The Public Square
In the Aftermath of Scandal

By Richard John Neuhaus
First Things
February 2004

Aftermath does not mean it is over. The word literally means a second-growth crop or, more simply, the continuing consequences of what has gone before. The comprehensive report of the National Review Board (NRB), along with recommendations, is still scheduled for February 27. The bishops are bracing themselves for it. Some are unhappy that a demand to vet it in advance was denied. I am among those who thought the bishops made a big mistake in effectively declaring their inability to govern themselves by appointing the NRB. But the bishops created the board and gave it its mandate, and it is my impression that the members of the board are conscientiously doing what they were asked to do. The report is informally called the Bennett Report, since the chief writer is the prominent Washington attorney Robert Bennett. Also on February 27, the report of the research team put together by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice will be released.

The John Jay report will be in the mode of television’s Sergeant Joe Friday, “Just the facts, ma’am.” Since 1950, how many priests have engaged in, or been accused of, sexual abuse of minors; how many young people were victimized; how much has the Church paid out in damages or settlements. Several sources close to the research suggest that all three figures may be higher than has been generally estimated: perhaps five percent of priests nationwide, with eleven thousand victims, and a payout of about a billion dollars. Others, however, claim to know that those figures are too high. Presumably, we will all know come February 27. All but a handful of dioceses are reportedly cooperating fully with the John Jay team. On January 6, Bishop Wilton Gregory, president of the bishops conference, is scheduled to release a report of several hundred pages on the compliance of dioceses with the provisions adopted by the Dallas 2002 meeting of bishops. It is said that, with a relatively small number of exceptions among the 194 dioceses, bishops have complied with Dallas, although sometimes grudgingly. More intense public attention will likely be focused on the two reports of February 27.

Anecdotal evidence gives reason to believe that, as I have said before, in a few years the Catholic Church may be viewed as the very model of squeaky-clean precautions for protecting children. In one diocese it has been ordered that church choirs, if they have any members under eighteen, must be fingerprinted. This sounds ludicrous, and it is, but bishops are keeping their eyes on prosecutors, trial lawyers, and insurance companies, determined to deprive them of any chance in the future to claim there was carelessness in overseeing church-related activities that even marginally involve young people. A little of the ludicrous, it is thought, is a small price to pay for preventing the scandalous. If it is objected that a climate of trust is being replaced by narrow-eyed suspicion, the answer given is “better safe than sorry.”

The written guidelines of another diocese prescribe that priests and other adult church workers must never under any circumstance be alone with a minor. Old-fashioned confessionals having been tossed out long ago, the rule is that “reconciliation rooms” must have a clear window with somebody posted outside to keep an eye on things. In that diocese such precautions are probably unnecessary since confession—now called the Sacrament of Reconciliation by almost nobody—has long since fallen into desuetude. But then, by now so much that was once deemed confidential and even protected by the confessional seal is in the hands of prosecutors or served up for the delectation of the public in the morning paper.

One priest who doesn’t understand the new rules went to his bishop with a personal problem (unrelated to sex abuse) and was flatly told, “Don’t tell me anything you don’t want the district attorney to know.” That is, perhaps, an extreme case. When I mentioned it to a crusty veteran who has been a priest for more than forty years, he said, “So what’s new? From the time I was in seminary we knew that any priest who went to his bishop with a personal problem that could ever be used against him was simply an idiot.” Maybe so, but that isn’t the way it was supposed to be. In any event, it will possibly be a very long time before bishops can again believably present themselves as fathers and brothers to their priests. “Come to me if you have any problems,” when said by a bishop, may take its place alongside gag lines such as, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.”

If the February 27 report of the NRB gives a high grade for policing measures put in place, it will likely offer a grim assessment of the nature of abuse in the past and how cases were handled by many bishops. The now common estimate that less than two percent or even less than one percent of priests were involved may be countered by data from some dioceses indicating a rate of involvement many times higher. There will be most particular interest in what the NRB report has to say about homosexuality in the priesthood. When the scandal broke two years ago, the word routinely used was “pedophilia,” perhaps because the press was taken by the nice alliteration of “pedophile priest.” In fact, pedophilia, the abuse of prepubescent children, was a very small part of what went wrong. The overwhelming majority of cases, most observers think 90 percent or more, involved adult men with older teenage boys. The word for that is homosexuality, but among the bishops, it seems, that is still the disorder that dare not speak its name. And not only among the bishops, of course. Most reporters are terrified of anything that might be viewed as “gay bashing.” It is not a question of gay bashing. It is a question of facing up to the fact that a large number of priests—nobody knows how large—suffer from same-sex attraction, and a significant number of them act on that desire. Keep in mind also that the above research and report does not address the number of priests engaged in noncriminal sex with adult men.

When the Pope called American cardinals and bishops to Rome in April 2002, it was announced that there would be a new and relentlessly searching visitation of seminaries. A decade ago there was such a seminary visitation which, almost everybody agreed, resulted in marked improvements, although many think that visitation was not as thorough as it should have been. Also after April 2002, word was put out that the Holy See was preparing new and rigorous guidelines about ordaining men with homosexual proclivities. Inquiries have been made, and it seems nobody knows for sure what is happening with these initiatives, although they have not been officially terminated.

