The bishops’ “Apalachin moment” has arrived

The bishops’ “Apalachin moment” has arrived

An Apostolic Visitation of the Church in the US is destined to fail if its scope is limited to McCarrick, even if it illuminates every dark corner in which McCarrick’s baleful influence is hiding.

The Press Office of the Holy See has issued a statement in response to the Grand Jury Report released in Pennsylvania earlier this week, expressing “shame and sorrow” over the contents of the report, while praising the efforts of Church leaders to implement reforms.

“Most of the discussion in the report concerns abuses before the early 2000s,” the statement reads. “By finding almost no cases after 2002, the Grand Jury’s conclusions are consistent with previous studies showing that Catholic Church reforms in the United States drastically reduced the incidence of clergy child abuse.” The statement goes on to say, “The Holy See encourages continued reform and vigilance at all levels of the Catholic Church, to help ensure the protection of minors and vulnerable adults from harm.” The statement from the Press Office also expresses the Holy See’s desire “to underscore the need to comply with the civil law, including mandatory child abuse reporting requirements.”

Pope Francis did not speak to the scandal in his remarks to the faithful at Wednesday’s Angelus prayer on the Solemnity of the Assumption, while the Press Office of the Holy See kept silence and declined requests for comment for more than two full days after Pennsylvania authorities released a redacted version of the report, which nevertheless runs to 1,356 pages.

The President of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, Cardinal Daniel DiNardo of Galveston-Houston, issued his own statement on Thursday, calling for an Apostolic Visitation of the Church in the US.

Prominent voices from across the spectrum of Catholic opinion found the Vatican’s two days’ silence perplexing and consternating.

CNN quoted Massimo Faggioli, Professor of Historical Theology at Villanova University and a columnist for La Croix International, as saying, “I don’t think they understand in Rome that this is not just a continuation of the sexual abuse crisis in the United States.” Faggioli went on to say, “This is a whole different chapter. There should be people in Rome telling the Pope this information, but they are not, and that is one of the biggest problems in this pontificate — and it’s getting worse.” First Things editor Matthew Schmitz told CNN, “[Francis] needs to act now by authorizing a full investigation of the American hierarchy.”

“Victims should know that the Pope is on their side,” the Vatican statement says. “Those who have suffered are his priority, and the Church wants to listen to them to root out this tragic horror that destroys the lives of the innocent.”

Meanwhile, news outlets continue to divulge the report’s findings, while analysis largely confines itself to sifting details and connecting dots, and commentary ranges in tone and substance from heartbroken plaint to heartbroken rage.

The ball is now in the Holy Father’s court, and while his next plays are anyone’s guess, one thing is certain: Pope Francis can ill afford to ignore either the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report or the enormous groundswell of ire, which threatens the foundations of the Church. His moral authority — already greatly diminished by his handling of the crisis in Chile and his apparent paralysis with regard to the scandal-ridden “C9” Council of Cardinal Advisers he chose to spearhead the curial reform that was supposed to be the hallmark of his springtime pontificate — risks permanent compromise with each passing day.

The damage is not only—not even primarily—to this pope or to his pontificate, but to the Office. The papacy has enjoyed greater and lesser esteem through the centuries, though rarely has the efficacy of the institution so much depended upon the high public regard of it, as today.

The question is: does Pope Francis have the stuff to do what circumstances require?

He does not seem to be interested in institutional reform, yet it is institutional reform the hierarchy needs. As I put it at earlier this year in an analysis piece for the Catholic World Report:

2017 was a year in which the micro-fissures in the structure began to be visible to the naked eye. 2018 is likely to be the year in which it becomes clear that major structural reform (or engine rebuilding, depending on one’s preferred analogy) cannot be postponed.

In an earlier piece, addressing the specific issue of reform of the Roman Curia — or rather the lack of progress in reform, I noted how it struck me that Pope Francis did not seem concerned with it so much as he did with the spiritual renewal of Curial officials:

Spiritual reform, reform of the soul, repentance, conversion, healing, receptiveness to grace, and docility to the promptings of conscience: all these are essential to the life of every Christian, and only more so to the lives of those Christians who are called to assist the Universal Pastor in his governance of the Universal Church. Even so, the Roman Curia is a bureaucracy, and would be a bureaucracy if it were staffed and run by living saints. It is one thing to undertake a reform of a bureaucracy. It is quite another to undertake a reform of bureaucrats.

