Sex Abuse in the Catholic Church: A Crack in the Dike

The Wall Street Journal reported on April 26 that Cardinal Timothy Dolan, who has long resisted publication of the names of priests accused of sexual misconduct, has reversed course and published a list of priests in the archdiocese of New York who had been credibly accused. That represents some good news and some bad news. First the bad news.

Last Fall, the American Bishops of the Catholic Church had agreed on a unified process for dealing with allegations of sexual abuse in the Church only to have Pope Francis drive a stake through the heart of the program by canceling it in deference to a world wide summit of Catholic leaders to be held in February. The Pope’s stated purpose was to make sure that “everyone was singing off the same sheet.” The summit was brief, choreographed and opaque. Little is known about the particulars of the summit or its collateral meetings with the exception of the official statement that Pope Francis had declared an “all out battle” against sexual abuse within the Church. As the Washington Post noted:

“For four days, some of the world’s highest-ranking Catholics listened to speeches about the ‘outrage of the people’ and the imperative of action. They heard testimony from abuse victims, including one who movingly played the violin. And on Sunday, they gathered in a frescoed Vatican hall, where Pope Francis concluded the summit on clerical sexual abuse by calling for an ‘all-out battle’ against the scourge.

“But the unprecedented meeting ended Sunday with few concrete remedies, and it left the Catholic Church much where it started at the beginning of the week: asking for more time from an impatient faithful to draw up ways to reliably police itself.

“’We are dealing with abominable crimes that must be erased from the face of the earth,’ Francis said in a speech that was short on specifics but mentioned future ‘legislation.’”

Pope Francis’ statement reeks of former President Barack Obama’s “red line” warning to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the use of chemical weapons – all talk and no action.

So the good news is that Cardinal Dolan’s action in releasing the names of accused priests may represent a crack in the dike and a resurgence of the American bishops’ intent to proceed on their own. I say this for two reasons. First Cardinal Dolan is perhaps the best known American cardinal in charge of the country’s largest archdiocese. And second, because Cardinal Dolan has previously resisted the release of the names of the accused, making his decision a clear signal that he is now aligned with the American bishops. And while it is a step in the right direction it is only a beginning and leaves much yet to do – both in rectifying the horrific past and insuring against similar conduct in the future.

Even at that, Cardinal Dolan’s decision doesn’t clear the decks even in the New York archdiocese. His disclosure only relates to those priests actually employed by the archdiocese but not those visiting or on loan from other orders – orders like the Jesuits – and that could be telling with regard to the Pope’s actual dedication to his “all out battle” against this evil.

Pope Francis (nee Jorge Mario Bergoglio) was ordained as a Jesuit priest. The Jesuits are not bound to the regular hierarchy of the Church but rather report directly to the Superior General of the Jesuit Order in Rome, who in turn reports only to the Pope. As a result, Cardinal Dolan’s disclosures do not include the Jesuit priests in the New York archdiocese. A decision to release the names of errant Jesuit priests lies with the Superior General or the Pope. It’s not like the Jesuits are immune from these allegations of sexual abuse. One of the leaders of the Jesuit colony at Gonzaga University, my alma mater, was included in a list of priests who had engaged in sexual misconduct in a lawsuit brought in Montana. An article in the Spokesman-Review claimed that Gonzaga University served as a retirement home for priests who had been accused of sexual abuse and for whom the Jesuits had covered up by moving the errant priests around the Jesuit’s Oregon Province (Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho and Alaska).

Pope Francis has acknowledged that as the archbishop in Argentina he allowed the relocation of priests accused of sexual abuse – a negligence for which he has expressed “deep regret.” He has added to that resume by reinstating priests previously disciplined by the Church. Within the hierarchy of the Church there is a clear division between those focused on the well being of the parishioners and those focused on the well being of the priests. It would appear that the Jesuits and the Pope fall into the latter camp.

An “all out battle” as described by Pope Francis requires a change in focus. It requires an aggressive cleansing of past deeds and an aggressive rooting out of those who continue to prey on the Church’s flock. The accused priests are in deed entitled to due process but they are not entitled to a cover up. But more importantly, the parishioners – the flock – are entitled to the single-minded protection of a watchful shepherd. And that appears to be lacking in the actions (regardless of the words) of the Pope.

It is the responsibility of the Church to protect its congregants. It is the congregants’ responsibility to hold the Church accountable – loudly, publicly, and constantly. And it is well past time for Pope Francis and his fellow Jesuits to stop worrying about the deviants amongst their fellow priests and start protecting their flocks.