Possibly a Blessing

The various dicasteries, or curial offices, in Rome are reportedly not agreed on what the policy should be in ordaining men suffering from same-sex attraction. Some influential prelates, both in Rome and this country, insist there should be an absolute ban on such ordinations, while others argue that, with proper formation, such men can be good and faithfully celibate priests. There will be most particular interest in how the Bennett Report addresses this and related questions. I will be surprised if the NRB gets into matters of faith, morals, or long-established ecclesiastical discipline, all of which are outside its mandate. But if it is going to do its job, it cannot help but speak candidly to the question of homosexuality in the priesthood. Positively stated, one hopes for a clearer recognition that celibacy is not just a matter of not having sex—whether with females or males of whatever age—but is a charism and calling that requires intense spiritual and moral formation. My hope is that the lay people of the NRB will bring a fresh perspective to this vexing question and maybe come up with proposals that transcend current ecclesiastical defensiveness, on the one hand, and liberal agitations for abandoning celibacy, on the other. Again, I thought the NRB a bad idea in the first place, but since we have it and since it has been going about its business with such seriousness, I am more than open to the possibility that, on this and other matters, it will turn out to be a blessing.

With respect to homosexuality, anyone familiar with American seminaries knows that we are a long way from the “pink palaces” of the 1970s and 80s described by Michael Rose in his somewhat sensational book Goodbye, Good Men. There has been a marked turn; seminarians and younger priests today are, in general, robustly orthodox, manly, and excited by the challenge of uncompromised fidelity. But that does not address the problem posed by those ordained earlier who constituted a “lavender mafia” that is still influential in some seminaries and diocesan chanceries. Anything smacking of a “witch-hunt” must, of course, be firmly rejected. But if the purpose is to get to the “root causes” of a scandal created by priests having sex with teenage boys, one might think that attention should be paid to priests who are prone to having sex with teenage boys. I know that suggestion has been called “simplistic,” but it is hard to stifle the intuition that there may be more than an element of a cause-effect connection there.

Many priests have been removed or suspended from active ministry. The lowest estimate is a thousand; others who have been tracking developments say it is closer to two thousand. A relatively small number were charged, tried, and convicted. In many more cases, bishops and diocesan review boards have decided there is a credible accusation against the priest. In numerous cases, priests insist that they are innocent of any wrongdoing and don’t know why they were removed. It is not, they say, just a matter of being judged guilty until proven innocent; they don’t even know what they are supposed to be guilty of. This, too, is a result of the panicked provisions adopted by the bishops at Dallas in June 2002. The niceties of canon law, due process, and elementary decency have in many instances taken a beating. As one cardinal archbishop said after Dallas, it may be necessary for some priests to suffer injustice for the good of the Church. In the course of history, Caiaphas has not been without his defenders.

The Dallas provisions are provisional, and Rome is said to be keeping a close eye on how they are implemented, but to date there are no reports of direct interventions to right wrongs. A number of groups have sprung up to help priests who may be subject to unfair treatment, including Opus Bono Sacerdotii, a group of lawyers for which Avery Cardinal Dulles and I have agreed to serve as theological advisors. Catholics typically have a very high esteem for priests and the priesthood. I remember an ordination service some fifteen years ago where the bishop said to the newly ordained, “You are now priests. You would have to work very hard at doing things very bad in order to persuade the Catholic people not to love you.” Obviously, many have taken up the challenge and succeeded.

When one brings up the question of priests being treated unfairly, reactions vary. By some the question is dismissed as a distraction from the greater wrong of what was done to the victims of sex abuse. The implication is not so much that two wrongs may make a right; it is just that we can only address one wrong at a time. Another reaction claims to be realistic, which is to say hardnosed: it’s too bad some innocent priests may be hurt, but you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs, etc. Charming. But then, bishops have their own leadership credibility to worry about. One bishop of a large diocese publicly released the names of every priest who in the past fifty years had ever been accused of a sexual offense. Some of the priests, along with their unnamed accusers, were long since dead. Others were in nursing homes with Alzheimer’s. The press praised the bishop for his “transparency.” He burnished his reputation by trashing the reputations of his priests. Some father. Some brother. He is not alone in what he did. Other bishops were appalled, but the rule is that bishops do not criticize other bishops. It is called collegiality, which some people confuse with clericalism. There is a difference, although the difference is sometimes exceedingly difficult to define.

The absence of fraternal correction among bishops is a real problem. There is no necessary virtue in bishops publicly disagreeing with one another, although in the history of the Church some of the greatest bishops—Augustine, Anselm, and Borromeo come to mind—had the virtue to do it when necessary. Nor need the disagreement be public. Consider a recent meeting in which a lay person questioned leaders of the bishops conference about their appointment to the NRB of a layman who had a long record of very public support for the unlimited abortion license. The answer given was that the layman had been approved by his own bishop, and bishops do not question the judgment of a brother bishop. Little wonder some critics complain that the bishops run the Church as though it were their private domain when apostolic leadership is trumped by club rules.

