Faithful Expect Bishops to Tell the Whole Truth

By Anne Burke
Irish Times
August 13, 2011

Child sex scandals here and in the US make me wonder can bishops ever be trusted

JUST WHEN it appeared that the fallout over the abuse scandal in the US could not get any worse, the other shoe dropped in Philadelphia last February. A large number of accused clerics had never been removed from active ministry by either the past or then archbishop of Philadelphia, Cardinal Francis Rigali, who resigned last month.

After years of investigation, inspection and research, it turns out that the cover-ups have been further institutionalised. Among the indicted is a monsignor who is accused of turning a blind eye to things in his chancery office. Of course, to blame a clerical official for such deviousness without accusing his archbishop presents a mistaken analysis of how the church works.

A rite of repentance staged at Philadelphia’s cathedral last March offered a curious response to how local Catholics felt. At a sanctuary packed with auxiliary bishops and the cardinal, a small handful of the faithful turned out to hear them say how sorry they were. Perhaps, like papal letters, people want more than scripted apologies for errors of judgment that have been institutionalised in American Catholicism.

Of course, the bishops hold up the charter for the protection of children and young adults that they put into motion back in 2002. I do not denigrate that historic step. It did a lot to make children safer in our Catholic institutions. And it did permit us the opportunity to examine what the causes and effects of the scandal were.

But the discovery by the grand jury last February of more than 30 accused clerics in Philadelphia still in active ministry raises new fears. For me these are much more than institutional nightmares.

It makes me wonder what kind of people we are dealing with when we engage the bishops. How is it that their words say one thing and their secret intentions say another? Are they ever to be trusted?

I can remember the sometimes vicious response some members of the hierarchy gave to the national review board, set up by the US Catholic bishops when we were investigating the handling of allegations of clerical child sex abuse by church authorities some years ago. Former cardinal Egan of New York actually wanted to ban us from his fiefdom, as if we were coming from some rival kingdom.

In light of Philadelphia, where Cardinal Rigali has been a long-time Roman oligarch who, I am told, was spending many days each month in Rome still serving on various congregations, all the events of our investigation and audit get coloured with a new layer of meaning – little has changed.

Thomas Jefferson put it best: “Honesty is the first chapter of the book of wisdom.” I would be curious now as to how US cardinals view the recent cardinal of Philadelphia’s behaviour? And what of the behaviour of his predecessor, cardinal Bevilacqua?

I travelled on St Patrick’s feast day this year to Dublin for a law conference and was refreshed by the lyrical camaraderie that is such a part of Irish life. The journey was particularly energising and fulfilling, but there also was an element of sadness to the visit. It was easy to spot the first morning when I made my way to daily Mass. Since it was Lent, I expected an enlarged congregation but found the opposite.

Recent Irish scandals and the poor response from the Holy See, my hosts told me, seemed to have sealed the fate of Catholicism in Ireland for some time to come.

All the usual elements were there thanks to the Irish bishops – cover-up, lying, bullying, threats, the hiding of evidence, the sealing of witness testimony and most of all the willingness to let the guilty clergy “get away” with the crime.

During the most abject period of Irish history, when the English prohibited the practice of our faith, our Irish ancestors would walk for miles in the dark and rain to find a remote field in which a brave secret priest would celebrate Mass at the risk of his life for people desperate for the nourishment of the sacraments.

The faithful have not been as absent from the celebration of sacraments as they are today since Irish religious emancipation in 1829. What is really sad is that the Vatican’s understanding of what people really need is so totally off the mark.

Perhaps if the Pope took himself to O’Connell Street in Dublin he might have achieved a semblance of effective healing. But a papal letter, no matter how well intentioned, is not the stuff that brings healing. People want their trust restored. No papal letter, even a long one, will ever be able to do that.

I believe that truthfulness has been a virtue in trouble for a long time in the Catholic Church. Who could ever see this coming? Not me. I was an obedient Catholic schoolgirl, a true believer. It is not easy for us to unlearn being Catholic. I, for one, don’t want to.

But I expect truthfulness at all costs from our leadership. If that cannot be supplied then we must go back to the drawing board. Do we not have the right to truthfulness? Perhaps a council on truthfulness might help to expand the importance of this critical virtue. Perhaps it could be a meeting for both bishops and faithful in which they could share ideas and dreams for the church.

I believe that when the truth flourishes we will see the return of those who have walked away.


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