vatican office that appoints bishops worldwide. Critics considered Law's appointments a reward, not a punishment.

"The crisis in the United States wouldn't have gone on and on and on if some bishops stood up and took a bullet and resigned," said the Rev. Thomas Reese, a senior fellow at Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. "People would have said, 'OK, they got it.'"


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