Fr. Thomas Rosica published an essay a few weeks ago, in which he attempted to say something about what difference having a Jesuit pope has made:

Pope Francis breaks Catholic traditions whenever he wants because he is “free from disordered attachments.” Our Church has indeed entered a new phase: with the advent of this first Jesuit pope, it is openly ruled by an individual rather than by the authority of Scripture alone or even its own dictates of tradition plus Scripture. Pope Francis has brought to the Petrine office a Jesuit intellectualism.

Those remarks are ill considered (and have since been edited), even as an exercise in sycophancy. Their facile parroting of SJ argot does not touch the crux of the matter, which is rather a tension built into the Jesuit character and ethos, for good and for ill. Here is how I placed the matter in another essay for the Catholic World Report:

The Society of Jesus has never — not for one single hour of one single day since the promulgation of Regimini militantis — had an unproblematic relationship with the hierarchical leadership of the Church. Ignatius wanted his men stalwart “Pope’s men” and at one and the same time fearless theological envelope-pushers. The whole Jesuit charism is ordered to the right management — in the Company and in the souls of its members — of the tension that arises instantly and inevitably when those two poles are activated. … The long and the short of it is that, when you put a Jesuit at the head of the hierarchical leadership of the Church, you risk either collapsing that tension, or exploding it. That is one major reason why we never had a Jesuit Pope before now, and it goes a long way toward explaining why we are in the situation, in which we find ourselves, for good and for ill.

Francis, in other words, does not trust institutions — certainly not to reform themselves — and in any case does not seem to know how to run one, except to run it as though it were a Jesuit province and he its superior. At the same time, he trusts the charism of office in a manner ill-befitting a man, whose job is to oversee and discipline the officeholders.

This mismatched mode of trusting was on display in his painfully forthright remarks to pilgrims regarding the sorely tried diocese of Osorno, made on the sidelines of a weekly General Audience in May, 2015, after several months of agitation over the nomination of a bishop to the see, widely believed to have been complicit in the systematic abuse of minors and the coverup of that abuse. “The Osorno community is suffering because it’s dumb,” he told the group. Francis generally has been too willing to take the word of bishops over that of the lay faithful.

Unfortunate under any circumstance, such willingness is disastrous when it comes to clerical impropriety.

“[The Church in Osorno] has lost her freedom,” told those pilgrims at the Audience in May of 2015, “by letting her head be filled with [words of] politicians, blaming a bishop without any proof, after 20 years of being a bishop.” It turns out there was proof — evidence, at any rate — and Pope Francis had it, too, against Bishop Juan Barros of Osorno, who allegedly turned a blind eye to the predatory behavior of his mentor, the disgraced former Chilean celebrity priest, Fernando Karadima.

After accusing Barros’s accusers of calumny and facing major blowback, Francis ordered an investigation that led to the resignation of the entire Chilean bishops’ conference, though he has yet to accept the lion’s share of the resignations, including that of Cardinal Ricardo Ezzati, accused of covering up Karadima’s predations. Meanwhile, the civil authorities in Chile are investigating the Church, and have conducted multiple raids on bishops’ offices, including —this week — on those of the bishops’ conference.

Pope Francis has taken some steps, such as demanding that the disgraced former archbishop of Washinton, DC, Theodore McCarrick, turn in his red hat. He has also removed bishops for impropriety — Juan José Pineda, the former auxiliary bishop of Tegucigalpa, for instance — though he has supported Pineda’s principal, Cardinal Óscar Rodriguez Maradiaga, a papal friend and confidante who is embroiled in a money scandal of his own and widely suspected of having given the allegedly perverse and lecherous Pineda the run of his archdiocese.

Pope Francis commuted the sentences of two priests convicted of molestation and punished with laicization—an act he later described as a mistake. He also rehabilitated Cardinal Godfried Danneels, inviting him to participate in the 2014 Extraordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family, some four years after Cardinal Danneels was caught on tape pleading with a victim of sex abuse by a bishop—Roger Vangheluwe, the victim’s uncle—to keep silent. Danneels went into retirement with his reputation in tatters.

In short, Pope Francis’s approach to abuse seems very much ad hoc and more precisely ad personam. It is also rather susceptible of influences other than the evidence at hand and the sense of duty to the faithful, which is proper to the office he holds in the Church. Whether he shall discover the resolve necessary to face the crisis—now indisputably global in scope and growing daily—remains to be seen. His record thus far has been, with rare notable exception, frankly dismal.