The bishops must hold themselves, and be held, accountable. That has been said incessantly over these two years, and with justice. As for it happening, the picture is very mixed. Despite the universal acknowledgment that the bishops have primary responsibility for the scandals, not one bishop has voluntarily resigned. A few bishops who were complicit in abuse stepped down, but only after their wrongdoing was publicly exposed. And, of course, Cardinal Law was compelled to resign when it was apparent to all that the mess in Boston had spun out of control and, with Rome and the world claiming his attention, he was not minding the local store. In the corporate world, top leaders resign when things go radically wrong. Yet we have been treated to depressing vignettes of bishops in court copping a plea, earnestly declaring their deep, deep sorrow over what they did and failed to do, striking a deal with prosecutors in exchange for the freedom of the Church to govern itself, which it is not the bishop’s right to surrender, in order to have charges dropped. Then, having been forced to confess themselves miserable failures and having traded away the rights of the Church, they gather about themselves the tattered vestiges of their episcopal dignity and declare that they have absolutely no intention of resigning. Some accountability. And Rome, for its inscrutable reasons, appears to do nothing.

Moving On

At this point comes the obligatory proviso that the above does not describe most of the bishops. Not by a long shot. There are almost two hundred ordinaries, meaning bishops who head dioceses, and most of them are doubtless good, devout, hard-working, and reasonably competent. But the general picture is one of evasion, denial, and a reflexive bent to return to business as usual. Call it collegiality or call it clericalism or call it whatever, there seems to be a determined effort to, in the favored phrase of the justly embarrassed, move on. A reporter who covered the November meeting of the bishops conference says, “Watching management go about its usual business, one might get the impression that the scandals never happened.” No doubt some bishops will take that as a tribute to their adroit handling of “the recent unpleasantness.” Two years ago, even one year ago, observers were calling it the greatest crisis in American Catholic history. Some bishops were calling for a plenary council or extraordinary synod of bishops to examine what went so radically wrong and to amend their ways. Some bishops were speaking candidly about homosexuality in the priesthood, and also about the dangers of scapegoating innocent priests. A few even publicly agreed that there were three answers to the catastrophe: fidelity, fidelity, and fidelity.

But now the storm seems to have passed. That may change with the release of the report from the NRB. But no matter how bad the news, the media are distracted by a presidential election, and you can only go with so many stories about how many priests did what to whom and how many bishops paid what price to escape prosecution. After a while, episcopal plea bargaining will seem routine. People get used to almost anything. It is, I suspect, already the case that, for priests and people, bishops don’t matter so much anymore; not as much as they were supposed to, and sometimes did. Catholicism in America has, unknowingly and perhaps ineluctably, taken another big step toward congregationalism. On the ground—with the exception of a few places such as poor, devastated Boston—parish life goes on, and even flourishes. There are thousands upon thousands of adult converts, renewal movements abound, collections are generous. Ask sixty-six million Catholics in the U.S. about the bishops and the usual answer, I expect, would be, “What bishops?” There are bishops, I do believe, who are greatly gratified that they have succeeded in making themselves largely irrelevant to the life of the Church as it is actually lived. Being irrelevant is better than being a public embarrassment.

Out of it all one might come to the conclusion that God loves babies, drunks, and the Catholic Church in America. There are bishops who have let me know that they think I have been entirely too hard on them. And after this little reflection, I suppose I will hear that again. But there is this that must be understood: many Catholics really believe that the bishops are successors to the apostles; that, in communion with Peter among us, they are anointed by God to teach and sanctify and govern; that they are to exemplify the courage of leadership with apostolic zeal; that they are to embody the holiness to which we are together called.

They believe that bishops should be the leaders that John Paul II said they should be in his apostolic exhortation of this past October, Pastores Gregis. Bishops must be, he said, faithful and effective teachers of the fullness of the Church’s teaching. Being “pastoral” does not mean, at least not first of all, being a good listener and keeping all viewpoints in play. Nor does it mean knocking heads, although sometimes heads must be knocked to get the attention of those who are not listening. The choice is not between being a thug or a wimp. Being pastoral means being a good shepherd who feeds the flock with the life-giving food of Catholic doctrine. It means proposing the truth, in season and out of season, when it is popular and unpopular. Of course one must engage those who dissent from the truth, but one engages in order to persuade, and persuasion requires both patience and persistence. The salvation of souls is at stake, and a bishop or priest who does not believe that should find another line of work. Catholicism is an invitation to live the high adventure of fidelity, which is never confining but always an opening toward the immeasurably more that is promised and present in Christ and his Church.

Thoughtful Catholics know that it has not always, it has not even usually, been that way with bishops. They are not scandalized that bishops fall short of what Pastores Gregis says a bishop should be. But they also know the way it is supposed to be, and they have not given up on the way it is supposed to be. They remember what the Holy Father said at that April 2002 meeting, that out of the unspeakable sadness of this Long Lent must come “a holier priesthood, a holier episcopate, and a holier Church.” And they weep for the bishops and the Church because there is slight evidence of that happening.


















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