(This is the second of four articles about this crisis. The other articles may be found at the links: Part I, Part III and Part IV.)
When the first widespread publicity about clergy sex abuse began to emerge, it was naturally a huge shock to Catholics everywhere – particularly priests. Many had no idea of the scale of the problem, or even of its existence. That might be considered naive, but most of us weren't aware of previous cases, which had been dealt with in the utmost secrecy by the hierarchy (including, in most cases, pressuring the victims to sign pledges of confidentiality as part of any settlement).
Many priests (including myself) simply couldn't imagine that such evil could exist within our ranks. How could any priest, knowing the words of our Lord in Matthew 18:6, dare to conduct himself in such a manner? “Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea.” Did they care so little for their immortal soul that even so blunt a warning from Christ Himself failed to give them pause?
We were even more astonished to learn that some priests, having committed such heinous acts, were still active in ministry, having apparently not been restricted from contact with further potential victims. I think all of us (certainly all priests with whom I discussed this) were extremely angry at the situation, not least because it cast all of us under a pall of suspicion merely for being priests. I'm sure many of us had more than one encounter where we were called 'pedophiles' purely and simply because we wore the Roman collar. I had at least a dozen such accusations hurled at me.
We began to get more and more questions from our parishioners about the scandal. How big was it? How many priests were involved? Why were the faithfuls' contributions, freely given for the support of the Church, being diverted to pay settlements to victims instead of being used for their intended purpose? However, when we turned to our bishops to ask those same questions, most of us were either stonewalled, or told very bluntly to stop making waves. I know, personally, a number of priests, in a number of dioceses, all relatively advanced in years, who claim they were threatened with the loss of their pensions and retirement facilities if they asked too many awkward questions or made too much of a fuss. I have no reason to disbelieve them. Several priests told me they were instructed to deflect parishioners' queries by assuring them that the problem was being blown out of all proportion by a greedy, rapacious news media, which was trying to escalate the scandal for its own mercenary ends.
There were (and are) some good bishops who openly addressed the issue, provided clear guidance to their priests, and stood up for the truth; but the majority of the hierarchy seemed to go into defensive mode, circling the wagons to defend the institution of the Church (and, perhaps more to the point, their own positions of authority). This seemed to me to be utterly incomprehensible, for three reasons. First, the church belongs to Christ. He will do any defending that is necessary. (Tragically, many organization men in the Church probably believe more in the institution than they do in Christ. That's one of the saddest things I've ever had to say in my life . . . but I think it's the only possible explanation for their focus on protecting and defending the institution, rather than the victims of this scandal.) Second, the ammunition being used by critics to attack the Church had been provided by the bishops themselves, through their evasion of their responsibilities in failing to deal with the crisis swiftly and decisively in its earliest stages. Had they done so, it would never have developed to the point that it did. Thirdly, how can one possibly defend the indefensible? If the stories we were hearing were true – bishops deliberately concealing abuses, transferring offenders to new locations where they could put others at risk, and so on – there appeared to be no possible justification or defense for them. The perpetrators, and the institution of the Church, deserved the public pillorying they were receiving.
The situation was made much worse when many bishops appeared to deliberately sidestep the issue, refusing to take a stand until they'd met with other US bishops to formulate a joint response to the crisis. This was nothing more or less than another abdication of their responsibilities as diocesan bishops. Their people and their clergy were crying out for information and strong leadership . . . and few of them provided it. Frustrated, heartsick and dispirited, some of us priests began to conduct our own investigation, calling each other across the country for information, trying to come to terms with the problem and find answers that we could relay to our parishioners.
First, it seemed to us that there were more than sufficient grounds (in terms of actual cases of clergy sex abuse) to warrant the public outcry. This was compounded by the secrecy with which the Church had handled earlier cases. This had backfired, making the ultimate situation worse, not better.
Secondly, the crisis was aggravated by the number of clergy who'd been found guilty (in a Church forum) of sexual misconduct, only to be readmitted to pastoral ministry after 'counseling' and/or 'treatment' of one sort or another. I absolutely could not understand this. How could any pastor, having demonstrated so conclusively that he was untrustworthy, even potentially dangerous to future parishioners, be not only allowed to remain a priest, but reassigned to a similar office? Was it not the duty of the Church to first and foremost protect her children, rather than her personnel and institutions? In particular, if these priests had committed acts defined by law as crimes, why had they not been prosecuted in the criminal courts? Had not Our Lord commanded, in Matthew 22:21, “Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s”? Surely, the referral of criminal acts to the criminal justice system was an integral part of 'rendering to Caesar'?