Meanwhile, there can be no doubt of the US bishops’ moral standing either in the Church or in society more broadly: it is squandered; utterly trifled away. Committees, review boards, commissions of inquiry: none of it will suffice—not even the measures Cardinal DiNardo—who trained and served in Pittsburgh and was an officer of the chancery there before going to staff the Congregation for Bishops in Rome— outlined on Thursday:

The Executive Committee has established three goals: (1) an investigation into the questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick; (2) an opening of new and confidential channels for reporting complaints against bishops; and (3) advocacy for more effective resolution of future complaints.

While the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops issue statements firmly resolving “with the help of God’s grace, never to repeat it,” (rinse, repeat); invite the Holy See to investigate (in language that sounds fair but smells foul); and call for “advocacy for more effective resolution of future complaints,” (advocacy within their own ranks, as though their solution is to call themselves to lobby one another — or advocacy at the Vatican, because “only the Pope has authority to discipline or remove bishops,” so that this hellish debacle should be his problem, not theirs?); the faithful read news articles containing the gruesome details of the Pennsylvania Grand Jury Report released on Tuesday and reach the conclusion of the Grand Jurors: “While each church district had its idiosyncrasies, the pattern was pretty much the same. The main thing was not to help children, but to avoid ‘scandal’.”

Even the very first criterion is an exercise in blame shifting and obfuscation: “The first goal is a full investigation of questions surrounding Archbishop McCarrick,” DiNardo wrote.

That’s too easy by half.

Even an Apostolic Visitation of the Church in the US, which DiNardo’s statement invites, is destined to fail if its scope is limited to McCarrick, even if it illuminates every dark corner in which McCarrick’s baleful influence is hiding. Still, once the Vatican is involved, it will be the Vatican to determine both the real scope of inquiry and the vigor with which to conduct the inquest.

Even so, if the faithful permit the scapegoating of McCarrick, they will be guilty of moral failure not less grave than that of the bishops themselves. McCarrick came from somewhere. McCarrick did not act alone.

Nor will it do, then, for bishops of other places in the US to say that they do not deserve the weight of judgment, which the bishops of Pennsylvania bear. The Grand Jury Report shows how priests were sent to and from the Commonwealth with great ease, and details the facile communication and serene discourse among bishops and their chanceries when it came to “problem cases”—some of them predators, others committed perverts, still others inveterate lechers of the Old School— amounting to a system of cover-up that not only permitted the abuse of minors to continue, but allowed and even fostered a corrupt and morally insane culture throughout the whole body of the clergy, high and low.

The first head of the US Bishops National Review Board, former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, was not wrong to say of the bishops, in 2003, “To resist grand-jury subpoenas, to suppress the names of offending clerics, to deny, to obfuscate, to explain away; that is the model of a criminal organization.” Cardinal Roger Mahony condemned Keating’s remarks, and several lay members of the board joined the then-Archbishop of Los Angeles in decrying them. Asked to apologize, Keating refused and resigned.

“I was curious,” Keating told me in a recent interview, “that the cardinals were the ones that were seemingly most offended by what was coming,” i.e. “an anticipated reversal of what went before — a complete change of the clerical culture, in what was permitted and what wasn’t.”

In many ways, the Pennsylvania report’s release is—or deserves to be at any rate—a sort of “Apalachin moment” for the Church in the United States.

Apalachin, New York, was home to Joseph “Joe the Barber” Barbara, a mafia don who hosted a meeting of organized crime families from all over the country in 1957, at his house in the “sleepy hamlet” on the southern bank of the Susquehanna River. Local law enforcement noted the influx of fancy cars with out-of-state plates and took a closer look. Eventually, authorities intervened. They broke up the meeting and made dozens of arrests. Not many indictments came from those arrests—it isn’t a crime to host a house party, after all—and those there were proved hard to make stick. Nevertheless, the readiness of those policemen once and for all gave the lie to the notion—long-espoused by FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—that there was no nationwide organization of underworld outfits in the United States.

Once facts came to light and rendered that fiction no longer viable, law enforcement at every level from the federal government to the states to every major city set about building dedicated organized crime task forces, which are still in place today. In this case, it may be that bishops with questionable or troubling records are sincere in their protestations of good faith: if they are sincere, then it is difficult to understand how they can be morally fit for office. If they are not moral imbeciles, then it is all but impossible to avoid the conclusion that they are wicked. Tertium non datur.

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