Matthew Gambino

Sixteen years late, but better late than never, was the statement last week about “moral failures on the part of church leaders” in which the United States Catholic bishops held themselves — not just priests — accountable for the clergy sexual abuse scandal that erupted in 2002.

At that time the bishops rightly expended considerable energy in crafting the Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People, and in calling for a zero-tolerance policy for abusive clergy and religious.

But there is more to it than forming policies to deal with abusers. The bishops finally seem to be grasping what lay people and many clerics have known since at least 2002: that the crimes of a relative few priests could not have grown into the worldwide scandal it has become without bishops and religious provincials enabling further crimes of wayward priests by shuffling those bad actors from one unsuspecting parish community to another.

Bishops knew of abuse in their dioceses, or at least suspected it, and failed to act swiftly and transparently.
Why did bishops do this? It may have to do with a supposed higher motivation to protect the church from scandal. In other words, don’t frighten the children by telling them bad news.

Priests like anyone have moral failings, and no one wishes his or her errors in judgment to be revealed to the public. But the sin of sexual abuse against children or adults is more than a moral lapse. It is an attack by the powerful against the vulnerable. Both the abuse and the attempt to “keep it quiet” have gnawed away, if not crippled, the church’s public authority.

Perpetrators must be dismissed quickly by secular or religious organizations, prosecuted justly under the law, or both. At the same time Catholic bishops and provincials have a duty to lead the faithful in truth — that’s called transparency — not concealment for fear of bad news.

Church leaders who fail to deal publicly with sexual abuse show disrespect for lay people, faithful clergy and to the Holy Spirit when they try to hide information that inevitably will come to light. If bishops try to protect people’s sensitivities by covering up the extent of sexual abuse, they inevitably undermine confidence in leadership and weaken religious faith as a result.

Placing the facts of known abuse in public, working closely with law enforcement and moving quickly to remove clergy from the clerical state have been the norms for addressing clergy sexual abuse since 2002.

But with last week’s long look in the mirror, our bishops are finally recognizing the faults among their own ranks. With the case of the disgraced retired Washington Archbishop Theodore McCarrick revealed in recent weeks, the presumption that fellow bishops throughout his career must have known of his whispered history has only grown stronger.

If bishops know or suspect one of their own of an incident of sexual abuse, the same process in place for clergy must be followed for prelates. Every Catholic — lay, priest, deacon, religious or bishop — has a moral duty to report a suspicion of sexual abuse so that an appropriate investigation can begin. That, gratefully, is the message of the U.S. bishops last week.

One takeaway from the 2005 Philadelphia grand jury report on sexual abuse was the deference that lay people and some priests showed to abusive priests when faced with signs of their conduct. Most family members of victims as well as some priests living in rectories or serving in schools with suspected abusers made the diocesan chancery their first and only stop for reporting the abuse because they assumed decisive action would be taken.

The presumption that church leaders — namely the bishop — would take care of the problem swiftly and justly has likely vanished along with the culture of deference that contributed to the scandal. That loss of confidence is another casualty of the scandal. It will take a long time to rebuild it.

Awareness of the signs of sexual abuse and swift action by everyone to confront it — reporting suspected abuse first to civil law authorities as criminal matter, as well as to church authorities — is the only way forward for society and especially for the Catholic Church.

(In the Philadelphia Archdiocese, the policy since 2002 has been to investigate all allegations of abuse in conjunction with local law enforcement, to develop child and youth protection programs and offer aid to victims of abuse.)

The sexual abuse scandal is not over, despite wishful thinking by some church officials.

The church has not “moved on” from this scandal, nor should she. But she can move forward with what she has learned, remembering that no person, despite rank, is above the law of love for each of God’s children.