There were those who pleaded the seal of the confessional as a reason not to refer such cases to local prosecuting authorities, but I believed this to be specious. A priest might have a confessor, with whom such a bond of confidentiality would exist; but there would be others involved in Church investigations who would not be bound in the same way. They could have referred the cases to prosecuting authorities without violating the seal of the confessional. An aggravating factor, in my opinion, was the reported use of confidentiality agreements with the victims of such crimes to prevent them bringing criminal charges against guilty clergy on their own account.
Some bishops tried to maintain that it wasn't their fault that such priests were reassigned to pastoral duties. They made the excuse that they'd been guided by professional advice from doctors, psychologists and other experts in making such assignments. Surely, they argued, they couldn't be held responsible if such advice proved defective? My immediate reaction was, of course they could – and should – be held responsible! Given the number of (sometimes multiple) failures of treatment or counseling to prevent (sometimes repeated) recidivism, there was abundant evidence to prove that a therapeutic approach to the problem simply didn't work. Even if every doctor and psychologist in the USA swore under oath that such therapies were effective, their claims would have been fatally undermined the very first time a priest, having received 'treatment' for an initial offense, nevertheless backslid and offended again. The second, and third, and subsequent failures should have demonstrated beyond any possible doubt, to anyone with even an iota of understanding, that therapeutic intervention could not and would not solve the problem. How could any bishop, seeing such failures of treatment, continue to believe in and accept the 'professional advice' he was receiving? How could he be so blind?
Having served in the military, and been a manager and company director in the commercial world, prior to entering the priesthood, I had two additional yardsticks against which to measure such assertions. If a military officer were to act on bad advice, and fail to achieve his mission as a result, he, not the advisers, would be held responsible by his superior officers. He'd likely be relieved of his command. If a commercial manager made a hash of things as a result of taking bad advice from consultants, he, not the consultants, would be held responsible by his employers. He'd almost certainly be fired. President Truman famously kept a sign on his desk reading, “The Buck Stops Here”. As President, he couldn't blame anyone else for his mistakes; he was right on top of the heap, and had no-one behind whom he could hide. As the supreme ecclesiastical authority in his diocese, a bishop is in a similar position; he can't hide behind anyone else. I regarded attempts by some bishops to blame 'flawed professional advice' as an attempt to pass the buck, and cowardly to boot. Few appeared willing to accept personal responsibility for their mistakes.
A third problem I found with the bishops' approach was the seemingly unremitting hostility on the part of many of them towards the news media and what they regarded as 'pressure groups'. They appeared to regard the media as engaged in an anti-Catholic war, out to discredit the Church by any and all means, fair or foul. Organizations such as the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests (SNAP) and Bishop Accountability, set up by victims and survivors of clergy sex abuse and their supporters, were tarred with the same brush. It seemed as though many bishops simply could not conceive, or concede, that such organizations might have a legitimate point. Instead, they appeared to regard them as enemies, part of the problem rather than the solution. I found this incomprehensibly short-sighted. Sure, such organizations might contain individuals seeking to use them against the Church; but they also contained genuine victims, people who were hurting and seeking healing and reconciliation, within themselves, with God, and with the Church they had trusted (but which had so signally failed) to protect them and/or their children from this sort of harm. I believed that the latter far outnumbered the former. It seemed to me to be counter-productive to avoid engaging with them in a joint effort to address the issues.
As for the media, I believed (and still do) that there was more than enough justification for a 'witch-hunt' on their part. Because the scandal had been covered up for so long, and because it had been made worse by the bad decisions of many bishops, it was inevitable that its exposure would cause a sensation. Furthermore, the bishops had signally failed in their duty to protect the faithful, instead choosing to protect their own position and authority, and the institution they served. I was taught at seminary that the Church exists to serve Christ by, in and through serving the People of God. If it fails in the latter endeavor, it automatically fails in the former as well. The media attention being paid to the scandal was simply driving home that truth with renewed force, as far as I was concerned.
I also had to ask whether God wasn't deliberately using the news media to accomplish something He'd been trying to get His bishops to do for years – decades! - without success. Since they'd so signally failed in their responsibilities, it seemed to me that the Lord appeared to be using the news media instead – conspicuously less than holy though it might be in many ways – to clean up His Church. Needless to say, my hypothesis wasn't greeted with unbridled enthusiasm.
