Bishop Accountability
  Dark Hour

By Mark Shea
Catholic Exchange
March 29, 2002

It's as bad as it looks. Fr. John Geoghan has been convicted of child rape and molestation. Over 90 civil lawsuits against Geoghan and the Archdiocese of Boston stemming from Geoghan's three decades of alleged rape and abuse of over 130 Boston-area children, have yet to come to trial. That, of course, is bad enough. But it gets worse.

As we all now know, the Boston hierarchy asked the families of victims to keep it quiet, promised that everything would be taken care of — and then reassigned and re-shuffled and reassigned Geoghan (and allegedly many others like him) to parishes where he was in direct contact with children and where he continued to commit his crimes for nearly two decades.

Worse still, the ex-bishop of Palm Beach, Anthony O'Connell, (who was himself brought into the Palm Beach diocese to replace a bishop who was a sexual molester) resigned when it came to light that he had also molested a boy who had already been molested by two other priests. Now there are serious questions about the handling of cases by Cardinal Egan of New York and various others. This constitutes the gravest breakdown in moral credibility the American Catholic hierarchy has ever faced. For many, this Good Friday feels like Good Friday in a way we've never known before. It is a black hour.

Make no mistake. There is, quite simply, no excuse for this. And nobody — not even the pit-bull-like defenders of the Faith at the Catholic League or the stalwart Catholics like Rod Dreher, William F. Buckley at National Review, George Weigel, Peggy Noonan, or William Bennett — is making any. Faithful Catholics are simply appalled by the gravity of the sins of such priests and of the sins of bishops whose first thought appears to have been informed by a) world class folly or b) the rankest clericalism which insisted on protecting members of the priestly guild from problems, but not protection of innocent children from sexual predators.

The tremors from this and other cases like it are sending shock waves through the American Church. Some have written me to say, "My family and I have left the church and have no intention of providing financial support for any Catholic organization until the church cleans up its act!!" Others have written to say, in effect, "It's all a media plot to discredit the Church! Where were they when Clinton was pulling his hijinx?" Still others have written to say simply, "What do we do?"

My answer is this: I empathize completely with people in their disgust over the behavior of both the priests and the bishops who have so egregiously sinned in creating this inexcusable scandal. The priests who engaged in scandalous behavior should be removed from their offices and, where crimes have been committed, punished according to the law. Bishops who repeatedly and knowingly lied to victims and exposed still more victims to the depredations of these men should face the consequences of their actions.

In such an hour, it is vital for Catholics to inform their thinking with revelation, not just newspapers and TV, and not just political inclination, whether left- or right-wing.

One extremely common blunder which causes endless confusion is failure to distinguish between the hierarchy and the Church. When John Paul II, in his Letter to Priests for Holy Thursday 2002 said, "The Church shows her concern for the victims and strives to respond in truth and justice to each of these painful situations", many people cried, "But the Church has been abusing people, not responding in truth!"

This shows clearly that one vital thing which many Catholics have failed to grasp is that neither Scripture nor Tradition permit us to reduce "the Church" to "the hierarchy" nor "the hierarchy" to a merely political entity. The Church is the mystical Body of Christ. The hierarchy is integral to that Body as a skeleton or a brain are. But just as you are more than your skeleton, so the Body of Christ is more than the hierarchy. The Church (that is, the Body of Christ) is indeed the victim of this abuse and does indeed strive to respond in truth and justice. For the soul of the Church is the Holy Spirit, not the hierarchy. That is why Jesus tells us: "Inasmuch as you did it to the least of these, you did it to me" and says to Paul, who was persecuting nameless faceless Christians, "Saul, Saul. Why do you persecute me?"

Very well then, members of the Church in the ordained office have committed abuse. But the Church, that is the mystical Body of Christ, did not commit abuse. It bears the wounds of Christ and he, with wounded hands, reaches out in compassion to those who have been harmed.

