Carolyn Woo

The McCarrick breaches and the Pennsylvania grand jury report of criminal child sexual abuse by the church drew anger, disgust, sorrow, disappointment and sadness for the “collateral damage.” I think of the priests who made God’s love real for my husband David and me, bishops who stood up for peace and justice, and the many colleagues who labor daily with sacrifice and joy in difficult ministries.

I want the church hierarchy to know that collectively it has let us down, diminished our work and made it that much more difficult to serve. And they did it in God’s name and our names.

My heart breaks when parents ask why they should send their children to Catholic schools. The question does not seek an answer, as it is an expression of their anger and loss of trust.


I read in disbelief of Archbishop Carlo Maria Vigano’s claims that constraints placed on Archbishop McCarrick by Pope Benedict XVI were undone by Pope Francis. I saw no constraints as I and many others participated in numerous public events of worship and ministry officiated by Archbishop McCarrick in the Pope Benedict years. To hijack the abuse of children for the purpose of settling personal grievances and further demonizing gay people is a new low.

I have served on a couple of sexual abuse review boards and can vouch for the strict protocols and safeguards implemented to prevent future incidents. We must continue to be watchful as no mechanisms are perfect. The Pennsylvania reports, however, shed light on the flaws of our current approaches. Let me name three.

First, the focus of most efforts is on prevention with the desire to put the past behind us. Yet the victims cannot just erase the past and undo the consequences of the abuse. The past stays with us in the suffering and ravage lived out every day by victims.

We must own this past, give an account of what happened and acknowledge our failure. A church that embraces confession as a way back to God cannot at the same time endorse the protection of deep, dark, deadly secrets against God’s children.

Second, it is very clear to me now that the way we think of victims is transactional in nature with a good dose of caution by lawyers and insurance agents. We support victims with payments for counseling services and compensate them with monetary settlements to close the case, silence the voice and remove the person from our conscience.

We did not think of them as family, people under our care and whose lives we plundered. We have offices to administer the process, but not sufficient pastoral commitment to seek forgiveness and heal the soul. Now we wonder why victims are still angry, still hurting.

Third, the Catholic Church appears to run on “self-governance.” After 40 years of observing and administering organizations, I conclude that self-governance is an oxymoron.

Our pledge to “accountability” and “transparency” is about responsibility to the “other”: the people we are supposed to serve, the stakeholders affected by our actions, the parties that support us. It is their voices, needs, concerns that must drive the scope of and methods for achieving accountability. Self-governance holds on to the power of the hierarchy to define that agenda.

Governance in the church is wrapped up with ordination. What are the assumptions and premises that underlie this coupling? It is time to re-examine this embedded practice to build a more faithful church, a more inclusive community and an engaged laity capable of living the joy of the Gospel.

This is Christ’s church: Let us rise up for what needs to be done.


Woo is distinguished president’s fellow for global development at Purdue University and served as the CEO and president of Catholic Relief Services from 2012 to 2016.