As the Catholic bishops of the USA came together to discuss the crisis and find solutions, we priests waited and prayed for them. We longed for strong, Godly leadership; but many of us didn't get it. Instead, the assembled bishops voted for measures that dismayed and even outraged many of us. To name just a few examples:
• Priests found guilty of sexual abuse of others were to be laicized (i.e. removed from the ministry), which was entirely appropriate and legitimate; but no mention was made of those in authority who'd covered up for offenders in the past, or allowed them to continue in the ministry, thereby exposing others to harm at their hands. The assembled bishops apologized for their errors in dealing with the scandal, but few of them appear to have faced any sanction for their errors of omission and commission. Many priests (including myself) felt that this demonstrated the existence of a double standard. After all, if guilty clergy were to be laicized for their sins and crimes, why should the same not apply to bishops who had covered up those crimes, enabled guilty clergy to commit more crimes through their silence and bad decisions, and sometimes even been guilty of moral lapses in sexuality themselves? Through my contacts with fellow priests across the US, I've been given the names of no less than 48 currently-serving bishops, archbishops and Cardinals who are alleged by their own priests to have been guilty of such acts. My informants went so far as to provide details such as cases, names, dates, times and places. All 48 are still in office, having apparently suffered no penalty – and I'm sure there are more than 48 such bishops.
• The authority of bishops in the Church was re-emphasized, which is, of course, entirely in accordance with Catholic teaching and Canon Law. However, few if any bishops appeared willing to give a meaningful voice to others who'd been affected by the crisis, including movements such as SNAP. The bishops agreed collectively to establish advisory boards in each diocese to help them deal with the problem, but many (perhaps most) of those appointed to the boards appeared to have been selected on the basis of their reliable support for the hierarchy rather than the value of their potential contribution. In particular, victims of clergy sex abuse were not always invited to participate, and were seldom given real responsibilities and/or authority. This seemed unbelievably obtuse.
• Stringent measures were put in place to limit when, where and how priests could have contact with Catholics, particularly children and teenagers. These measures might have been well-intentioned, but they placed an almost impossible burden on good priests. For example, where in the past we would have met privately with a young man to discuss his possible vocation to the priesthood, this was now effectively forbidden. Confessionals were to be redesigned to provide windows, so that those inside could be observed, as a measure to prevent the use of the confessional as a location for sexual sin. However, this made many Catholics uncomfortable, as they could now be seen within. They regarded it (justifiably, in my opinion) as a breach of their privacy. There were many other measures, too numerous to list here. It seemed to many priests (including myself) that they indicated we were all regarded by our bishops as potential pedophiles, 'guilty until proven innocent', to be treated with suspicion at every turn. I found the new measures intrusive, grossly insulting in their implication, and so burdensome as to render many normal pastoral activities almost impossible.
• Measures were agreed to screen all Church workers, including seminarians and volunteers, for tendencies towards sexual deviance. However, it was clear that such screening could be 'fooled', just as I'd seen happen in my prison ministry. A training program was to be developed to educate all Church personnel in relevant areas. This has since been implemented as the VIRTUS program, in which I personally have little faith. It's riddled with buzz-words and political correctness. Anyone can go through the course, provide the right answers in the examinations, and pass it. It matters not whether they have pedophile tendencies – the course won't reveal that, and will do nothing to protect young people from them. I regard VIRTUS as little more than pious window-dressing, designed to give the faithful the impression that something is being done but actually achieving little or nothing. Indeed, it's yet another symptom of the US church's seemingly incessant practice of instituting a program to deal with any problem. Programs are not the same as actions. They do nothing to heal wounds, save souls, or fix problems. They're a panacea, not a solution. Any business could tell you that only actions will fix their problems quickly or efficiently and satisfy their customers. If they tried to use programs instead, they'd soon be out of business altogether.
• Few US bishops acted, individually or collectively, to reform seminary training and education in their dioceses. It was left to the Vatican to appoint a commission to investigate the matter and recommend solutions. As mentioned earlier, I regard this as a catastrophic failure of leadership and dereliction of duty on the part of the bishops concerned.
Many priests were extremely dissatisfied with the measures collectively adopted by the bishops of the Church in the USA. Some voiced their concerns to their bishops, but in every case of which I'm aware, they were told (in so many words) to shut up and stop making trouble. There was little or no attempt at dialog or an exchange of views. Many of us felt that the hierarchy regarded anyone who was dissatisfied with developments as being a rebel, in league with the news media and the 'troublemakers' of SNAP and similar organizations, out to challenge the authority of our bishops. This was, of course, completely untrue: but when so much authority is concentrated in so few hands, and the owners of those hands aren't inclined to listen, one can't make any headway.