Another point (just to clear the air of the normal "Ha! The Church doesn't look so infallible now, does it!" rhetoric): the bishop's threefold task is to teach, govern, and sanctify. Note that the failure of the hierarchy in this instance is a failure of governance, not doctrine (which is all infallibility protects). The blunder of the hierarchy is not that they promote an "antiquated" doctrine of sexual chastity that needs to change to fit the current notions of the editorial board of the New York Times (as the theologically-challenged Maureen Dowd and Anna Quindlen foolishly inform us) but rather that some in the hierarchy have permitted a culture of contempt for chastity and orthodoxy to grow up in the educational and bureaucratic machinery of the American Church (indeed, some have even participated in that culture) with utterly predictable results. This constitutes the difference between the anger that orthodox Catholics feel over this scandal and the endless carping of the dissenting Left. The Left demands that the Church abandon its doctrine. Orthodox faithful Catholics demand that the Church — including its bishops and priests — live its doctrine.

Keeping in mind then, that we must pay attention to revelation, not politics and polls, in weighing this matter, faithful Catholics can and do disagree on just what the consequences should be for bishops who have badly mishandled their office in this case.

Now the Church is not (despite the conviction of Americans to the contrary) a democracy. And this is so, not because sinister Italian prelates opposed to truth, justice and the American way are strangling the noble yearnings for freedom that beat in the breast of every oppressed lay Catholic on earth. It's so because Jesus of Nazareth (many of our dissenting brethren may remember him: God Incarnate, Head over all things for the Church which is his Body) set up a hierarchical Church. Because of this, as a layman, I can and do have opinions about what should be done. But I do not possess authority from Christ to enforce my opinions on the Church. I accept this with docility and advocate no anti-clerical movement. But I also believe that my Lord wishes me to speak the truth in love. So here goes:

Certain people I respect deeply insist that, unless the bishop has personally engaged in sexual molestation or other criminal behavior he should not be removed from office. There is more to this view than merely being a "company man" and thoughtful Catholics should take it into account in their pondering of this matter. A bishop is more than simply an administrator or CEO for his diocese. He is father. He stands in the place of Jesus Christ. And a father is not drummed out of his office lightly in Catholic understanding — for good reason. So I empathize strongly with this argument and respect those who make it.

On the other hand, I also empathize even more strongly with the fact that the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. Each day a bishop who was spectacularly negligent, or who stonewalled, or who played brutal legal hardball with victims rather than take seriously the very credible charges of rape, abuse and molestation — each day such a bishop clings to office is a day in which the scandal grows and the moral credibility of the American Catholic hierarchy dwindles into invisibility.

So in the end, I am forced to conclude that the gravity of the crisis now engulfing the American Catholic Church demands that the bishops who have so terribly and sinfully mismanaged the Church and permitted such terrible wounding of their flocks must step down for the good of the Church. For the simple fact is that such bishops cannot do their office and make it hard for non-offending bishops to do their office too. A flock that does not trust you and will never trust you again is a flock which you cannot govern, teach, or sanctify.

Some see in this a "slippery slope" toward mob rule of the Church. If today, a bishop resigns for this scandal, then tomorrow, it will be fifty other bishops over far less serious offenses or imagined offenses, if only a mob can be whipped up.

I disagree. Catholics have been extraordinarily slow to want to believe the worst of their shepherds. Indeed, it has taken offenses of this gravity to get Catholics passionate enough to speak. What we want — no, what we need, dear fathers in the Faith, anointed by God Most High — is trusty shepherds, not the French Revolution. And so we ask, not with the violent and power-seeking ultimatums of man, but with the humility of Christ, that if you cannot be that for us — if you cannot do your office — then for the sake of him who emptied himself for our salvation, let the one who can do that office fill your shoes.

Not that there isn't the danger of revolutionary extremism seething out there, of course. There are indeed two extremes to which we can slide in our response to such sins as have been committed by the members of our Church who share in the sacrament of Holy Orders. We can abandon Christ in his darkest hour or we can make excuses for Judas Iscariot and blame everybody but him for his sins. Both betray the Body of Christ.

The Church, the whole company of the faithful in union with the bishops and Peter, is the Body of Christ. But as St. Teresa of Avila says, Christ has no hands on earth now but ours. If we simply bail on the Church, we are effectively cutting off some of Christ's fingers while expecting him to do more work. Better to remain with the Church and labor against sins than to just pull out and make the job of Catholics who are trying to clean things up all the harder.