My attitude to the situation was influenced by bitter previous experience in another country where Catholic bishops had collectively failed to live up to their responsibilities. This isn't the place to go into detail about that, but there are many countries and regions where it's happened in the last few decades. Examples abound in South America under the influence of liberation theology, in Africa with inculturation, and in all too many nations where political and/or social conflict has diverted the attention of bishops from their flock. All too often ideology has usurped theology in such cases, and the Vatican has had to intervene on more than one occasion to rectify matters. My past experience of such incidents once caused me to stop practicing my faith for several years, before I was persuaded to make allowances for the exigencies of the situation and return to the fold. That had led, in due course, to my becoming a priest.
Now, in the light of the clergy sex abuse scandal, all my previous concerns about the collective leadership of bishops returned. This was a different country, and a different problem, but once again I was seeing bishops who could not or would not do their jobs, accept their responsibilities, and fix the problems confronting them. I'd learned a new proverb on coming to the USA: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” I felt that I was very much in a 'fool me twice' situation as far as the US bishops were concerned. They are regarded in the Catholic Church as the successors to the Apostles; yet under the circumstances, I couldn't help but feel that many had chosen Judas as their model, rather than the more worthy Apostles. Certainly, their actions (and inaction) appeared to have betrayed Christ, His Church and its members just as truly as Judas had betrayed Our Lord.
(As I said earlier, this is not to deny that there are some [regrettably few] outstandingly good bishops, who do a superb job in their dioceses to provide the leadership the Church so desperately needs. Unfortunately, when the episcopate acts collectively, as in the resolution [?] of the clergy sex abuse crisis, the good bishops appear to be overwhelmed by the larger number of organization men.)
Many of the clergy, including myself, felt personally betrayed by our leaders. I know a number of priests who took early retirement, or withdrew from the ministry, due to their unhappiness. Others soldiered on, but to this day many harbor resentment and anger at the way in which the crisis was mishandled. Some who spoke their minds claim to have suffered retaliation, assigned to the least desirable posts and left to stagnate there. Others have learned from their unfortunate example and kept their heads down . . . but their resentment lingers, and they continue to express it to those they trust not to talk out of turn.
I was faced with a real crisis of conscience. Witnessing the bishops' ineffectual response, particularly in the light of my previous experience of bishops who had failed in their duty to God and the Church, brought me to a point where I seriously questioned their collective fitness for office. I had (and still have) no quarrel with the doctrine and dogma of the Church, but I had a real problem with its leaders and their institutionalized failures. I had promised obedience to the Church when ordained; but how could I square that obligation with the dereliction of duty I was seeing? (I'll have more to say in the fourth article of this series about what I think lay behind such problems.)
I lay awake many nights, my thoughts churning, trying to find a way out of this dilemma. In the end, the problem boiled down to just two fundamental questions.
- Could I stand up in front of my congregation and assure them, in all honesty and sincerity, that they could trust the collective bishops of the Church to be wise and apostolic guides through this crisis and beyond?
- Could I honestly advise a young man considering a vocation that he should aspire to be a priest in an organization led by such men, and promise lifelong obedience to them?
I concluded, heartsick and sore, that my answer to both questions could no longer be anything but “No”.
If that was the case, it also became clear that I could no longer in good conscience remain faithful to the promise of obedience I'd made when I was ordained. I therefore withdrew from the ministry. I won't try to describe the immense mental and spiritual anguish that decision cost me. They continue to this day . . . but I couldn't lie to my people, or to myself.
I'd like to apologize to any of my fellow Catholics who are offended or troubled by this. Some may disagree profoundly with my decision, and that's their right. I would not willingly cause anyone to have difficulties concerning their faith. I know that some of my former friends, who've turned their backs on me over my decision, regard me as a 'failed priest', one who has abandoned his calling and thereby endangered his soul. Indeed, there have been many nights when I've woken from sleep and lain awake for hours, fearing God's just judgment. I'm mindful of Christ's words in Luke 9:62; “No one, having put his hand to the plow, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God”. Does that apply to me? It may . . . and I know I'll have to answer for my choices, words and actions in eternity. Yes, I fear His justice; but I had to follow my conscience. I place my hope and trust in His mercy. In the end, that's all any of us can do.
I suppose it's ironic that although I remain Catholic in my beliefs, I must range myself beside Martin Luther, and make my own his reported words before the Diet of Worms in 1521: “... it is neither safe nor right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen.”
In the next article in this four-part series, which I'll post tomorrow, I'll consider priestly celibacy and the formation and training of priests as potential contributing factors to the clergy sex abuse crisis.