On the other hand, if we "fight for the Church" by trying to deny that it's as bad as it looks, and make excuses for these priests and the bishops who have coddled them, we simply perpetuate the problem.

So it seems to me we laypeople are bound to speak out and to act. But we are bound to act in such a way as to neither enable the problem or to injure the Body of Christ. If it has been clearly shown that your diocese is involved in these shenanigans then I know of nothing in the Catechism of the Catholic Church which forbids you from tithing to your local parish but sending your diocesan contributions somewhere else to somebody who is doing good works, not committing or enabling criminal acts. I don't see why a layperson can't write a letter to his bishop explaining his actions or expressing what's on his heart. If the apostles could speak their heart and mind with Christ, surely we layfolk can do so with our pastors. But whatever you do, don't just stop being generous. Be generous where it will do good, such as donating to Campion College, Mercy Corps, or Human Life. Likewise, though we should obviously be praying for the victims of this abuse, we must also never stop praying for the clergy who sinned against them. Never withhold forgiveness from them. Unforgiveness is the short road to spiritual suicide. For, of course, this sin, though it cannot be excused, can and must be forgiven — like all sin.

Further, if you are teaching or bearing witness to the Faith, don't feel as though "defending the Faith" is identical with "making excuses for the behavior of sexual predators and the bishops who shelter them". So, for example, although it is true that other denominations and demographic groups have similar rates of abuse, don't use this as a way to excuse the Catholic leaders for their inexcusable behavior in failing to protect their flocks.

At the same time, avoid media hysteria and agitprop. Defending the Faith means (at the very least) abiding by the simple canons of civil justice, which holds among other things that the accused is innocent until proven guilty. Not every accusation is true merely because it is alleged. There will be those who will make false charges just for the money. In addition, there are thousands who are interested in using this scandal to advance agendas having little or nothing to do with it. There are also those who don't wish to connect some rather uncomfortable dots: as that 90 percent of the cases of abuse are homosexual in nature and that this indicates strongly that the Standard Media Template of the gay subculture as a happy, healthy "alternative lifestyle" consists of a huge amount of smoke and mirrors. Every time some Talking Hairdo on TV tells you "Celibacy causes these perversions! If priests were allowed to marry they wouldn't do these sick things!" ask them if they really mean to say homosexuals aren't genetically determined and can change. The shattering sound you'll hear is two Standard Media Templates smashing into each other at high velocity.

None of this, I repeat, is to excuse the inexcusable. Members of the ordained office have done evil and have, in several instances, so compromised their credibility that I do not believe they can do their office anymore and should hand that office over to somebody who can do it effectively. But we laypeople must do our office too, not simply cut ourselves off from the whole Church in a blind fury or pretend it's all no big deal. The former course helps nothing and simply impoverishes you and your family of contact with the sacraments (and wrongly blames the entire Church en masse for the sins of a few) while the latter endangers still more innocent people by telling abusers and their protectors that there is no consequence for their actions.

In the Old Testament, the God-anointed King of Israel, David, committed adultery with Bathsheba and then murdered her husband, Uriah. It was, like the Boston case and others, as bad as it looked. David had no excuses. And he was punished for his sins — as was proper. This meant many things, but the one thing it did not mean was that Israel was no longer chosen by God. God's covenant is not dependent on how good or bad we are: it's dependent on Christ's faithfulness. Same here. The fact that some bishops and priests (some — by no means all or even most) have committed egregious and inexcusable sin does not mean that the Church is not the Church or that God's covenant is not still in effect. To abandon that covenant is, in reality, to simply allow evil in the Church to take another victim: you. Don't let it. Stay and fight for the culture of life to prevail in the Church. That's not rebellion, that's obedience.

The Church has been through other, far darker, Good Fridays. God brought Easter then. He will do it again.

Mark Shea is Senior Content Editor for Catholic Exchange. You may visit his new website at

The materials on are offered solely for educational purposes. Should any reader wish to quote or reproduce for sale any documents to which other persons or institutions hold the rights, the original publisher should be contacted and permission requested. If any original publisher objects to our maintaining a cache of their documents for safekeeping, we will gladly take down our cache of those documents and offer links to the original publisher's posted versions instead.


Original material copyright © 2004. Reproduce freely with attribution.